Days to germination: Not applicable, grown from crowns
Days to harvest: 1 year
Light requirements: Full sun to partial shade
Water requirements: Frequent watering
Soil: Well-drained and rich
Container: Not particularly suitable
Though fiddleheads are commonly thought of as one of those foods you have to go forage for in the woods, there is no reason why you can’t grow your own yearly crop of these tasty spring vegetables.
The fiddlehead that we think of as a vegetable is really the early coiled sprouts of several different species of fern. In many ways, fiddleheads are a lot like asparagus in that regard. Once the unharvested ferns open up, it makes for a lovely green plant in the garden.
Because different kinds of ferns can provide you with fiddleheads, you can choose the one that will grow best in your region. Some of the most common are the ostrich fern, cinnamon fern, royal fern and the vegetable fern. Not all ferns produce edible fiddleheads. Make sure you are growing one that you can eat before you start picking.
In North America, the most popular one is the ostrich fern. It can survive winters up to zone 3 and heat to zone 9. Given the variety of growing conditions for so many different plants, this article will focus on the ostrich fern to keep it simple.
You should never eat a fiddlehead raw. They can be very bitter, and have some toxic compounds in them. But they are edible and tasty when cooked.
Starting from Seed
Ferns are usually planted as young plants, or crowns rather than by seed.
Most ferns will only put out 7 branches or fronds each season, so you should never harvest more than 3 fiddleheads from each plant or you may kill it. You should keep this in mind when you are planning your fern garden. The plants take up a lot of space and only produce a few fiddleheads. Most people only grow a handful of plants, and enjoy a small crop as a spring treat each year.
Ostrich ferns can reach 4 feet in height, and should have at least 2 to 3 feet of space around them. Do not crowd your plants or you can develop problems with mildew or fungus due to the moist soil and lack of air flow. You should plant your ferns where they will get sun but also partial shade later in the hot afternoon.
Dig a hole larger than the root ball of the plant, add extra loose soil around the roots then gently press to firm it up. Keep the crown at the same soil level as it was originally in the pot.
Ferns should be planted early in the spring, but after the last frost has passed. When the first sprouts come up after planting, do not harvest any fiddleheads. Let the plant grow untouched for the first year and start picking the next spring.
Fiddleheads can spread quite vigorously by underground roots and runners. You might want to keep them growing in a part of the garden away from your main garden patch or they can take over after a few seasons.
Ferns of all types prefer constantly moist (but not soggy) soil, so you should water them frequently. A good layer of organic mulch can really help keep your ferns happy, and should keep you from having to water every day.
At the end of the season, your ferns may grow a new set of fronds that soon turn brown. These are the ones that develop the plant’s spores (ferns don’t have seeds), and its perfectly normal.
Ferns are a light-feeding plant, so you don’t need to add any extra fertilizer through the season.
Though you can grow ferns in large pots, its not the most suitable approach for a fiddlehead harvest. Since you are only going to get a few heads from each plant, you will need quite a number of pots to get a decent harvest each spring.
That said, ferns will grow in large enough containers. Ostrich ferns are probably the least suitable for pots because they have wide-reaching roots, but some of the other species may fare better. You’ll need a container of at least 10 gallons in size, and larger is definitely better.
Keep the watered frequently and don’t let the soil dry out. Though garden ferns don’t need fertilizer, ones grown in containers should have a feeding in the spring after you have picked your fiddleheads for the year.
Pests and Diseases
The usual slugs and snails can be a problem with ferns, namely because of all the moisture in the soil. There are several ways to get rid of slugs, so you can take your pick. Saucers of beer, commercial slug baits, diatomaceous earth or just pick them off by hand when you see them.
Scale can also trouble ferns, and it’s harder to get rid of. Scale are small insects with a dome-shaped shell over their backs. At first glance, they may not even look like insects, just a bump on a leaf or stem. They can be hard to get rid of because many pesticides can’t get past their shells. You’ll need a product designed specifically for scale insects.
Harvest and Storage
As mentioned above, you will only harvest a few fiddleheads from each plant in the spring. To harvest, slice the fiddlehead off at ground level before it uncurls and the leaves open up. They should only be a few inches tall.
To store, wrap them in plastic wrap to keep them from drying out, and store in the fridge. They’ll keep reasonably well for about 10 days this way. If you have more of them than you can use at once, you can freeze them. But before you do, you must blanch them in boiling water for a few minutes and immediately chill in ice water. Then they will keep for up to 8 months in the freezer.
As mentioned above, fiddleheads must be cooked. The usual way to prepare them is either by boiling or steaming and they can be served with various sauces as a side-dish.