Fernwood Nursery in Hubbards, Nova Scotia

My old plant-loving compatriot, Iain Jack, has opened what else but an online fern nursery at his home in Hubbards, Nova Scotia.

Iain was an awesome member of our team when I owned my garden store, Hortus Urbanus, in Old Ottawa South for ten years between 1997 and 2007.  He was with us for a couple of years and when he left, we were all very sorry to see him go.  He left to return to Nova Scotia, where he and his partner had purchased a house — and being a Maritimer, he heard the call of the sea.

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I did an interview with Iain asking him about his new life making plants and here are his words…

In brief, what is your career history?

Horticulture and social work have been the two major career themes in my life.  Some people don’t see a connection (both nurturing professions, I say),  but I’ve even been lucky enough to find a few ways to combine my interest in plants and people. For example, community development with community gardening groups, recreational horticulture with persons with dementia, running my own nursery…and botanical ‘retail therapy work’, like at Hortus Urbanus

And your connection with Nova Scotia?

I grew up in the Annapolis Valley an agricultural area in NS. When I was a kid it was all about the apples. Now there’s a lot of vineyards. NS is very international these days ;)

In the 1980’s when I was leaving Halifax for big city Ontario, more than one person said to me before I left “you’ll be back; they always come back.”  I guess it was true.  We bought our current home in St Margaret’s Bay, just south of Halifax, in 1998 and have loved living by the sea since. Peter’s a big sea kayaker.  I like it too, but for me it should be more like being in a hammock!

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Isn’t it cold there?

As you might’ve been hearing on the news these days, NS can have some pretty awesome weather. The Atlantic ocean moderates (Z6a here), but it also rages sometimes.  As a growing environment, though, I can grow a lot more than I could when I was a gardener in Ottawa.  As a producer, I’m able to test the limits of a wider variety of plants to (my) garden situations as well.  The limits of tree ferns are still for the folks in SW BC, oh well ;)

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Ferns?  Are you crazy?  Aren’t they boring?  (I ask as devil’s advocate…)

I think it might be like other things, once you start to notice the differences and details of something it can become endlessly fascinating.  Ferns are that way to me.  The shapes of fronds,  the different forms, habits and colours, even spores under a microscope – there’s a huge diversity, and so much new stuff to learn.  Growing them form spore makes for a good horticultural challenge because of their life cycle – It’s like I discovered penicillin every time a sowing is successful!  Yay me!  As a gardener, and a lover of woodlands, ferns are essential.  They can be formal, perfect vases, relaxed groupings, to downright-unrestrained ground covers. “50 shades of green” doesn’t begin to cover the subtle range in the fern colour palette, not to mention various tones of red, mustard, purple and silver.  Fiddleheads are often covered with hairs or scales in silvers, bronze, gold, and black.  And then I discovered dry land and alpine ferns.  Well, you know how that story goes – mountaineering anyone?  Not really, not yet! See? very inspiring ;)

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Ferns were very popular in Victorian times and shortly after in more than just horticulture, including art and architecture. The fern crosier was much-loved in art-deco.  Really neat imagery and symbology.

I’ll tell you what is boring; having deer browse your entire garden. When I was considering a nursery start-up, one of the main criteria in crop selection was its palatability to deer. No, seriously.  I have a strong interest in the native plants of this area, and that took me to ferns. There’s 50+ species in the Acadian forest region alone.  Not so much when compered to thousands in tropical parts of the world, but enough to keep me out hiking to see them for quite a long time.

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I also had the good fortune to meet the operators of two separate fern specialty nurseries in the Seattle area when I was there a few years ago. Even though NS and Canada is a smaller market, I felt affirmed that ferns could make a great mail order crop and that there could be a greater interest in using them if folks knew more about ferns and could get plants that solved their landscape problem.  Hence Fernwood’s mission: “to explore and promote the diversity and landscape value of native and hardy exotic ferns.”

