A Boston (fern) tea party

April 7, 2019


Everyone pitches in to help when a small-town church hosts a wedding and my grandmother’s contribution was to loan the brides her massive Boston ferns for decorating the simple sanctuary. Usually, the bride’s brothers would show up the day before the wedding to pick up the fluffy plants to carry to the church. The ferns were large and lush enough they had to make sure a bird or small child wasn’t hiding amongst the fronds before the young men lifted them into the bed of their truck. 

Despite being named after the Tea Party city in the North where it was discovered,  the beautiful plant has taken up residence in the South and thrives in our humidity.

Like adding a final swish of lipstick, porches with ferns look pulled together and fully dressed. Grandmother knew the secret to over-wintering her ferns in the garage, and when she’d pull them back out in the spring, they were already shooting out bright green growth. Granddaddy would use an axe to divide them, but sadly, like making jelly, I never learned the secret for growing ferns, so year after year, I have to purchase more. 

Snatching up the prettiest ferns in town is almost a game, and the phone calls and texts start flying between friends the minute a shipment arrives at the feed and seed or farmer’s market. Sometimes the Junior League or Marching band will sell them as an easy-as-pie fundraiser because they know everyone in town will need a few. 

Assuming you still have a real porch and not a pretend puny slab that some home builders think they can trick us into believing is a porch (shame on them), a fern is one of the must-haves. Rocking chairs and swings are always a plus and I’ve written before about how smitten I am with a little lamp by the door that whispers, “Hey! I’ve been waiting for you to get here!” But if your porch has summertime ferns that spill over like fountains, your house will holler, “Hey everybody! Nice people live here!”

In past homes, I’ve had great porches that had space for swings, tables, lazy dogs, jumping children and guitar players. Sadly, my current porch would only get an 85 out of 100 on the S.C.S. (Southern Charm Scale). It’s a tight fit, but we’ve squeezed a few rocking chairs up there, although they are arranged like a jail-house line-up, which actually makes some family members feel quite at home (married into the family, not blood-kin). It gets a few extra-credit points for being close enough to a pasture where we can hear mooing cows and laughter from children on the other side, but no matter what I try to do to make it comfortable, it never feels quite right until I get the ferns out there in the spring. 

Porch ferns pull us away from our indoor blinking gadgets and force us to sweep up their fluff, which in turn, leads us to linger a while, wave to dog-walking neighbors, listen to the birds and sit a spell to drink a glass of icy tea. It’s the plant that inspires us to have our own version of a Boston (fern) tea party. 

This story first appeared on AL.com.

  • My front porch is certainly not as large and Southern as I’d like, but it is adequate. Unfortunately it faces west and while our sunsets in Texas can be flat out gorgeous, the accompanying heat just burns up most any plant trying to survive on the porch. But my east facing back porch can make up for that as long as I remember to water the annually purchased ferns.
    Best place to buy good Boston ferns in Houston is, believe it or not, Kroger! Usually have them for about ten bucks each and they are nice and full.

  • I love a beautiful front porch with ferns. I have a small courtyard entrance on the front leading into the kitchen (two front doors) and I have a big fern there every year. Sadly, I don’t have room in the garage to winter these so we enjoy them until the first frost. Some years I have them on the back veranda. Now you’ve put me in the mood to buy more. Thanks Leslie Anne, think I’ll go to the garden center tomorrow……….

    • Your entryways sound beautiful. Enjoy the lushness of all the spring green!

  • I have noticed a few porches have already been “dressed” with ferns already here in west TN. I drive past them & just want to stop & sit a spell!

    • I was in Chattanooga a week ago and saw how spring is just now popping through up there. We’ve had spring down here on the coast and are shaking pollen off to cruise into summer! Enjoy the cool days and blossoms ahead!

    • I don’t know if they’d survive on your salty-beachy-sunny porch, but there’s got to be a spot somewhere!

  • I love those ferns as well. Growing up they were always so pretty on the porches in Monroeville and Brewton…(I lived out in the country between both towns). I don’t have a pretty front porch…more just a walkway. I always dreamed of a sweeping front porch, but I got a sweeping back porch so I will take it:)
    I have found a way to have my ferns though. I have a wagon wheel hanging up on a pole that has ferns hanging from it in my side yard under the oaks. They get huge during the summer and generally I buy new ones each spring, but the winter was so mild this year that they came right back out.
    Good article.

    • Thanks Sandy. You are a determined Southern gardener! Where there’s a “wheel,” there’s a way!

  • Apparently, all our grandmothers had a Boston fern gene that was not passed down! My Granny had a glass hothouse that to me was the most magical place on earth…full of geraniums, African violets, ferns, and a wonderful Mother Earth smell I cannot even describe. Every year I make my pilgrimage to Lowe’s for ferns. By the time Clemson plays Florida State, they’ve grown to gargantuan proportions and usually have hosted several nests of Carolina wrens. Then the first frost comes and poof! A gigantic brown mess greets me. After the surgeon clears me to drive this Wednesday, guess where my first trip will be?!?

  • Ellen Shook says:

    My mother was like your grandmother. She wintered hers over in the basement. She had a potting bench out under the trees — crudely constructed of old wooden sawhorses and planks, not one of those $1,000+ ones you see on the blogs — where she used a giant washtub to catch rainwater. When the rain stopped, she would go down to that area of her back yard and dip out the water with an old enameled 1-qt saucepan. She strained this into a bucket with a spout which in turn was funneled into 1-gallon milk jugs. These she lined up in the basement adjacent to the sawhorse table in there with her ferns (and begonias). When it was time to bring them out, she called her off-again-on-again yard man to bring them round to the front porch, the steps and carport entrance. He also got the pleasure of cleaning up the colossal mess in the basement! Her favorite sport was porch sitting and visiting, and it was such a pleasant place to be. My persnickety husband won’t keep ferns over the winter anymore because he knows who has to clean up the mess. Ours live under the pergola where it is shady enough, and he just lets them die with the first freeze, which I don’t like, but you know marriage — give a little get a little. As long as he buys me some new ones every year I will deal with it.

    • Your grandmother’s watering process was interesting. I think that’ where I fall short, I forget to water them in the winter at all! I love that she had a process and it resulted in a tranquil sociable place to be. She was creating her environment of peace. What a great fern memory!

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