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The Gardening Book That Changed My Life

October 2, 2009

My gardening life was transformed in the summer of 2001 when I bought a copy of Ruah Donnelly’s book The Adventurous Gardener: Where to Buy the Best Plants in New England (Horticultural Press, 2000). Donnelly’s book is an insider’s guide to specialty plant nurseries throughout the New England states, and it introduced me to a world I hadn’t known existed.

The nurseries featured in The Adventurous Gardener tend to be small (in some cases, one-person) family-run businesses, although some also have hired staff. In most cases, the owners live on the premises, so the nurseries are really extensions of their homes and gardens. These nurseries usually specialize in certain types of plants; and, unlike the garden centers and big box stores that buy plants from wholesalers and then resell them, they grow many of their own plants.

In the weeks that followed my discovery of this world, I set out to visit as many of the nurseries in the Maine chapter of the book as I could. Sometimes I would check out a single nursery that was near my home. More often, I organized day-long tours that included several nurseries and took me further afield. Sometimes I went alone; sometimes I invited a friend to join the adventure. I discovered Don Celler’s daylily nursery (see I Love Daylilies) just 15 miles from my home and Fred Davis’s amazing collection of field-grown hostas at Hill Gardens, about an hour away. I went to an open house at Eartheart Gardens, a nursery that is not usually open to the public, and got to tag along on a visit to the home and garden of the great iris hybridizer, Currier McEwen. In one day, my friend Sharon and I helped with weeding at Nick Barth’s daylily nursery and got a 2-hour personal guided tour of Jean Moss’s garden and nursery. When I visited Fernwood (about two hours away from my home), I so fell in love with Rick and Gail Sawyer’s collection of shade plants that I continue to return at least once a year. My tour of specialty nurseries continued the following spring when my mother and I visited one of the Massachusetts nurseries, Tranquil Lake, during their siberian iris peak season. Our first sight of the nursery as we came around a curve in the road was a breathtaking sea of iris blossoms in shades of blue and white; that moment is a cherished memory for both of us.

Shopping at specialty nurseries is not as convenient as shopping at garden centers or big box stores, but the gains in quality are well worth the extra effort. Because these nurseries sell fewer types of plants, their collections have much greater depth; you will almost surely discover cultivars not available elsewhere. Because they grow their own plants (many dig them for you on the spot), you get large, high-quality plants that are already adapted to local conditions. And because these nursery owners are themselves gardeners – and very knowledgeable ones – they are great sources of information and advice. I’ve never once been tempted to go back to my old garden center/big box store ways.

Recently, I checked to see if Ruah Donnelly had published a 2nd edition to update her book. Many of the nurseries that I visited in the summer of 2001 are no longer in business. Both Fred Davis and Don Celler retired from the nursery business; Jean Moss closed her one-woman operation when she discovered that she no longer had time to enjoy her garden. Just as some nurseries have closed, I’m sure that there are new gems waiting to be discovered. Donna Palmer at Plainview Farm, another nursery that I learned about through this book, tells me that a new edition is in the works, although not yet available. But, for those of you who garden in the mid-Atlantic states, I am happy to report that Ruah Donnelly has written a second nursery guide, The Adventurous Gardener: Where to Buy the Best Plants in New York and New Jersey (Horticultural Press, 2005).  If you’re not familiar with the world of small specialty nurseries, maybe this book will change your life, too.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 2, 2009 4:49 pm

    Lovely post. Wish we had nurseries like that here.

    Found you listed on Blotanical. Hope we’ll see you around there a lot.

    • Jean Potuchek permalink*
      October 2, 2009 5:07 pm

      Sue, Thanks for your comment. I’m slowly getting my profile organized on Blotanical and trying to figure out how to take advantage of all that site has to offer without making blogging my full-time job! -Jean

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