Why is My Boston Fern Dying and How to Save It

Boston Ferns (Nephrolepis exaltata) are beautiful plants with lovely lance-shaped fronds that extend down and out from its container. This makes it stunning to look at whether in a pot, planter or hanging basket.

Just as importantly, it is easy to care for.

But if you notice your Boston Fern suddenly dying, it is important to identify the problem and fix it.

Why is your Boston Fern dying? The most common cause of Boston Fern dying is overwatering that has worsened into root rot. This can be due to watering too often or waterlogged soil.

Other reasons for a dying Boston Fern include low humidity, underwatering, pests, insufficient lighting and too much fertilizer.

Common Causes Why Your Boston Fern is Dying & How to Fix Each

Boston ferns are robust, hardy plants which is why they are common in homes and offices. However, it is not uncommon to see the plant looking weak or sick.

When this happens, you’ll see it droop, wilt and even lose its lovely colors as its leaves turn brown.

So, if you notice that you Boston fern is not looking its best, it is often a good idea to figure out what is happening.

Below, I’ve listed down the most common reasons why your Boston fern is dying, why it is happening and how to fix it.

Chart of Common Causes Why Your Fern is Dying
Chart of Common Causes Why Your Fern is Dying

 

Overwatering is Usually the Reason for a Boston Fern Dying

Overwatering is the main cause of houseplant death. As such, it is important to always monitor the moisture level of soil.

This can be a problem with the Boston fern especially because the plant is known to like moist soil. Therefore, some people end up watering the soil too much or too often, which puts the plant in danger.

Overwatering is problematic because it can cause many issues.

The most serious problem caused by overwatering is root rot.

This occurs when the plant sits in water for too long a time causing its roots to eventually rot because they are deprived of oxygen.

Additionally, damp environments are conducive to diseases. This is why fungal root rot can likewise happen.

Of course, there’s the risk of other bacterial and fungal infections as well.

Another thing to be aware of is that overwatering can happen for a few reasons. And it does not necessarily mean that you’re just giving the plant too much water.

You can end up overwatering your Boston fern if:

  • You are using too much water each time
  • You’re watering too often
  • Not letting the excess water drain after you water
  • Your potting soil is retaining too much moisture
  • The pot the plant is in does not have drainage

Sometimes it is one thing, but it can also be a combination of any of these.

Therefore, it is a good idea to be mindful not only of how much water you add but also when you water and how you water your plant.

 

Symptoms that Your Boston Fern is Overwatered

  • Soil feels wet or soggy. And it stays that way most of the time
  • Yellow leaves but make sure to check that the soil is wet
  • Its fronds are drooping
  • Tips of its fronts are turning brown but don’t feel crispy or brittle
  • Soil may have a foul rotting smell if root rot has set in

When it comes to identifying the symptoms of an overwatered Boston fern, it is always important to verify by checking the soil.

This is especially true with leaf symptoms like discoloration, wilting, curling or drooping because both overwatering and underwatering can have similar symptoms.

The difference is that they occur at different stages.

Thus, your confirmation will always be through the soil. And the biggest sign of overwatering is wet, soggy soil that does not dry quickly or consistently stays damp.

 

How to Fix an Overwatered Boston Fern

If you notice any of the symptoms of overwatering above, the next step is to treat the plant. Try to do this immediately since overwatering can lead to serious issues.

  • The first thing to do is check for root rot. This is essential because if root rot has developed, you’ll need to take more drastic measures to save the plant.
  • To check, carefully slide the plant out of its pot and brush off any excess dirt to expose the roots.
  • If you see any black, brown, soft, mushy or smelly roots, it means there’s root rot. Normal, healthy roots will look white and have a firm texture. They also won’t have a rotting odor.
  • If root rot has developed, sterilize a pair or shears with rubbing alcohol and prune the rotted roots. Depending on how much of the roots are affected, you may need to prune the plant’s leaves as well. That’s because fewer roots will not be able to support the entire plant. So, to give it the best chance of survival and recovery, you want to scale down the plant to a size the remaining healthy roots can support.
  • Next, rinse the remaining, healthy roots to remove soil. If fungal root rot is the cause, the soil will contain the pathogens. So, you want to get rid of them all.
  • Then repot the plant with fresh, dry well-draining soil. Choose a container that’s aptly sized for the remaining plant. Avoid overpotting. Make sure the pot you choose has drainage holes.

On the other hand, if there is no root rot, you have a couple of choices.

  • Keep the plant in its pot
  • Repot the plant in fresh, dry soil

With the former, allow the soil to dry before watering again.

Then adjust your watering routine and make sure that you wait until the top 2 inches of soil has completely dried before adding more moisture.

With the latter option, you’re essentially moving the plant away from the overwatered soil immediately.