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Unlike cloned plants, spore-grown ferns can show a good amount of individual variation.  Wholesalers and mass purchasers wouldn’t probably like that kind of variety, but I’m excited by the small differences that can show up in any batch.

What does your day look like being the “Fern Guy”?

It really depends on the season, of course.  There’s always some spore sowing on the go.  Sowing trays are sealed to hold humidity (then it’s waiting and not a lot of direct intervention) and temperature and lighting is important to regulate.

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It’s about this time of year I start getting invitations to talk about ferns to gardener and field naturalist groups.  I really like those gigs.  Whether it’s natural history or container gardening, folks are usually gung-ho to hear about something that’s not been talked about before.

In the spring I like ‘market fern guy’ day.  I work alone quite a bit, so a chance to interact and maybe chat is fun.

Summer fern guy spends a good amount of time looking after watering at the nursery. Small pot sizes mean I don’t use a lot of water for irrigation, which is good, but they dry out more quickly than larger ones, and need more regular attention. Any kind or amount of automation is helpful here, I think.

People probably think of NS as a foggy, mossy place (and it is), but our forests can be rocky, and dry in the summer.  So, ferns hardening off outdoors may need supplemental watering as well. The other, more fun thing, I do in the summer is collect spore.  It kind-of seems my head is constantly down looking at every fern for “ripe” spores, here in my own collection, or out-and-about anywhere there’s ferns really.  Ailsa, I carry a jeweler’s lens around my neck with me now for examining ferns…I’m a real fern nerd, of sure.

What is your Cairn terriers name?  Does he/she eat/dig/destroy your garden?

Jock. He and our Sheltie Lucy are out working with me most days, so he’s never by himself, which is when cairn’s take everything upon themselves, I think.  Also, we decided early to focus on ‘chase the ball’ as his obsession and were careful to never activate his ‘terroir” gene ;)

Is operating a fern nursery everything you imagined it would be?

And more!  Really!  Right now I’m a one person operation, so I really do operate ‘everything.’  I like that aspect of running my own nursery. That said, and truth be told, I wouldn’t know how to use my ‘smart phone’ without Peter, my partner and biggest supporter.  He’s helped me assess and plan the idea for the nursery.  Even though any one task probably wouldn’t satisfy me all day, that hardly ever happens, and I’m usually going happily from task-to-task.  You know how many things you have to do just to get ready to mix soil, right?  There’ always something to do and if it doesn’t get beyond your comfort, I think that’s great.

What’s the best thing about your life now and what is the worst?

Working with the days and seasons, without a doubt, is the one of the best.  I hope it won’t sound too hokey, but I find it way easier to get with schedule imposed by the rhythm of the growing seasons than with one imposed by a clock and calendar.  One of the worst things – I’m terrible with any kind of schedule and I work by myself!  More seriously, whether it’s business planning, horticultural problem-solving, or collaborative design, I don’t get to enjoy and benefit from working directly with others in the same way I could in other jobs.  So I look for those opportunities when I m able.

How many varieties of fern do you sell?

There’s over 50 different species and varieties in my collection right now.  Not all those are for sale at any one time though. Each species has it’s own production cycle, which means there’s usually a few different things available each year.  I try and make sure there’s always something for each type of situation gardeners might have, from moist or dry soils in shade, to wet or dry areas in sun, and anything in between.  Or as I like to say, “there’s a fern for that spot.”  I’ve collected my stock plants from jas many sources as possible, including: imports from large US wholesale growers, donations of spores from other growers, membership in fern society spore exchanges, occasional purchases from seed companies when available, and the odd find at a local garden centre.

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What is your favourite fern?

Each next one I look at – honestly!

Ok…Maidenhair Spleenwort,  Asplenium trichomanes.  It’s the cutest little native evergreen fern for moist rock gardens and rock walls in shade to part sun.  But so international as well;  in the UK, I think (except for it’s gorgeous cultivars) it’s considered “common” for it’s habit of growing in every rocky nook and cranny.  Here it’s a much less common treasure, but is equally great for those rocky places that need special detail.  Keep it up close to an edge where it can be admired.

