Skip to content

Spring Ephemerals at Fernwood

May 2, 2016

A little over a week ago, I traveled to Fernwood Nursery in Montville, Maine with my friend Niki for a class on spring ephemerals. Fernwood is one of the small specialty nurseries, typically extensions of the owners’ homes and gardens, that abound in Maine. I learned about many of these nurseries, including Fernwood, from Ruah Donnelly’s wonderful book The Adventurous Gardener: Where to Buy the Best Plants in New England (The Horticultural Press, 2000); I’ve learned about others through the garden and nursery visits of the Foothills Garden Club.

Even in this distinctive group of small nurseries, Fernwood is a special place. The nursery specializes in native and non-native plants for northern shade gardens. The Fernwood website describes their philosophy as follows:

Gardening should be fun. Our plants are chosen to be those that are not in need of staking, spraying, or extra mulch for overwintering. The display beds demonstrate how we use our plants in a way that is aesthetically pleasing while requiring the least amount of care.

This does not mean that Fernwood only offers tried and true shade plants. On the contrary, Rick Sawyer is a knowledgeable plantsman, experimenter, and plant breeder. If someone gives him a plant or if he sees an intriguing plant while travelling, he will plant it at Fernwood and see what happens. He propagates his own plants, including by gathering seeds of native plants from the wild, and he hybridizes plants like hosta and lily of the valley. Some of his plant introductions (like Convollaria majalis ‘Fernwood Golden Slippers’) are available from other nurseries; others are sold only at Fernwood.  Because Rick propagates his own plants for sale, plants become available throughout the nursery season; and sometimes a plant will not be available for a year or two while the nursery stock is being replenished.

Our class at Fernwood began with a slide presentation by Rick, was followed by a tour of the nursery, and ended with a delicious lunch. Rick and his wife Denise live a sustainable lifestyle in the spirit of Maine’s “back-to-the-land” movement of the 1960s and 1970s. They grow much of their own food, both plant and animal. Our lunch included sandwiches made with Denise’s home-made sourdough bread, and two of the fillings – chicken salad and egg salad – were contributed by their own chickens. Denise also raises sheep for fleece, and sells yarn made from the wool. Denise and Rick heat with wood harvested from their own land, and the slide presentation and lunch parts of our program were held in a new A-frame studio building that they built themselves. (They were working on it when I visited the nursery last fall.)

Although the subject of the presentation was “spring ephemerals,” it turned out that many of these plants are not really ephemeral in our cool Maine climate and instead retain their foliage throughout the garden season. An example is Hepatica, which will only go into dormancy if we have exceptionally hot and humid weather. This characteristic makes some of these ephemerals good choices for groundcovers in our climate.

Before the morning was over, I had learned about a number of plants that I was unfamiliar with, was thinking differently about the garden uses of some familiar plants, and had made a list of possible groundcovers for my garden. Among the flowers I would like to add to my garden are (clockwise from top left) Corydalis solida, Phlox divaricata, Paeonia veichtii, and Jeffersonia dubia) – none of which were on my radar before this class at Fernwood.

For gardeners who live in or are visiting Maine, Fernwood is a great source of unusual plants and well worth checking out.

(For some unfathomable reason, I didn’t take my camera with me to Fernwood, so all photos in this post are copied from the Fernwood website and blog.)

The Season of New Life

April 25, 2016
 porch border cleaned This season when new growth springs from the roots of winter-dormant plants never loses its magic. During the past two weeks, I’ve spent time outdoors removing the fallen leaves and old plant debris from my flower beds to reveal the new growth underneath.
Among the new life revealed by the clean-up process, I especially enjoy the lovely pleated foliage of Lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis). alchemilla new foliage

New foliage of Heuchera ‘Raspberry Regal’ and Geranium x ‘Nimbus’ have also created mounds of fresh green.

heuchera new growth 2016 nimbus new growth
goldheart new growth In the serenity garden, the new growth of the bleeding hearts (Lamprocapnos spectabilis) ‘Gold Heart’ has appeared.
And new life can also be found in the opening buds of lilac (Syringa vulgaris). lilac bud

This is a time for new life among animals as well as plants. Many migrating birds have returned and are setting up housekeeping in preparation for raising young. And along the dirt road leading to my house, these fox kits come out to play each morning at the entrance to their den.

fox kits2

First Blooms: GBBD, April 2016

April 16, 2016

crocuses 2016Last year, someone posted a list from comedian Jeff Foxworthy of “how you know you’re in New England.” One of my favorite items on the list was “You have all four seasons: almost winter, winter, still winter, and road construction.” Although I don’t think this is so true of southern New England, which usually has a lovely spring, it is a comically accurate description of northern New England, where April is more often than not “still winter.” Warm weather at the end of March this year almost lulled us into thinking winter was over; but then the first week of April brought us record-breaking cold and a reminder that it was “still winter.”