This lets it recover as soon as possible instead of waiting for the current wet soil to dry first. As such, this is a safer option.

In any of the 3 cases, you want to review your watering routine and modify it to prevent overwatering from happening again.

 

How to Prevent Overwatering and Root Rot

Above, I mentioned that overwatering and waterlogged soil can happen for a few reasons. Therefore, the best way to avoid leaving your Boston fern’s roots in water for too long is to check each of the possible causes and make sure they don’t pose a risk.

The first step is to make sure that you don’t water too often.

The best way to do this is to always wait until the top 2 inches of soil has completely dried before adding more water. Avoid doing so before then.

The second step is to let excess moisture drain every time you water.

You can water your Boston fern from above or below.

With the first method, you’ll add water directly to the soil.

With the second method, you’ll place the plant’s pot in the sink, tub or a larger container filled with some water. Then let the soil absorb the water through the pot’s drainage hole.

Whichever way you choose, allow let the soil get saturated.

After that, always take the time to allow the excess moisture to drain. This takes quite a bit of time, usually 15 to 30 minutes depending on how big the plant and pot are.

But it is very important to avoid overwatering. You can leave the plant in the sink or tub and let it drain on its own.

The third thing to make sure is to use well-draining soil.

Watering correctly and at the right frequency all goes for naught if your Boston fern is in heavy soil that retains a lot of moisture.

What happens is that when you water, the soil holds on to the moisture instead of draining the excess. So, even if you water perfectly, the wrong soil negates your efforts.

Finally, make sure the pot you use has drainage.

Again, this can negate a lot of the work you’ve done above.

The reason is if the pot has no drainage, all the moisture that’s drained from the soil is stuck at the bottom of the pot.

Therefore, the soil still stays wet.

This is why drainage holes at the bottom of your pot is important. It allows excess water to escape.

 

Related

 

Lack of Humidity

Boston ferns are native to rainforests. As such, they love humidity.

Ideally, it prefers 60% to 80%, although it will do well as long as you maintain humidity of 50% and above.

The problem is that most homes have humidity ranging from 20% to 50%. During winters when the air dries up significantly, usually drops to the lower end of that range.

As such, this can be a problem.

If the air in your home gets too dry, you’ll notice your Boston fern’s leaves curl up. The tips of the fronds will usually become brown, and crispy as well.

I use a hygrometer to keep track of humidity in my home. It is a portable device that you can take from room to room.

And once you see humidity is below 50%, it is time to increase air moisture around the plant.

 

How to Increase Humidity for Your Boston Fern

  • Use a humidifier – this is the simplest method although you do need to buy the humidifier. Humidifiers can increase humidity by 20% to 50% depending on the unit’s capacity. It will also let you set the target humidity level which makes things easier.
  • Place the plant on a humidity tray – also known as a pebble tray, you’ll essentially put the plant on top of pebbles in a tray of water. As the water evaporates it turns into vapor. Thus, increasing humidity.
  • Group your plants – this method works best if you have many plants. That’s because individually they don’t produce a lot of moisture. But collectively, when they transpire, the humidity will go up.
  • Move your fern to the bathroom – this is another simple solution. Because we use a lot of water in the bathroom, the humidity is higher there than other rooms in the home.

Misting is another option. Although I am not a huge fan of it.

That’s because its effects are temporary so you need to keep repeating a few times a week. This is okay if you’re not busy but if you are, you’re likely to forget.

Also, some people end up misting too much which increase the risk of bacterial and fungal infections.

 

Insufficient Light

Boson ferns thrive on bright, indirect light. This is where it will grow at its best and produce lush, green leaves.

But if you notice that its leaves don’t have the same vibrancy or bounce to them, it could be because they are not getting enough light.

Light plays an important role in growth because the plant uses light for photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is when the plant turns light into sugars which it uses for energy.

And it is this energy it uses to grow, produce new leaves and support all its functions and processes.

Therefore, less light means slower growth, fewer leaves and a generally weaker plant. This is why your Boston fern can shed its leaves lose its vibrant colors.

Note that it is unlikely that the plant will die if it does not get enough light. However, lack of light makes the plant look less healthy, less green and lack its usual vibrancy.

That said, it is also important to be wary to too much light. Since the Boston fern comes from rainforests where there are larger plants and trees overhead, it cannot tolerate very intense light.

Therefore, avoid direct sunlight as this can scorch its leaves causing them to turn brown.

In either case, the solution to too much or too little light is reposition your Boston fern so it gets the ideal amount of light.

 

Underwatering

Underwatering is less common of a problem for this plant compared to overwatering. It is also much easier to fix.

That said, it is still something you want to avoid since allowing your Boston fern to get dehydrated will also harm the plant.