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Who are your customers?

Nova Scotia gardeners have been great supporters, inviting me to their annual convention twice, traveling to the annual Rare & Unusual Plant Sale held in Annapolis Royal and purchasing some ferns, finding me at farmers markets, or visiting the Fernwood while out on garden tours.  Local gardeners seem genuinely excited to know its okay to admire and include ferns in their cultivated spaces. Because of our semi-rural location and small population, Fernwood has always been planned to grow further as an online, mail-order nursery.  Speaking as someone who really knows what “gardening on the edges” means, geographically anyway, I’m also excited about the idea of making cool plants available to folks who don’t necessarily live near a large garden centre.  So far, I’ve shipped plants to Ontario, Quebec, and NB. and with great feedback, so I feel confident about how well my ferns ship.  They are a shade crop after all, so a few days in a box under the right conditions is pretty easy for them.

How do people get their hands on your ferns?

There’s a catalogue on the Fernwood website that describes all the ferns I’m currently growing. There are annual spring and summer availability lists posted there too. The availability lists have an order form that includes pricing and shipping information.  I ship plants using Canada Post’s expedited parcel service, at cost. It offers the most economical rates and can easily reach most places in Canada within a week. It’s different for everywhere so people should check the order form. I’m still figuring it out as well, because cost is partly weight and the balance between moisture for the plant and too much weight is important in both respects. Water’s heavy! Anyway, not to be evasive, it probably wouldn’t be too far off to say you could get about a dozen Fernwood plants to the more populated areas of Ontario for under $20 shipping. 12 plants! Not bad, in my experience. Remember, all plants are alive and in active growth. No dormant, bare root material sold.

After this season I’m looking forward to working on the online cataloguing and purchasing component of the website. I keep wanting to get photos up, and that’ll be a great time to incorporate images.  For now i’m not really starting anything new until I’m able to convince the city that a 50’ greenhouse isn’t industrial agriculture! and the scourge of rural suburbia …

I ship ferns when they’re well-established in 4” pots. At that stage they’re still small enough to ship economically, and at the best size for success in most applications.  Prices are between $7-10, varying by type and depending on challenge and length of time to produce (for example, a few can be ready in 18 months, but others can take 3 years to get to a salable/plantable size).  At local sales I often have larger sizes available at different prices.

Dreaming of containers….

Is it too early to be talking about container planting?  Is it ever?

I don’t think so.

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These glorious containers are just about the first thing you see when you venture into the wonderland that is Chanticleer Garden near Philadelphia.  The tricks here include: large containers with drainage holes, clustering or grouping those containers, choosing similar or complementary colours and shapes with your containers, and using  bold plants.  Not simply annuals, but tropicals for scale and oomph, as well as interesting shapes, colours and textures.  If you have a spot where your planters will get morning sun and afternoon shade (or filtered light), your options are practically endless.

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What is striking about this planting is the juxtaposition of context (i.e. modern galvanized trough planters, pea stone and monochrome background) and raucous display — a riot of bright colour (angel wing begonia), loose grasses (purple fountain grass) and dripping chartreuse edgers (golden creeping jenny).

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In contrast, here is a simple but no less striking container planting using foxtail fern (Asparagus densiflorus ‘Meyersii’) in a classic glazed pot.  What I love is the movement in this fern, which aptly looks like sea anemones swaying in the ocean.   I found it in the courtyard of the Florida Botanical Gardens in Largo.

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…and here is a similar tropical container planting on steroids!  At Longwood Gardens, everything is big.  Asparagus fern plants billow out from a classic terracotta pot while the striking leaves of elephant ears (or giant alocasia/taro  known botanically as Macrorrhiza maki) erupt from the centre.  This kind of knock your socks off container planting needs lots of water and nutrients to keep it looking lush and green.