In the past week, warm temperatures have returned. Yesterday I drove out to the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens for opening day of the gardens and for the first class of my Certificate in Native Plants and Ecological Horticulture program, an orientation for this year’s new enrollees. As I drove north along the Maine coast, I noticed “road work” signs and road crews setting up to work every few miles. The Maine Department of Transportation seemed to be officially declaring that winter was over and that road construction season has begun!

The early spring plants in my garden seem to concur. The crocuses were the first to bloom and have been unfazed by cold overnight temperatures. The hyacinths, which already had well-developed buds when the extreme cold hit, did not fare as well. But they have been bravely trying to bloom, even after having their necks broken by the cold. Only one late bloomer escaped the cold and is promising an upright bloom.

broken neck hyacinth hyacinth bud upright
In the serenity garden, the first hellebores have begun to bloom. first hellebores

And everywhere in the garden, new growth is appearing and promising many more blooms in the weeks to come.

Since I spent bloom day at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, with its more temperate coastal climate and more advanced season, let me share some of the glorious first blooms on display there:

dwarf iris CMBG dwarf irises,
glory of the snow, Glory of the Snow CMBG
hellebores CMBG hellebores galore,

and drifts of cheerful daffodils.

daffodils CMBG

Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day is hosted on the 15th of each month by Carol at May Dreams Gardens. Visit her blog to see the rich array of April blooms from gardens around the world.

Bark: Tree Following, April 2016

April 12, 2016


red maple trunks_1This is my last month following my red maple (Acer rubrum). The tree has begun to flower, which is where I began last May (see Following a Tree); but my focus this month is not on the flowers, but on the bark.

One way to think of bark is as the tree’s outer skin, a layer of protection that provides insulation from cold or heat, deters insects, keeps moisture in and also keeps diseases and infections out. As the diagram below (from Forest Trees of Maine, Maine Forest Service, 2008, p. 21) shows, what we usually think of as the bark is actually the outer bark and is made up of dead cells called “cork.” Beneath the outer bark is a layer of living cells (the inner bark) that are part of the tree’s vascular system. Known as phloem, these cells transport food created through the process of photosynthesis to other parts of the plant.

Tree parts

red maple barkForest Trees of Maine is the textbook for a course on Maine trees that I am currently taking at my local Senior College. One of my goals for the course is to learn how to identify trees by their bark. (This would be especially helpful during our long winter when deciduous trees have no leaves and when I often have trouble telling them apart).

Bark may be smooth or textured, and smooth bark may have prominent breathing pores (lenticels) or not. The variety of bark textures is dizzying. One web page on tree bark from UCLA includes the following descriptors for bark texture: scaly, fissured, peeling, cracked, and furrowed. I’ve also seen descriptions of bark as “shaggy;” and Forest Trees of Maine describes the bark of mature red maple (pictured here) as “ridged and broken into plate-like scales” (p. 73).

The outer bark of a tree may be made up of dead cells, but that does not mean it is devoid of life. On the contrary, bark can provide habitat for other plants.

red maple with moss At the base of this tree, the bark is providing a home for mosses,
…and several different types of lichen are growing on the trunk.
red maple bark w lichens1
red maple bark w lichens2

Getting to know this red maple tree over the past year as part of the tree-following meme graciously hosted by Pat English at Squirrel Basket has helped me to appreciate what marvelous plants trees are.

Next month, I will choose a new tree and get to know it by following it for a year.

Becoming a Better, More Knowledgeable Gardener

April 5, 2016

garden science booksGardening is always a learning process. Mostly gardeners learn by doing and by trial and error. I also like to learn from others – by interacting with other gardeners, by reading gardening books, and by attending garden lectures. This year, I have embarked on a more systematic project of becoming a better gardener by deepening the roots of my gardening knowledge, especially learning more about the scientific basis of gardening. I’ve been wanting to take the Master Gardener certification course for many years; and now that I’m retired, I can finally make the time commitment to do this.

imageThere are Master Gardener programs in every state of the United States. In Maine, the program is run by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. The course to become a Master Gardener is a serious college-level horticulture  course, consisting of fourteen weeks of 3-hour classroom sessions, an additional 3-hour field class, and lots of homework in between to prepare for these classes.

