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Signs of Overwatered Fern (And How to Revive It)

Ferns have a reputation for being difficult to grow but in fact, they are quite un-demanding providing you give them the conditions that they require.

One of the foremost reasons for people having problems with their indoor ferns is that they overwater them. 

When a fern is overwatered, its leaves turn yellow and begin to wilt. This usually begins among the lower fronds. Following that, the tips of the leaves will begin to turn brown, and the soil will emit a distinct swampy odor. The first thing you’ll need to save your overwatered fern is repotting into a better-suited soil.

Signs of underwatered vs  Overwatered Ferns

OverwateringUnderwatering
Leaves start to turn yellow and wilt. This normally begins among the lower fronds.Leaves start to turn brown.
Very quickly the leaves will develop a mushy texture.Leaf edges have a noticeably crisp feel to them.
Tips of the leaves will start to become brown.The soil will feel dry to the touch.
Very often the soil will feel waterlogged and won’t dry out.The whole plant will begin to wilt.
In extreme cases, there will be a noticeable swampy smell emanating from the soil.As things deteriorate leaves will begin to drop.

From the comparison table above, it is easy to think that many of the symptoms are so similar that you could confuse overwatering and underwatering. 

In actual fact, it will be the texture that will most guide you in deciding which is the cause of your problem. 

An underwatered fern feels dry and brittle whereas an overwatered fern has a distinctly squishy feel to it. 

The other determining factor will be the soil. Within overwatered ferns, the soil feels obviously damp to the touch. The exact opposite is true for an underwatered plant.

Signs of Overwatered Ferns

In most cases, the unfortunate demise of ferns almost always stems from overwatering. Along with most houseplant owners, when I first started growing indoor ferns, my reaction to any signs of distress was to reach for the watering can.

These plants originate in tropical forests where they grow in a water-retentive medium that remains damp but not soggy. At the same time that growing medium never dries out completely.

Signs of Overwatered Fern
Signs of Overwatered Fern

Soft Mushy or Squishy Leaves

Although they are very delicate-looking plants, most of the ferns that are grown indoors have quite firm leathery leaves. 

If the leaves of your fern begin to turn soft and flaccid, you can be sure that overwatering is almost always the cause of this problem. You will also notice dark, almost bruised, marks around these squidgy areas.

Rotting Roots and Smelly Soil

If you ignore the early symptoms, it won’t be long before you start to notice a distinct swampy smell emanating from the potting soil in which your fern is growing. 

If you touch the soil, you will feel that it is cold and damp. If you then squeeze it slightly with the tips of your fingers, it is likely that you will see water starting to pool at the pressure point. 

You may also notice the build-up of water in the saucer at the base of your pot. What you are noticing is almost always associated with root rot which is a problem that can quickly turn fatal for your fern.

Root Rot Disease

The texture of healthy roots is firm and, in the case of ferns, almost woody. Although the outer part of the root tends to be dark, a quick cut with a pair of scissors should reveal white healthy material.

When roots start to rot, there is a notable change to the texture. They start to become soggy and acquire a black-brown color. 

You will also notice that the smell that was emanating from the soil becomes much more distinct as the roots are exposed. 

This is a critical condition and one that needs to be addressed immediately. We will be looking at that in greater depth in the next chapter.

Boston Fern Root Rot

Drooping leaves

Drooping leaves are always an early indicator that your plant is unhappy. The problem is, the symptom is common to a wide range of causes and so you will have to dig more deeply in order to be sure that you are seeing signs of overwatering and not some other issue.

The other common cause of leaves drooping is underwatering and now he will have to look for further symptoms to confirm your diagnosis. 

As soon as you notice the leaves starting to droop, feel both the soil and the texture of the leaves themselves. 

If the drooping is due to overwatering the leaves will feel soft and soggy and the soil is bound to be wet.

Overwatered Bird’s nest ferns Drooping

Leaves Falling Off

If the leaves are your plant start to fall off, it is because the plant has gone into crisis mode and is shedding excess material in a desperate attempt to remain alive. 

There are other reasons that your fern may be dropping leaves, but in the case of overwatering, the leaf drop will be accompanied by yellowing and that soggy texture we have already mentioned.

Leaves Turning Yellow

Even healthy plants will lose a few leaves during the course of a growing season. This is part of the natural process of regeneration. 

If you notice this yellowing on several leaves at the same time, then you should pay attention because it is an early indicator that your plant is suffering.

If the cause of the yellowing is overwatering, the yellowed leaves will feel mushy and soft. Very often, you will find that they will come away from the stem of the plant very easily.

Overwatered Foxtail Fern Turning Yellow
Overwatered Foxtail Fern Turning Yellow

How to Revive an Overwatered Fern

Now that you have examined all of the symptoms and you are certain that overwatering lies behind them, it is time to address the problem and create an ideal situation that allows your plant to regain its vigor.

