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How to Grow Fiddleheads for Your Harvest Table

By Staff Writer
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Fiddlehead ferns are beautiful, with those naturally occurring fractal spiral shapes we see sometimes in nature. You can eat the crosiers on the young plants—they're a nutritious spring-time delicacy long featured in Native American cuisine and medicine.

Fiddleheads are an excellent, easy-to-grow addition to your backyard garden. The coiled fronds of young ferns add visual interest and a lush green forest vibe to outdoor spaces. After harvest, steam then sautee this crunchy vegetable with garlic lemon butter, for example, and you'll have a yummy side in no time!

01

Your fiddleheads' new home

Once you've scouted a location in your yard on the north side of your home or one protected from wind, you can start looking for plant babies. Visit a nursery or garden center, procure some fiddleheads from the wild with permission, or get some from a friend.

Look for plants with healthy, bright green leaves that aren't wilting.

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02

Planting your fiddleheads

This native perennial likes moist, well-drained soil with a pH of 4 to 7. In addition to neutral to acidic soil, you need space because this plant can spread aggressively. Place fiddlehead crowns with at least a foot or two of space between them. The top of the crown should be underground but close to the surface.

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03

A healthy start: sunlight requirements for fiddleheads

Ideally, your fiddleheads will live in a spot with partial shade. These light conditions allow them to thrive. However, growth is still possible with full sunlight or a lot of shade coupled with rich soil. If the environment does not check the necessary boxes, unfortunately, you'll get fiddleheads that aren't harvestable.

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04

A healthy start: watering

When you plant your fiddlehead, give it a nice long drink to help it settle. For maintenance, aim for an inch to two inches of water per week if your area is short on rain. You don't want the soil to dry out at any point, or the foliage will burn. Add leaf mulch in the spring and fall to retain moisture and keep weeds at bay.

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05

A healthy start: special nutrients

You can forego fertilizer if you're using compost or something like alfalfa meal, but if you want, you can fertilize your fiddleheads in spring when you see new growth. Take care when adding nutrients—this plant prefers a slow-release fertilizer, and over-fertilizing can cause damage. In general, use a 20-20-20 fertilizer once a month.

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06

USDA hardiness zone information

Fiddleheads are best suited for USDA zones 3 to 7 and can grow in zones 2, 8, and 9. The ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) is popular, native to North America, and grows globally in the north temperature zone. It doesn't grow in the Pacific Northwest, but other fiddlehead species do.

These plants like shaded, wooded areas close to water and tolerate the cold, so you'll find them up in Canada too.

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07

Healthy growth: pruning your fiddleheads

If your goal is to encourage growth, then prune established plants during the growing season, between spring and summer. You can prune away dead brown fronds, but bear in mind that they protect deciduous species during winter's shivery and wet months. Wait until the cold season passes, and then cut back whole, old fronds.

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08

Harvest time

To help establish the plant, leave ostrich ferns unharvested for two years. Thereafter, harvesting should occur when the fiddlehead is still curled and about two to four inches tall. You can harvest fiddlehead ferns with a quick pluck or by using scissors. Simply cut from the stem while leaving close to half the fronds intact to keep the plant going.

Limit harvesting to standing fiddleheads, not those that have fallen on the ground.

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09

Can I propagate my fiddleheads?

Ferns advance via buried rhizomes and the roots and shoots they put forth. You can split a crown to propagate an ostrich fern. Divide the fern by digging up the root ball and splitting it in half or fours. This root ball can then be transplanted.

You should undertake this process in early spring every few years.

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10

Common diseases

Gangrene is a notable fungal disease presenting with black lesions. Low temperatures, night frosts, and wet feet are to blame. Severe infection may cause death, and you'll have to remove relevant fiddlehead ferns. Powdery mildew, rust, black spot, leaf blotch, and root rot can all affect the fiddlehead fern in unsuitable conditions.

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11

Common pests

The good news is deer and rabbits will steer clear of your fiddlehead ferns. Unfortunately, though, snails and slugs love these plants. To mitigate the problem, you can use natural solutions such as food-grade diatomaceous earth on organic homesteads or opt for insecticides.

The ostrich fern borer moth is another issue you may face, but these moths have no other food source, so leave them be.

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12

Showing off your fiddleheads

Fiddleheads can be planted in rows or as beds. The fronds of the ostrich fern can reach over six feet in height. Ultimately, there should be about 30 crowns for every 10 square feet. In terms of landscaping, they add texture to borders.

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13

Similar plants

If you want a fiddlehead substitute for your veggie garden, asparagus has a comparable flavor, sweetness, and texture and should do the trick. Of course, asparagus spears don't have the same lush aesthetic as a feathery fern.

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14

Cautions and additional information

Fiddleheads may cause food poisoning symptoms if they're not stored or prepared correctly. Remove the brown husk and wash the fiddleheads thoroughly multiple times in fresh, cold water. Steam the veggies for at least 10 minutes or boil them for 15 minutes before consumption. Dogs can also eat cooked fiddleheads.

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15

Varieties of fiddleheads

In the U.S., you'll find four edible fiddlehead species in various regions: ostrich fern, bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum), western sword fern (Polystichum munitum), and lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina). Contrary to popular belief, bracken fern is not toxic.

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