Learn all about ferns! Understand how to identify, propagate and grow ferns. A course for nurserymen, gardeners, landscapers and other horticultural professionals; or for the amateur enthusiast exploring their passion for ferns.

Course Code: BHT314
Fee Code: S2
Duration (approx) Duration (approx) 100 hours
Qualification Statement of Attainment
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Study the Identification and Culture of Ferns

  • Start any time, study at your own pace
  • Learn from a team of expert horticulturists, led by John Mason, author of "Growing Ferns"

We think of ferns as shade loving plants that need damp conditions; and many are. There are however ferns that grow in all sorts of conditions, from extremely hot to very cold. Some grow just as well in the full sun, as others do in very heavy shade; and some will even survive extended periods of drought.

You can grow ferns as an indoor plants; in woodland or water gardens, in areas that are difficult to drain or prone to flooding, or as container plants in a shade house or fernery.  

This course takes a detailed look at the identification and culture of ferns. You will learn about:

  • Different groupings (e.g. epiphytes, ground ferns, tree ferns) and both common & uncommon species
  • Growing techniques (baskets, indoor/outdoor containers, terrariums)
  • Cultural methods (soils, watering, pest & disease control)
  • Propagation (spores, division, tissue culture)

“ ...learn so much about ferns from this course. They are such incredible plants; able to live in such varied conditions, from tropical rain forests to freezing mountain tops. Ferns are so popular, and there is such a range of them, this course provides invaluable knowledge when it comes to planning or adding to your own garden, or other peoples’ gardens.” - Tracey Morris Dip. Hort., Cert. Hort., Cert III Organic Farming, ACS Tutor.

Lesson Structure

There are 8 lessons in this course:

  1. Introduction
    • How ferns are classified scientifically
    • General characteristics of ferns (especially the fronds)
    • Broad groupings of ferns (filmy, tree, terrestrial, epiphytic and water ferns)
    • Networking contacts (ie: nurseries, seed, clubs, etc.)
    • How to pronounce plant names.
  2. Culture
    • How best to grow ferns
    • Conditions required
    • Planting, mulching, watering
    • Pest and disease management
    • Feeding
    • Pruning
    • Protection from wind, salt air, etc.
    • Compost making.
  3. Propagation
    • Methods of propagating ferns
    • Spore propagation
    • Division
    • Tissue culture
    • Propagation of selected varieties.
  4. The Most Commonly Grown Varieties.
    • Maidenhairs
    • Tree ferns
    • Epiphytes - stags, elks
    • Common ground ferns
  5. Other Important Groups.
    • Asplenium
    • Blechnum
    • Nephrolepis
    • Pteris
    • Other groups
    • Group characteristics, cultural details, propagation methods.
  6. Other Fern Varieties
    • Hares foot ferns
    • Bracken
    • Fans
    • Corals
    • Combs.
  7. Using Ferns
    • Container Growing
    • Growing in hanging baskets
    • Growing in a terrarium
    • In ground cultivation
    • Growing ferns as indoor plants
    • Competition growing and showing
    • Growing ferns for profit (to sell the plants or what they produce).
  8. Special Assignment
    • Detailed culture and identification of one genera.

Each lesson culminates in an assignment which is submitted to the school, marked by the school's tutors and returned to you with any relevant suggestions, comments, and if necessary, extra reading.


  • Distinguish between different types of ferns in cultivation.
  • Determine critical cultural practices required to successfully grow ferns in different situations.
  • Propagate ferns using different methods
  • Determine the cultural requirements of specific fern varieties.
  • Apply various specialised techniques to the culture of ferns.
  • Prepare a planting plan for an area using ferns.