My primary motivation for taking the Master Gardener course was to get the horticulture knowledge that it provides (I don’t think I’m alone in this), but the full name of the program is Master Gardener Volunteers, with the goal of training volunteers to work with and help gardeners in their communities. In order to become certified as a Master Gardener, trainees must complete 40 hours of approved volunteer work within one year of passing the course. Keeping the certification requires a minimum of 20 hours of volunteer work each year after the initial year.

Since one of my goals for retirement is to contribute to my community through volunteer work that draws on my interests and skills, this is perfect for me. The Cooperative Extension educators who run our program are providing some opportunities for trainees to get a jump start on their 40 hours of required volunteer work by doing some supervised volunteer work before we have completed the course. Next week, I will attend a meeting to get matched with a Master Gardener and begin contributing my volunteer time to staff the extension service’s Horticulture Answer Line. This volunteer opportunity is a great match for me. My role will be to field questions from the public (often about problems they are encountering in their gardens) and to find answers to those questions, drawing on the resources of the extension service’s library and with help from my Master Gardener mentor. In this way, my volunteer service will draw on my teaching and research skills and will also further deepen my knowledge.

imageIn recent years, the University of Maine Cooperative Extension program has responded to high levels of food insecurity in Maine by focusing the Master Gardener training course on growing vegetables and fruit in Maine. The core classes on soil science, botany, and composting apply just as much to ornamental gardening as to growing food, but there is no explicit focus on ornamentals. For this reason, I’ve decided to complement my Master Gardener training with a course of study that does focus on ornamental gardening, the Coastal Maine Botanical Garden’s Certificate in Native Plants and Ecological Horticulture. This will be a multi-year commitment on my part, but the courses in the program are short and intensive (1-3 days in a row) and are primarily field courses. Next week, I will travel out to Boothbay, Maine (a little less than two hours from my house) for a registration and orientation session for new students in the program. I am also signed up for three courses this spring and summer: a two-day course on soil science, a three-day course on botany, and a one-day course with Doug Tallamy on “Gardening for Wildlife.”

I am excited by these opportunities to become a more knowledgeable, and therefore a better, gardener.

Signs of Spring

March 21, 2016

Yesterday was the vernal equinox, the first official day of spring. Usually at this time of year, the first sign of spring is the sound of snow melting off the roof under the influence of the season’s stronger sun and longer days. (See The Sound of Spring Arriving.) This year is different, however. spring bulbs emergingIn a pattern typical of El Nino years, our winter has been warmer than average (actually, much warmer than average), and it has been relatively dry as the prevailing storm track has taken most of the snow out to sea to the south of Maine. The result was that the snow was already pretty much gone, from both the roof and the garden, when spring arrived.

In response to our early warmth and snow melt, other signs of spring have arrived earlier than they would in a normal year. Yesterday, as I drove along rural roads, I noticed some maple trees with flower buds, and two robins flew low across the road directly in front of me. And in my garden, as though on schedule, I found these little nubs of spring bulbs poking up through the ground.

Today, those signs of spring are buried under a few inches of spring snow. But I know they are there and that they mean spring has arrived.

Waiting for Spring: GBBD, March 2016

March 16, 2016

march garden no snowDespite some unseasonably warm, spring-like days and an early snow melt, I am still waiting for spring to arrive in my Maine garden. There are some signs of new growth here and there, like on hardy geranium plants, Heuchera ‘Raspberry Regal’, Sedum spurium, and this aster in a protected spot that I don’t think ever truly went into dormancy. But there are no signs yet of spring bulbs poking up through the soil or of flower buds on the hellebores.

spring growth

For blooms, I am still dependent on indoor plants, and even there flowers are scarce. One by one, my faithful potted cyclamen plants are preparing to rest, with only one last red and one last white flower still in bloom.

red cyclamen last flower white cyclamen last flower
I had hoped to have an amaryllis bulb blooming at this time, but the flowers of  Hippeastrum ‘Picotee’ faded over a week ago and none of the other amaryllis plants that I was hoping would provide March blooms put up flower stalks this year. picotee blooms
orchid in bloom Thank goodness for the orchid that my friend Anne brought me as a thank-you gift when I kept her family’s cat for a  week while they were vacationing in Florida; its beautiful flowers will have to keep me going until spring finally arrives here.
orchid bloom

I am a day late, but Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day is hosted on the fifteenth of each month by Carol at May Dreams Gardens. Visit her blog to see blooms in gardens where spring has already arrived.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 365 other followers