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More BIG displays at Longwood, which is not surprising since it reflects the wealth and ceremony of the DuPont name.  This purple and silvery-blue display uses an antique urn to showcase the deadly century plant (Agave americana) underplanted with everblooming fan flower (Scaevola aemula).

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This squat agave, with no less deadly spines, is called Palmer’s century plant (Agave palmeri) and is actually the largest agave found growing in the United States.

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Big, bold displays using tropicals and annuals are what’s needed at a home’s entrance.  Although this home is facing south, the front door is located on a covered porch so the planters flanking it must be shade tolerant.  I used palms for height, decorative leafy begonias for oomph, angel wing begonia for bright colour and some simple english ivy for more trailing effect.  The display is so lush you don’t need an attractive container when all is said and done!

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Planters that grace public areas on frequented sidewalks have to present a unique face to the world.  They have to be lush from the get-go, with plants that intermingle with each other and knit together so yanking any one out is next to impossible.  Take that, vandals!

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So take a lesson from these planters for this coming spring: plant lush, plant full and plant with a sensitive eye to colour and texture.  You can’t lose!

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The Secret Gardener Nursery

More relationships break up in January than any other month I read.  Also more people sign up for gym and dating site memberships. January is tough enough.  Let’s try to make it a tiny bit easier.

On my garden tour trip last summer, we visited a charming plant nursery in Hudson, New York, called The Secret Gardener. IMG_0674Behind a vintage wrought iron gate, this nursery is clearly a work of love and attention. IMG_0676Our first view was after closing and we peered in and saw the beautiful pots, colourful vignettes and wood framed building that housed the cash counter and a selection of choice tools and accessories. IMG_0863We made a point of returning the next day before it closed and were delighted to walk around the beautifully curated sales and growing areas, carefully avoiding being drenched by the plumes of water. IMG_0868A boulder dressed in lichen and moss, an rusted iron table with a bright red dump truck planter and everywhere you look, artfully orchestrated plantings.IMG_0866   Not simply arrangements in planters, but striking islands of colour and joyful perennials bursting from the ground.         IMG_0854   Even opportunities for moments of repose.  This could be your garden!       IMG_0858   But here in this nursery, there is always work to be done …propagating…   IMG_0856   ….watering…. IMG_0860   ….deadheading and primping…. IMG_0873   If you’re in this neck of the woods, it would be unfortunate if you didn’t visit this unique nursery.  Because there aren’t many like it.  And you will be deeply and deliciously inspired. IMG_0874

Memories

Christmas is near upon us and I tend to revisit memories of my childhood this time of year.  This is especially true now because memories are hard to come by in our family right now.  Unless they’re distant memories — and by distant I mean before I was born.  Let me explain.

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(Above) My parents, with Skye photo-bombing, about 10 years ago.

My folks are now both in their ‘twilight’ years and with age has come memory loss.

The way dementia (or Alzheimer’s disease) works is it robs you of your most recent memories — what you had for lunch, how that new-fangled toaster works, that you have something on the stove … What remains are the memories of your youth.  As the disease progresses, you may understand that the person who says, “Hi Mom” is your daughter, but you may not recognize them if you pass them in a public place.  You may be quite sure that no one has told you that you had a doctor’s appointment and then become irate if you are reminded that you had in fact been told.

There is much to learn about how best to have a conversation with someone who has lost much of their memory.

You proceed tentatively, for you’re not quite sure where the edges are crisp or already blurred.

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“Do you remember the teepee we built in the backyard and how we would spend hours pretending to be ‘Indians’, living off the land?”

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“Do you remember when you used to take us to look at the autumn colours in Gatineau Park?”

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“Do you remember when I was a toddler?”

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“Do you remember your wedding day?”