What You Will Do

  • Label the morphological parts of a typical fern, including:
    • pinnae
    • rachis
    • bipinnatifid fronds
    • lobe
    • midrib
    • crozier
    • roots
    • rhizome.
  • Distinguish species of each type, between aquatic, epiphytic and terrestrial ferns.
  • Distinguish, using illustrations, between different fern families, including;
    • Polypodiaceae
    • Marattiaceae
    • Nephrolepidaceae
    • Cyatheaceae
    • Dicksoniaceae
    • Gleicheniaceae
    • Hymenophyllaceae
  • Compile a resource information guide on ferns, including scope of operation and contact information (ie: address, phone, fax), for:
    • ten nurseries
    • five clubs/societies
    • ten product suppliers
    • other organisations
  • Prepare a collection of fifty ferns, not collected elsewhere, including:
    • a photo, drawing or pressed specimen
    • plant names (scientific and common)
    • cultural details
    • uses/applications
  • Develop guidelines for growing ferns either indoors, in containers under shade, or in the ground.
  • Label a sequence of four drawings which illustrate the propagation of ferns by spore.
  • List five different fern genera that can be propagated by division.
  • Propagate four fern species, using two different methods, including spores and division.
  • Explain the planting requirements of ferns.
  • List the preferred characteristics of a soil which is to grow ferns in the your locality.
  • Prepare a potting media mix suitable for growing ferns in.
  • Develop guidelines for watering a typical fernery in your locality for a twelve month period.
  • Write a summary of nutrition requirements of ferns, including fertiliser recommendations.
  • Explain five different common health problems of ferns.
  • List guidelines for pruning ferns in your locality.
  • Write a set of guidelines for the culture of a selected fern genus, including details on:
    • distinguishing between different species
    • cultural requirements
    • uses/applications
  • Prepare a table which compares twenty-five different commonly grown fern genera, and includes:
    • plant description
    • preferred habitat
    • growing requirements
    • uses
  • List methods used to propagate fifteen different ferns, including four different propagation methods.
  • Write an essay comparing four species of ferns in the one genera, with reference to physical appearance, growth habit and cultural requirements.
  • Describe endemic growing conditions of five different native ferns sited in natural areas.
  • Prepare a schedule of cultural tasks to be undertaken over a twelve month period which are highly specific to one nominated species of fern.
  • Summarise, a procedure for maintenance over a twelve month period, of a Nephrolepis grown in hanging baskets, including comments on:
    • feeding
    • watering
    • pest control
    • pruning
    • potting up
  • List ten fern species, from at least five different genera, which are particularly suited to growing in hanging baskets in your locality.
  • Compare the suitability of different types of hanging baskets for growing ferns, including:
    • water wells
    • lined wire baskets
    • plastics
    • ceramics
  • Explain how to make a terrarium for growing five different types of ferns.
  • List twenty fern species which grow in very wet conditions, including aquatic plants and bog plants.
  • Distinguish between the cultural requirements of ferns grown indoors and outdoors.
  • Explain the cultural techniques which are unique to growing ferns as an epiphyte. Gow a fern using a specialised technique (eg. in a terrarium or hanging basket), monitoring it over 3 months (ie. recording cultural practices, changes in health, and performance).
  • Write guidelines for preparation of a potted fern for competition in a garden show.
  • Evaluate the use of ferns in a garden, which incorporates both ferns and flowering plants, using a supplied checklist of design criteria.
  • Evaluate the use of ferns in a garden or interior plantscape, which is either all or predominantly ferns, using a supplied checklist of design criteria.
  • Design a fern garden bed of 30 square meters, which incorporates at least ten different fern varieties, and satisfies both aesthetic and cultural requirements of a specified site, which you survey.

Why Grow Ferns?

Flowering plants often look great when they flower, but not so good at other times of the year. Ferns on the other hand, have the potential to look stunning, all year round: if you grow the appropriate cultivar and treat it well.  This course will teach you to do just that.

Ferns are plants which are of unusual shape and growth habit which make them particularly interesting to study.

To most people ferns are very graceful and lush and invoke an image of coolness, calmness and peacefulness. Though lacking flowers they have enormous variety in plant size and form and in the texture, shape and colour of the fronds. Ferns are very adaptable and can be grown in a wide variety of situations. While most prefer moist, shaded conditions there are ferns that are suited to open sunny positions, growing naturally in rocky crevices, exposed coastal cliffs, high on living tree trunks or on fallen trees, in alpine bogs, even in semi arid areas. Some species of ferns are tiny with fronds only one cell thick, others can reach a height of 15 metres or more. Some ferns will spread to form huge colonies, while others will grow like climbers.

Initially ferns need water during their early development from spore to full adult plant. But once growing in the soil, some ferns are very hardy. Different ferns tolerate different climatic extremes, especially considering they have been around since the beginning of time. Some can survive prolonged drought in semi-desert conditions and others are adapted to surviving under feet of snow.

They are great indicators of the natural balance in their environment. Growing only when the conditions are right to their preferable niche. They are often used in environmental surveys of flora as a measurement of the environments condition. If the native species for that area are not surviving, then it is an indication things are out of balance.

