Hydroponic Ornamental Ferns and Foliage

By Lynette Morgan
Published: July 26, 2022
Key Takeaways

With the advanced nutrition and lighting used in hydroponics, ornamental plants and ferns can be grown into large, good-looking specimens, and can even make a grower some extra dollars.

A productive hydroponic system can produce a diverse array of fruits, vegetables, and herbs year-round and within a small area, however, an indoor garden can be far more than just a provider of produce. Ornamental plants, grown purely for their beauty and peaceful ambiance, are another opportunity to use hydroponic methods to enhance growth and add some sensory enrichment to indoor spaces. With houseplants growing in popularity recently, ornamental ferns and foliage also have the potential to be profitable as hydroponic propagation methods are generally quick and successful. With the advanced nutrition and attention to lighting that can be achieved via hydroponics, these plants can be grown into large, attractive specimens using a wide range of systems and methods.


Ornamental Ferns and Foliage

Ornamental plants such as this Weeping Fig can be grown in a range of soilless systems and containers. Ornamental ferns and foliage plants have been grown indoors for centuries, usually potted into soil or growing mix with slow-release fertilizers. However, the development of soilless methods to grow crops has been adapted to many other types of plants and houseplants are no exception. Indoors, species for ornamental display are often chosen for their appearance rather than productivity; many are slower growing, but feature large glossy leaves, colorful foliage, unique plant forms, or exotic appearances.

Some indoor plant species such as lucky bamboo (Dracaena sanderiana) have special meaning and are used to entice good luck and fortune into the household, particularly if they have been received as gifts. Other species, when grown in sufficient numbers, have been used to assist with air purification and filtration of indoor spaces. Another feature of many fern and foliage plant species commonly grown as houseplants is they can be quite hardy and survive under a range of growing conditions and light levels, making them relatively easy to care for.


Matching Plant to Environment

Within most hydroponic systems or indoor gardens there usually exists small differences in microclimates where fern or foliage plants could thrive. Ferns typically prefer a moist and humid area and many can tolerate lower light levels, so they are often well suited to the periphery of a hydroponic system or those more shady corners where fruit and vegetables are not a good option.

Ornamental foliage plants consist of a diverse range of species from those requiring fairly bright, indirect light to maintain leaf color and growth rates, to those which tolerate lower intensities. Some species produce trailing growth and are suited to positioning up higher, while others such as the ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata) can grow into fairly tall and impressive specimens and are better positioned on the floor to allow for upward growth.

Ferns and Foliage for Propagation and Profit

Ornamental foliage plants often have highly variegated and unusual foliage. Some rarer and more exotic indoor fern and foliage species can be expensive plants to purchase and are highly sought after. Hydroponic methods, particularly an environmentally controlled indoor space with sufficient warmth and lighting, can be the perfect space for propagation of these species and some have turned this skill into a profitable business. Most indoor foliage plants are grown from cutting/clones, however, a few of the quicker-growing types such as the colorful-leaved coleus, palms, and some begonias are raised from seed. More advanced methods of propagation may involve air layering and plant division. Since there is such a diverse range of ornamental foliage plants that may be grown indoors, some research into propagation methods and trial and error are often involved in multiplying plants successfully. Propagation of ferns can be a little more complex as many of these are grown from spores. This process involves collecting the brown dust like spores which form on the undersides of mature fern leaves and sowing these onto the surface of a fine medium such a peat-based seed-raising mix. These are then misted with water, covered with a plastic bag, and placed in a warm area at 65-70°F. This process is often very slow and it can take many weeks for any growth to be seen, however, large numbers of new ferns can be raised in this way.


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Systems, Growing Medium, and Nutrients

Caladium come in wide range of exotic colors and perform well in hydroponic systems. With such a diverse range of species grown for ornamental ferns and foliage, substrate, systems, and nutrients vary considerably. Ferns in general prefer a moisture-retentive medium and perform well in hydroponics perform with a fine grade of coco fiber and even with granulated or slab-based stonewool substrate. With foliage species that cannot tolerate overwatering or damp conditions and with larger specimens such a rubber plant and palms, expanded clay (LECA) and coarse-grade perlite ensure that root aeration is maximized and over saturation does not occur. Many smaller specimens can also perform well in solution culture systems like deep flow technique (DFT) and aeroponics.


