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.
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!
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 😉
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 😉
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.