The next step will be to decide how bad the situation is. Hopefully, you have got this problem early on and by simply allowing the soil to dry out slightly and adopting an appropriate watering regime, your fern will bounce to health. 

There are a couple of things that might sound obvious, but which you will need to check. 

Firstly, ensure that there is an adequate drainage hole in the base of the container that your fern is growing in. It should at least be large enough fear to poke the tip of your finger into. 

Next, make sure that water is able to drain away freely and quickly. Never leave your plant standing in a saucer of water as this will hinder more water from within the potting mix from draining away.

What To Do If Your Fern’s Roots Are Rotting?

If you have not caught the problem in time, then you’re going to need to take more decisive action. 

Tip the plant carefully from the container that it was growing in and examine the root ball carefully. 

To do this, peel away as much of the damp potting soil as possible. If doing that reveals roots that are soggy and black then you will need to cut away the damaged material using a sterilized pair of scissors or secateurs.  

The black sections are no longer functional and are serving no purpose. Once you have cut back to clean and healthy root material, stand your fern on a sheet of newspaper for 24-hours so that it can dry out more quickly. At this stage, you are going to repot your plant.

Repotting Overwatered Ferns

Choose a pot that is slightly larger than the remaining root ball and which has good drainage capacity. 

Now repot the plant using a potting mix that contains plenty of organic matter. Discard the old potting soil and any root material that you have cut away. 

If you have used a proprietary potting material, it will almost definitely be slightly damp and you needn’t bother watering the plant immediately after potting. Instead, allow your fern to settle in for a day or two before adopting a watering regime.

How Often  to Water Ferns

Obviously, it is critical that this problem is not allowed to re-occur and adopting the correct watering regime is the way to prevent that from happening. 

Remember that these plants tend to grow in tropical forests and so you need to replicate those conditions.

They grow best in a water-retentive material that stays slightly damp but which never dries out completely. It is creating those conditions that we find most difficult. The secret here is to feel the potting soil on a daily basis. By poking your finger an inch into the soil you will be able to feel whether there is any residual dampness or not. 

Ideally, you are hoping for a situation where the soil remains slightly damp but never becomes completely dry and you will not be able to obtain that unless you check the soil every day. 

Don’t opt for a schedule as plants dry out at different speeds depending on things like humidity, size of the plant and air temperature. Feeling the soil is the way to judge when to water.

With ferns, as soon as you feel that the soil is starting to become dry you need to water them. 

The best way to do this is to stand your plant in a basin and apply water to the top of the potting soil until it begins to run freely out of the drainage holes in the bottom of the pot. 

Once that happens, pour away the excess water and any other water that may drain out afterward.

Once all water has stopped draining from the base of the pot, you can return it to its original position. You should water your fern using water that is at room temperature and has not been treated. 

In other words, captured rainwater or distilled water rather than municipal water which contains chlorine. Try not to let the leaves of your fern get wet during the watering process.

Maintaining Your Fern’s Peak Condition Following Overwatering

These are some factors that come into play when it comes to maintaining a fern, and if you bear these in mind you are less likely to encounter overwatering problems.

  • Light conditions: ferns like bright but indirect light. North or east-facing windowsills are ideal. They will quickly deteriorate if exposed to direct sunlight.
  • Humidity: Ferns require a high level of humidity, which is often lacking in our homes, especially if we use heating during the colder winter months. You can raise humidity levels by grouping plants, using water-filled pebble trays, or misting with a squeegee bottle. You could also go high-tech and invest in a plant humidifier.
  • Drafts: Ferns do not like constant temperature changes, so in addition to placing them in a location where the light meets their needs, you should also consider drafts from nearby doors or windows.
  • Soil type: Because you need the soil to remain damp, you need to use a retentive potting mix. While these are good at retaining moisture, they can also become waterlogged very easily so you will need to ensure you don’t water them too often.

Avoiding Overwatering Problems (recap):

  • Overwatering is the most common problem with ferns and the most dangerous.
  • Feel the soil on a daily basis to ensure that it is damp but not soggy.
  • Never let the soil dry out completely.
  • Adopt a watering regime rather than working to a schedule.
  • Regular observation of your fern will allow you to detect problems before they progress to dangerous levels.
  • If you suspect overwatering is harming your plant then stop watering immediately and see if it starts to recover.
  • If recovery is slow then remove your fern from its container and examine the roots.
  • Pot into a retentive potting mix and make sure the container offers adequate drainage capacity.
  • Position your fern in low to medium light in a place where it will not be exposed to drafts. 

Despite a reputation for being difficult plants to maintain indoors, ferns are actually fairly tolerant provided you meet their requirements and keep them damp but not too wet or too dry.