Often, you’ll see it droop and look sad. You’ll also see its leaves turn brown.

The longer it lacks water, the more browning you’ll see.

The best way to confirm an underwatered Boston fern is to check the soil. Stick your finger into the soil to feel for moistness. In all likelihood, the soil will be very dry.

In many cases, the soil has dried out completely.

As you would expect, the most common cause of underwatering is forgetting to water the plant. This can easily happen as life gets hectic.

The warm, sunny climate of summer also speeds up the rate at which soil dries.

To avoid underwatering your Boston fern,

  • Place the plant somewhere you always pass by on your way in or out of your home. This way, it will remind you to check if the plant needs watering.
  • Boston ferns can tolerate some dryness. So, as long as you don’t let the soil go completely dry, it will be okay.
  • If you simply have a hard time remembering or are very busy, you can likewise opt for a self-watering pot.

 

Related: How to Care for the Heart Leaf Fern

 

Pests

Pests will always be a nuisance to houseplant owners. This is in part due to the fact that there is no 100% guaranteed way to prevent them from occurring.

The only thing you can really do is to keep the plant healthy so it keeps its resistance to pests up. Similarly, cleaning the leaves do help since pests are attracted to dust.

Some growers also like to use soap spray and neem oil as preventive measures.

The problem with pests is that they rob your plant of it sap. This results in yellow or brown leaves on your Boston fern. I will also struggle to grow and look healthy as it loses nutrient and moisture to these bugs.

The most problematic pests for Boston ferns are spider mites and mealybugs. However, other common pests include scale and fungus gnats.

Thus, it is important to regularly inspect your plant for any of these insects. If you do spot them, immediately isolate the plant and start treatment.

 

How to Save Boston Fern Dying Due to Pest Infestation

Individually, pests that like to attack your Boston fern are very tiny. While this makes them hard to spot, it also means one bug can’t do a lot of damage.

However, as nature would have it, these insects populate very quickly.

And if left untreated, they can easily turn into infestations in a very short amount of time. And the more pests there are, the more damage they cause as a group.

This is why regular inspections is important.

This lets you spot the pest problem as early as possible. In doing so, they can inflict less damage. It also takes much less time to get rid of the problem.

The first step to take if you spot any bugs on your plat is to isolate it. By keeping it away from other plants, you prevent the pests from spreading to your other houseplants.

Next, remove as many of the bugs as possible by spraying water. You can use the showerhead or take the plant outside and hose off the bugs with a garden hose.

You can do this a few times to get rid of them all (if there are only a few) or to reduce their number as much as possible.

If there are still pests, you treat the affected areas by spraying with neem oil solution. Alternatively, you can also use insecticidal soap spray if you wish.

Repeat a few times until you’re completely sure there are not pests left.

 

Overfertilizing

Overfeeding your plants is another common issue that can cause your Boston fern to die.

Why?

Fertilizer are meant to help, right? Unfortunately, too much of it can damage the roots of your plant as well.

This is what people refer to as fertilizer burn. And it happens because there are salts in fertilizer.

So, the more you feed the plant, not only does it get the added nutrients, there’s also more salt that builds up in the soil.

When too much accumulates, it becomes toxic to the roots and leaves.

As such, you’ll see browning occur in your fern’s fronds starting with the tips and edges.

When this gets worse, the roots sustain damage eventually affecting their function. If too much of their function is compromised, they won’t be able to absorb water and nutrients form the soil.

This will eventually cause your plant to deteriorate as it gets dehydrated and nutrient deficient. And over time, it don’t be able to sustain itself no matter how much you water or add fertilizer to the soil.

 

How to Fix a Boston Fern Dying from Overfertilizing

The best way is to avoid over fertilizing your plant altogether. This will help you sidestep the headache.

However, if you suspect that your Boston fern has had too much fertilizer, here are some things you can do to save it.

 

Flush the Soil

Flushing the soil is simply running water through it for a few minutes. This helps by dissolving the salts and allowing them to flow out with the water.

In doing so, you’re removing any excess salts and minerals from the soil.

If your plant is not over fertilized yet, you can flush the soil every couple of months to prevent salt buildup.

However, if you’re trying to save or fix an overwatered Boston fern, allow the soil to drain after flushing it. Then, don’t add any fertilizer to the plant for the next 6 months.

This will allow it to recover.

After that, start feeding again but more conservatively.

 

Repot the Plant

For more serious over fertilizing issues, you want to get the plant out of the soil as quickly as you can.

Thus, repotting it in fresh soil is the best solution as it gives the roots a “clean slate” where they can start recovery.

 

Checklist of How to Save a Dying Boston Fern Checklist
Checklist of How to Save a Dying Boston Fern Checklist

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