It is a real treat to find small pockets of ferns in areas you would not expect and to find much rarer species than you thought could be available. So go searching!

Ferns Occur in Most Countries and Climates, World wide

The world’s climate varies from place to place considerably! As such there are many variations in ferns. Often from once district to another they may vary slightly due to environmental conditions, yet it is impossible to simplify these variations.

The gardener must, of necessity, rely heavily on common sense in applying what is read from this, or any other book, to their own situation.

Ferns are widely distributed in the well watered zones of the world. They are much less common in the very dry (central Africa and Central Australia) or severely cold regions (Antarctica, Arctic). They are well developed in the temperate zone (woodlands, open forests) and often the dominant component of the vegetation in tropical regions. More species are found in rain forest habitats than anywhere else on earth. This includes lowland jungles, mountain forests, even the forests of high altitudes. They can be found from the coast to inland and can be found at altitudes of over 3,500 metres (11,500 feet)! For example, the mountains of Peru, and the Himalayas.

Hardy ferns that grow in semi-arid and arid climates overcome the worst of dry climates by water conserving strategies (fronds small and covered in hairs to reduce water loss, or fronds may curl in dry periods to conserve water loss). Some ferns have even adapted to mangrove environments (The Mangrove Fern, Acrostichum speciosum), There are also several aquatic (water dwelling) ferns including Azolla, Nardoo and Salvinia.

The huge diversity in ferns has allowed them to adapt to almost every environmental biome on earth and there are at least 10,000 species of ferns throughout the world.

Some ferns (e.g. Bracken) occurs on most continents; while others occur only in certain countries or regions. For example, Australia has around 450 ferns, belonging to at least 118 genera. More than 300 species are native to Queensland, around 170 in N.S.W., 120 in Victoria, 95 in Tasmania, 50 in South Australia and 65 in Western Australia.

Ferns are living things and as such are somewhat unpredictable & variable.

When you refer to a book or magazine article, always look at where it was written and who it was written by (for example: A gardening writer from London, UK; may usually talk about gardening in the UK. If you are from Los Angeles or Sydney, these recommendations may be quite misleading for you!). There can be great variations over relatively small distances in such things as rainfall, wind and soil type. A certain type of tree might very well grow twice as tall in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne as it will grow in the Western suburbs of the same city.

With plant culture there are always different, equally valid ways of tackling any job. Never think that a particular technique is the only way of doing something! You should try to be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of all of the alternatives. It is up to your own preferences as to which way you choose to do something.

This course has been written to teach you about growing ferns in a way which will be relevant to any place (in the world). It puts aside regional techniques and tries to teach you principles and concepts which can be applied to anywhere. Keep this in mind as you study; try to see the principles; not just black and white facts.

Horticulture deals with living things and as such is somewhat unpredictable and variable. The ways you treat a plant is different from place to place, time to time and according to what you are trying to get from the plant.

When referring to a book or magazine article, always look at where it was written and who it was written by. The information contained in the article can be very location specific – an author talking about gardening in Switzerland will offer different information to someone in Australia, for example. There can also be great variations over relatively small distances in such things as rainfall, wind and soil type.

When growing ferns there are different ways of tackling any job; often each one just as correct as the other. Never consider that a particular technique is the only way of doing something! You should try to be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of all of the alternatives. They all have their pros and cons....and it is up to your own preferences as to which way you choose to do something. 


  • Landscapers
  • Nurserymen
  • Horticulturists
  • Environmental Managers and Assessors
  • Students of horticulture, plant or environmental science
  • Plant collectors, nature lovers, or anyone else with a passion for ferns.




Principal of ACS Distance Education, John Mason, is fellow of the CIH.
Principal of ACS Distance Education, John Mason, is fellow of the CIH.
Member Nursery and Garden Industry Association.
Member Nursery and Garden Industry Association.
Since 1999 ACS has been a recognised member of IARC (International Approval and Registration Centre). A non-profit quality management organisation servicing education.
Since 1999 ACS has been a recognised member of IARC (International Approval and Registration Centre). A non-profit quality management organisation servicing education.
ACS is a Silver Sponsor of the AIH; and students studying designated courses are given free student membership. ACS and it's principal have had an association with AIH since the 1980's
ACS is a Silver Sponsor of the AIH; and students studying designated courses are given free student membership. ACS and it's principal have had an association with AIH since the 1980's

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