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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.)

15 Comments leave one →
  1. May 3, 2016 7:43 am

    It sounds like Carolyn’s Shade Gardens and Fernwood have the same philosophies and do the same thing. What a great day you had.

    • May 10, 2016 9:33 pm

      Carolyn, I always think of you when I visit Fernwood, and I’ve often thought that you would enjoy the place and the people for whom this nursery is a labor of love.

  2. May 3, 2016 1:08 pm

    I’ve always loved Hepatica (not that I’ve actually ever seen it in person) but it’s on that long list of plants that wouldn’t grow in my corner of the country. All those you’ve identified as prospects for your garden are lovely. I’ve tried growing some forms of Corydalis but, at best, they survive a year here.

    • May 10, 2016 9:35 pm

      Kris, I am often smitten by plants which it turns out will not survive our winters or, at best, are marginal for this zone. One of the ways in which Fernwood inspires me is that it only sells plants that are happy growing in our cool climate. I don’t yet have Hepatica in my garden, but I’m looking forward to adding some.

  3. debsgarden permalink
    May 3, 2016 11:03 pm

    I am always a little sad to see my ephemerals disappear, though my hepatica actually does usually persist year round. It is one of my favorite woodland flowers, and I love the foliage as much as the blooms.

    • May 10, 2016 9:38 pm

      Deb, Hepatica is more heat-tolerant than I realized, if it will persist year round in your warm climate. That means that I can probably count on its foliage throughout the growing season in my garden, which is helpful to know as I think about where to plant it.

  4. May 4, 2016 9:25 am

    Love this — and how nice that you now have the time to treat yourself to these sort of learning experiences. 🙂 It’s also interesting to see what’s blooming in various zones.

    • May 10, 2016 9:39 pm

      Kevin, It turn s out that being able to treat myself to varied learning experiences is one of the great joys of retirement.

  5. May 4, 2016 7:28 pm

    I love both Corydalis solida and Phlox divaricata but had not considered them for ground cover….I bet that was a wonderful visit.

    • May 10, 2016 9:40 pm

      Donna, The class at Fernwood was both enjoyable and very enlightening. It greatly expanded my horizons in thinking about groundcover plants for my garden.

  6. May 5, 2016 6:45 pm

    What fun to learn new plants that will be happy in your garden!
    Instead of the list we trip over – I wish I could grow that …

    • May 10, 2016 9:42 pm

      Diana, That was definitely one of the great pleasures of this outing — knowing that I could grow most of the plants Rick was introducing us to in my garden (the exceptions are the ones that need lots of moisture).

  7. May 6, 2016 10:44 pm

    The Hepaticas are real beauties. Terrific that many ephemerals keep their foliage through the summer in the Maine woods.

    • May 10, 2016 9:42 pm

      Jason, I love the Hepaticas too. I’m looking forward to adding some to my garden.

  8. May 14, 2016 2:21 am

    Love that opening double bloodroot photo. The flower looks like an improbable cousin to some waterlilies though I’m sure their ancestors split way back. It looks like you’re enjoying the wondering changes of spring!

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