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How to Grow Sweet Fern

By Jenny Harrington ; Updated September 21, 2017
A sweet fern

Sweet fern isn't a fern at all, but a deciduous shrub with fern-like leaves. The leaves grow from woody stems and are light green when young but mature to dark green color. Sweet ferns grow to three feet in height. They produce suckers, which can lead to them taking over a planting bed. The best areas to plant these are on slopes or in well-tended, mixed borders where the suckers are removed before the plant spreads. When crushed, the leaves emit a mildly soap-like aroma that gives the plant its common name.

Choose a sandy, well-drained planting area with partial to full sun. Plant in beds ill-suited for other plants or work sand and peat moss into the soil to raise the area two inches.

Weed the area thoroughly and remove any plants that are within three feet of where the sweet fern will grow. Sweet ferns require room to grow and fix their own nitrogen levels in the soil.

Dig a planting hole three inches deeper and twice as wide as the root ball of the nursery plant you are transplanting.

Remove the sweet fern from the pot and place inside the planting hole. Spread the outer roots with your fingers, gently, and then refill the hole with soil. Avoid covering the crown of the plant, where the branches emerge from the root ball.

Water enough to make the soil moist but not soaking wet. Water in the future only during extended dry spells.


Things You Will Need

  • Sand
  • Peat moss
  • Spade


  • Sweet fern is a food source for many overwintering bird species, as well as deer and rabbit.
  • Sweet fern quickly provides ground cover in areas destroyed by fire.


  • Cut off the suckers from the sweet fern every year so the plant doesn't take over neighboring plants. Propagate new plants from the removed suckers.
  • Wild sweet ferns rarely transplant well, so plant from nursery stock only.

About the Author


Jenny Harrington has been a freelance writer since 2006. Her published articles have appeared in various print and online publications. Previously, she owned her own business, selling handmade items online, wholesale and at crafts fairs. Harrington's specialties include small business information, crafting, decorating and gardening.