Spring is very nearly here (I actually worked in shorts yesterday!), the Hellebores are just starting to come into their own, so it's time to get rid of the dying Fern fronds from last year. How to tell if they are deciduous ferns? If the leaves have gone black and horrible, or look as though they have been flattened by an elephant, then they're deciduous!
I'm always banging on about cutting back once, cutting back hard, and this certainly applies to Ferns. Once you are certain that they are “over”, cut each frond back right to the very base, right to the knobbly brown bit: don't just grab a handful of fronds and hack them off several inches above the base - all that does is leave you with a tuft of untidy dying stems to catch wind-blown leaves, and to spoil the look of the bed. And, what's more to the point, if you don't cut back hard, you won't be able to see the wonderful new curly fronds as they start to unfold in spring.
So cut back right to the base: they don't need to retain the old leaves for frost protection (unless you live in a very exposed and particularly frost-prone part of the country), and leaving the dead fronds in place might be a slight benefit for over-wintering insects, but is more likely to create Slug Hotels, and personally I have quite enough slugs and snails eating away at “my” gardens, without encouraging them!
You will often read phrases like “when you see new fronds emerging, you can clear away the old fronds...” but this is really bad advice: for a start, with the old fronds cluttering up the place, you can't easily see if your new fronds are emerging. And you will then find it really difficult to gently snip off the dead fronds without damaging the tender new ones, so it's better all round to do them once they are no longer attractive to look at.
The first picture shows one of my enormous ferns, a very old and knobbly fellow: as you can see, the leaves are actually still quite green, but they are lying down instead of standing up like a shuttlecock, and this means that they need to be removed.
The second photo is half-way through the exercise, to show you how hard I cut them back, and the third shows the final thing, all fronds removed, revealing a large number of tight, tan-coloured knobbles which are this year's new fronds, just waiting to start unrolling. (It also reveals a mass of moss which I then had to carefully tease out!)
I'm not quite sure why, but I never put dead ferns onto the compost - they always go on the bonfire heap. I think I worry about all those spores... and I suspect that fern fronds, like Hellebore leaves, are a bit too “tough” to make good compost. Although I'd be interested to hear your comments - do you compost your fern fronds?
In the meantime, all we have to do is wait for the first of those fabulous knobbles to start unwinding itself!