Ornamental plant nutrition can be somewhat different to rapid growing hydroponics such as tomatoes and lettuce. Most of these plants are slower growing than traditional hydroponic plants and don’t require the same levels of nutrition. A general-purpose vegetative nutrient formulation is suitable for most of these types of plants, however, irrigation frequently needs to be carefully monitored and adjusted to the species and size of the plant. Self-watering hydro pots with a nutrient reservoir in the base may be used for larger ornamental plants, or manual watering with nutrient solution as required is another option for smaller plant numbers.


A selection of small ferns can provide a calm and restful environment. Fern species that thrive under hydroponic cultivation are wide and varied with foliage ranging from the soft and delicate Maidenhair (Adiantum) to more the more dramatic vase-like Birdsnest fern (Asplenium). Other common types that are suited to hydroponic systems are the large-growing Boston fern (Nephrolepis) or the smaller button fern (Pellaea). A mixed planting of ferns can provide foliage contrast and interest to an indoor garden and these low light plants should be positioned where they will receive indirect light to prevent leaf burn and bleaching. High humidity is essential for most ferns and misting with water, keeping the substrate evenly moist, and application of a diluted nutrient solution all help ensure they provide a relaxing and restful display. The most common problems encountered with ferns are drying or leaf edge burn, particularly on sensitive species such as Maidenhair, and young fronds may die back. The main cause of this issue is low humidity, which can be common where air conditioning is used in an indoor space. Double potting ferns can assist with these issues. This involves placing the main growing container inside a much larger plastic container that is lined with moist sphagnum moss and kept continuously wet.

Foliage Plants

Begonia rex is one of the most eye catching foliage plants with a wide color range. Ornamental foliage plants come in an impressive array of colors, plant forms and leaf shapes. One of the easiest and quickest foliage plants to grow (which is highly suited to hydroponic culture) is the colorful Coleus (C.blumei) also known as the flame nettle or painted nettle which is usually grown as an annual. Coleus can be raised in large numbers from seed or via cuttings and germinate rapidly giving a spectacular display in only a few weeks from germination. Begonias are another species with some excellent diversity in leaf color and shape, and will also thrive in hydroponics. Begonia rex (painted leaf begonia) are particularly colorful with deep reds, pinks, and other hues that pair well with deep-green ferns in a mixed species system.

Caladium and Syngonium (Goosefoot plant) is another other colorful, variegated, and attractive species commonly grown as houseplants that seem to perform well under hydroponic conditions and are also easy to propagate. The ponytail palm, also called elephant’s foot (Beaucarnea recurvata), is a very long-lived and slow-growing specimen plant that is not actually a member of the palm family. Small ponytail palms are often grown as indoor plants and are tolerant of a wide range of growing conditions. They can be propagated from seeds or offsets and make delightful sculptural specimens with cascading foliage and a large swollen base. Lucky bamboo (Dracaena sanderiana) has become a common gift and indoor plant that prefers indirect light, good ventilation, and temperatures between 59-72°F. This plant grows well in solution culture and is often planted in glasses or jars of water with nutrients added and replenished very few days. The stems of these plants can be trained into spiraled and twisted shapes making for a unique display when multiple stems are planted together.

Ornamental foliage plants are usually relatively easy to care for provided they have the correct degree of light and nutrition. The main issues with these types of plants are often pests such as mealy bugs or die-back due to incorrect growing conditions. While many are considered low-light plants, the amount of light required is often underestimated, resulting in slow growth, poor coloration, and weakened plants.

Ornamental ferns and foliage specimens, particularly if combined in a mixed hydroponic display, are an exciting way to create a relaxing and peaceful environment with cool greens contrasted with fiery foliage reds, variegated leaves, and sculptural forms. These plants are worth a place in any indoor garden. There may even be some profit to be made from maintaining and propagating these beauties.


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Written by Lynette Morgan | Author, Partner at SUNTEC International Hydroponic Consultants

Profile Picture of Lynette Morgan

Dr. Lynette Morgan holds a B. Hort. Tech. degree and a PhD in hydroponic greenhouse production from Massey University, New Zealand. A partner with SUNTEC International Hydroponic Consultants, Lynette is involved in remote and on-site consultancy services for new and existing commercial greenhouse growers worldwide as well as research trials and product development for manufacturers of hydroponic products. Lynette has authored five hydroponic technical books and is working on her sixth.

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