The answers might all be ‘no’ and the absence of these memories tragic, but thankfully, that is not all that matters …

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Country garden transformation, Part II: stone retaining walls and steps

I am so jealous. Can I live by a lake, far from town, surrounded by trees, chipmunks and birds? In a beautiful little blue house, with gardens all around?

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But wait, there is a problem: the stone walls holding this jewel-box house on the hillside have been built by someone not qualified to do such a serious job — just how unqualified they were rang true when they began to dislodge, exposing the glue (yes, I said glue) that held one course to the next. Enter Jo Hodgson, who was trained or more likely, had the skills of dry stone walling imprinted on her soul in the Derbyshire Dales of England.

Last year she began the transformation here at Jeff’s house: look here for the first chapter. But of course before the work could be done (or re-done properly), things had to be undone.

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And slowly, surely, and magically the new walls took shape.

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The walling job that Jo has been working on this year at Jeff’s house in the Quebec countryside is monumental, probably one of the most challenging she has done, Jo says.  The house is perched on a hillside overlooking a picturesque, quiet lake with the front door off the road and the rear sliding doors a full eight feet below that grade.  So the wall at the rear corner of the house is tall, to be brief, and the stone steps that hug it are built into that elegantly curving wall.

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IMG_1464 On the inside of this solidly built retaining wall is a  garden that will become a hot bed of reds, oranges, golds and sapphires.  It will encircle a small round lawn — hard to imagine at this stage so I will have to return next summer to show it to you in all its glory.  It will be the primary garden that visitors will see as they approach the house.

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The giant steps that descend toward the the rear of the house hug the wall and will be planted with mother-of-thyme, a perennial that can be tread upon without fear of harm.  Rather than the rich soil which has been deposited in the garden beds, these stair sections will be filled with recycled earth, rocks and all, allowing the plants to thrive in the thin soil they prefer.

IMG_1546   This wondrous new landscape, with walls borne out of magic, sweat, vision and grit, and gardens providing pleasure in all seasons, is Jeff’s retirement present to himself.  And the gardens will indeed consume him.

IMG_1404   And if I’m lucky, I’ll be invited back next year when all is complete. And I will share with you his completed private paradise.

Got any great fall photos?

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My friends at the Glebe Report are holding a photo contest.

It’s a “fall harvest” photography contest — so anything from gardens, flowers, plants, decorations, veggies etc. The contest entry period runs until Friday, October 10, midnight EST. Then, the voting for “best photo” takes place via Twitter on the 11th. The winner will receive an $85 gardening gift basket from Capital Home Hardware.

Go here for more details are at: http://www.glebereport.ca/contest

Good luck everyone!

 

To cut or not to cut?

Autumn always brings a certain anxiety in the gardening me.  To clean up or not to clean up?

It’s true that our spring season is so fast it seems but a whisper before the heat of summer — so leaving too much to do until then is a fool’s folly (is that a redundant expression?)  But taking down the glory that is autumn is just wrong when it is so beautiful —

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Reds, like the flashing fiery foliage of dwarf burning bush (Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’) and late season colour of Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’, are set off against the complementary green provided by Cotoneaster dammeri ‘Coral Beauty’, Iris pseudoacorus and Paeonia lactiflora.  The Cotoneaster and peony leaves have yet to show their full autumn colour but will soon enough.  The powdery blue of upright juniper (Juniperus scopularum ‘Wichita Blue’), blue fescue grass (Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’) and donkey tail spurge (Euphorbia myrsinites) provide a striking foil for the reds — perhaps their true destiny through all the preceding months.

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In advance of the Cotoneaster display, which will include bright red berries, the lace shrub puts on a show of it’s own with delicate, cascading golden foliage.

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Lavender joins the glaucous club while the blue trim of the house relates to them all.

Happily, the blues don’t need cutting, nor do the shrubs.  I took advantage of this visit to cut down the shasta daisy (Leucanthemum x superbum) but there will have to be a return visit after the first hard frost to continue cutting…

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