The most reliable way to have a glorious array of potted indoor ferns is to buy new ones every year. When your heater dehydrates your fish fern or maidenhair overnight and it turns brown and refuses to rejuvenate, pretend it is a 'consumable' like a take away coffee, and get another.
If your fern turns brown in spring because you have kindly fertilised it, only to find out that juvenile fern fronds are killed by normal strength plant food and it should have been diluted to about quarter strength, throw its corpse in the compost (remove the pot first) and head to the garden centre. After your once fabulous fern slowly declines in its corner of the bathroom for a year or so, till it is mostly stick with little greenery, say farewell.
Or, just possibly, in any of the above cases, stick your fern outside in a semi-shaded area, preferably by the garden tap where it may get accidentally watered, and it will probably recover. For some reason neglected ferns flourish, while cossetted ones only last a season or two. This is probably because your bathroom, family room or study is not a fern's natural habitat, unless your roof's blown off and silt has washed across the floor, in which case you might suddenly find you have a fern carpet.
Ferns like moist soil, humid air and plenty of dappled light. Your bathroom is probably perfect in terms of humidity, but unless you have large bathroom windows your ferns won't get enough light to thrive, or even survive, long term. Of course large bathroom windows also need tolerant neighbours. Wombats, for example, are totally uninterested in anything that happens though our bathroom windows, though our guests sometimes need to be convinced of this.
Ferns also like moist soil, but not wet soil, which may lead to rotting roots. Your fern is heading for disaster if it wilts. Once a frond wilts it does not unwilt. It is heading for disaster more slowly if it isn't putting out new fronds to replace the old ones that die off.
Maidenhair is even fussier about a moist-warm-but-not-hot-and-not-cold-but-just-right air than fishbone and sword ferns. I watched a friend successfully cosset her maidenhair ferns with a mist spray every couple of days for humidity, a little diluted seaweed fertilser every few months in summer. She even had a 'plant sitter' to water the garden, and her indoor plants, twice a week in the summer holidays. Sadly, the plant sitter forgot to mist the maidhair's leaves, and its owner came back to find damp soil but brown-leafed ferns.
The ferns of my childhood were what grew along the shady side of the kind of house that was not inhabited by an avid gardener. I don't think I ever saw an indoor fern until the 1970s, when suddenly potted ferns were dangling in every second café and you could hardly see your black forest cake or choc chip cheesecake for greenery.
Then in the late 80s I was suddenly confronted with a house full of them. The man I had just fallen in love with decided that the best way to impress a woman who owned 400 fruit trees was to fill his house with foliage. He called in to the garden centre on the way home from work and bought every potted fish fern they had. They stared at me as I came through the door: fish ferns in the hallway, on the fridge, on the dining room table, hanging in the bathroom, on each bedside table.
It took us a fortnight before we both realised that neither one of us knew how to care for a potted fish fern, and the poor things were fast turning brown.
So I watered them - I did know that much about ferns. And they didn't die, at least not for a year or two, just slowly dwindled till we had to admit they did not serve their allotted purpose i.e. to be decorative, and threw them out, under the fig tree in the back garden, the place where lawn clippings and prunings and other garden debris were hidden, and where the fish ferns decide to take root.
They are probably still happily growing there, free from human interference. And also, quite probably, if I had had the patience to let them rejuvenate, they might have returned to be gorgeous indoor greenery. A fern may look like a leafless lump, but it may still put our fronds after a few months of dampness and dappled light. And if there is just one frond, eventually there will be many. But you do need patience, months of it, if not years.
I only know this because a friend is a pot plant rescuer. If she sees a yellowed rose or a baffled begonia on a neglected shelf in the supermarket she will take it home and make it flourish. She has nursed many ferns back to health, too. I eventually asked for her secret, and here it is: 'I put them near a window and water them on Fridays.'
Now the secret is yours, too.
This week I am:
- Rejoicing in buds! You know it is mid-winter when suddenly every deciduous tree and bush puts out new leaf buds or flower buds. The buds are not actually doing anything yet, except very slowly swelling. But they're a glad reminder that in a few months there will days when your nose hairs don't freeze on your morning walk.
- Wondering why the branches of one lime tree are laden with ripe fruit while the lime trees on either side of it, that went through the same drought, bushfire gales etc., have no fruit at all. It's proof that a lot of gardening is luck and not green fingers. Some plants are natural survivors. Some are not.
- Picking great swathes of golden salvia flowers and massed purple ones and wishing I had scribbled down the names of them 10 years ago when I put in a single plant of each. Over the next five years I thrust the prunings into the ground so now we have a winter forest of them - and I can't tell you their names. I suspect if you hunt for 'gold or purple winter blooming frost hardy salvias, 1.5 metres high', you may find them.)
- Discovering that shop-bought apples go bad instead of slowly shriveling in the fruit bowl like home grown apples do, till they look like faded mummies but sill taste excellent. I have had several quite nasty surprises since our apple crop failure forced us to actually buy apples. Did you know that shop-bought lemons can turn green and furry, instead of just becoming hard shelled but still fragrant inside?
- Feeling conflicted. My normal response to a dampish winter is to plant more fruit trees, and due to drought, we even have space free to plant some more. But the fires came too close this year and many friends lost not just their houses but gardens. I'm fruit tree commitment wary. This will pass, probably the next time I look at a fruit tree catalogue or pass a garden centre.
- Picking rhubarb to simmer in orange juice with splash of orange blossom water. The Wandin Winter rhubarb is upright and bright red. The others have sagged onto the ground and are sad limp leaves, but the stems are still delicious, though they will rot in a frost or two, ready for a spurt of tender stems in spring. If possible, buy named rhubarb plants, not seedlings - seedling rhubarb won't necessarily give you the best crop.