Issue: July 7, 2007
Fern didn't grow in Alamogordo
We moved to Alamogordo from El Paso 2 years ago. This spring we began a complete work-over of our back yard, which will be in progress for a couple years yet. We have a shady corner of the yard which has high walls on the east and north sides and a large ash tree that has spread over the patio. Only the west side of this bed under the tree receives sunlight and that is late afternoon. This is enough sun to make my new astilbes wilt. This spring I ordered astilbe, bleeding heart, and the ostrich plume fern from a seed catalog. The nursery catalog showed all 3 of these plants were OK for our area of the hardiness chart displayed in their catalog. The astilbe and bleeding hearts came up right away (planted 3rd week of May). However, the ferns have not come up. About 12 days ago I dug the roots of a couple of them, and discovered no growth whatsoever. I planted them in good soil by the wall, thinking that would be the coolest area, and about 1.5 to 2" deep.
Do you have any suggestions as to what I should do to get these to grow? Are there other ferns that would be better suited to our climate?
The ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) is native to much cooler environments than Alamogordo (or most other parts of New Mexico). Your plant may be waiting for cooler weather to begin growth. However, there is a possibility that the plant did not survive transit from the nursery. Were there any new (white roots) when you dug the plants? Was the crown of the plant firm, or were there signs it was beginning to decay. If so, the fern may be dead.
If you do continue to try to grow the ostrich fern, consider the fact that it is native to environments with continuously moist, very organic and acidic soils. The hardiness zone map indicates that it has a wide hardiness range, but these other environmental factors must also be considered. Alamogordo (and New Mexico) doesn't provide the required soil environment. It will take considerable effort to modify the soil and maintain sufficient moisture for it to grow here. Our dry heat and calcareous soils will create challenges. Irrigation water with dissolved mineral salts compounds the problems. It may be possible to grow it in Alamogordo, but it will not be easy. You will need to frequently replace the soil as mineral salts accumulate, and you should use rainwater whenever possible to dilute these minerals that accumulate from your irrigation water. The heat will be more difficult to overcome. Perhaps the shady location will provide enough cooling for the ostrich fern to grow.
The bleeding heart and astilbe are also plants native to cooler climates with moist, organic, acid soils. They may grow here, but they will also require special care. Of these two, the bleeding heart will probably be the least trouble to grow in Alamogordo.
Marisa Y. Thompson, PhD, is the Extension Horticulture Specialist, in the Department of Extension Plant Sciences at the New Mexico State University Los Lunas Agricultural Science Center, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, office: 505-865-7340, ext. 113.
Please copy your County Extension Agent and indicate your county of residence when you submit your question!