The Treasures of Fernwood

Rick and Gail Sawyer offer the cream of woodland plants at their Maine nursery

by RUAH DONNELLY

photography by LYNN KARLIN

TO BE A GOOD NURSERYMAN, as Czech writer Karel Capek once observed, “a man must have a lucky hand in gardening, or a kind of higher grace.” This rule applies with special force to nurserymen who grow fine garden plants for shade. In recent years, astounding discoveries of plant hunters in Asia and a fresh appreciation of native flora have raised the shade gardener’s art to new heights. Only the most ardent nurseryman ventures into such challenging territory, where the struggle to acquire and propagate little-known plants is leavened by the excitement and delight of discovery.

At Fernwood, a small home-based nursery in mid-coast Maine, Rick Sawyer and his wife Gail grow a tantalizing assortment of hardy shade perennials reflecting their long love of woodland flora. Rick Sawyer spent his training years managing Weir Gardens, a distinguished wholesale nursery in Massachusetts, before opening his own nursery in 1991. The Sawyers, who are Maine natives, settled near Belfast, the state’s former poultry capital. “To us, Belfast was like a small version of Boston, with few nurseries in the area,” Gail recalls. Not surprisingly, being lovers of shade plants, they chose to live and work in deciduous woodland. They named their three-and-a-half-acre property Fernwood, after its oaken canopy and fern-studded forest floor.

BEGINNINGS

For the first few years, the Sawyers kept Fernwood afloat by selling offsets from their private plant collection and growing European ginger as a wholesale cash crop. Through contacts with fellow nurserymen and collectors, their offerings grew steadily in richness and rarity. “Our interests kept expanding,” says Gail. “We started with a love of shade plants and learned to grow more unusual varieties.” Over the years, the nursery built up stock to its current level, with some 1,500 varieties (not all available at any one time) and somewhere between 35,000 and 40,000 pots per season. “Numbers mean nothing to me,” Rick confesses. “I’d rather trade plants than sell them. I’m a plantoholic, and if I wasn’t in the business, I’d be a serious collector.”

Fernwood today is distinguished by its wealth of hardy ornamental perennials for woodland and shade, many of which are hard to grow and scarce in commerce. Among the nursery’s thousand-odd varieties of plants, gardeners can find the region’s lovely blue flag (Iris versicolor), speckled yellow meadow lily (Lilium canadense), and pale yellow wood lily (Uvularia perfoliata). Trilliums range from well-priced “mixed seedlings” to a trophy-hunter’s marvel, the double white trillium (Trillium grandiflorum ‘Flore Pleno’). Beautiful groundcover gingers (Asarum spp.) come with silvered, filigreed, or variegated foliage. Choice hepaticas include the showstopper H. transylvanica, much coveted for its showy blue flowers. A rich fern collection comprises fiddleheads, cinnamon ferns, delicate maidenhairs, crested ladyferns, twisted tattling ferns, and bold royal ferns. A nursery-propagated white lady’s slipper (Cypripedium montanum) is an uncommon wonder. Fernwood’s collection of uncommon astilbe hybrids is among the finest in the region.

RARE AND CHOICE

As a plantsman with a keen eye, Rick Sawyer has an almost supernatural ability to spot unique natural hybrids cropping up in his own garden. All plants produce oddities, of course, but none so prettily as the quiet woodlanders. “We were pretty excited when one of our Asian fairy bells [Disporum sessile] came up all white in its second year,” Rick says about an albino sport a Japanese collector would kill for. One spectacular discovery is Anemonella thalictroides ‘Snowflake’, a double white rue anemone that will be available in limited numbers in 2004.

Another exceptional find is a uniquely spreading form of the handsome native groundcover, Allegheny spurge (Pachysandra procumbens). Still under evaluation are two more desirable sports: a giant Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum commutatum) that reaches nine feet in Fernwood’s garden, and an obsidian-stemmed version of Anemonopsis macrophylla, a beautiful Japanese woodland aristocrat with nodding, waxen lavender flowers.

While the Sawyers’ plant list is not published, it is no secret that Fernwood is an emerging source for obscure Asian genera deserving a place of honor in shade gardens. In recent years, the nursery has acquired cutting-edge Chinese plants through trades with friendly connoisseurs. An outstanding example is Deinanthe caerulea, a Chinese perennial in the hydrangea family that flourishes in shade. Virtually unknown in American gardens, its mauve flower clusters were romantically described by Reginald Farrer as “a curious and lovely tone of sad pale violet.” Another uncommon find is Syneilesis aconitifolia, a woodland composite from northeast Asia whose new leaves are likened to silver parasols, silken to the touch. Mukdenia rossii is a bold, water-loving Asian saxifrage relative touted by plant hunters. For jack-in-the-pulpit fans, Fernwood offers two rare glossy-leaved Chinese relations, Pinellia pedatisecta and P. tripartita, with spadixes that whip forth like snakes from their enclosing spathes.

Fernwood’s repertoire contains a number of wild peonies, all of which are nursery-propagated. These include Paeonia tenuifolia, a blood-red fern-leaved peony from the steep hillsides of the Caucasuses, and Paeonia obovata van. alba, an elegant white-flowered form of Asian peony. The Sawyers’ own favorite is the pink-flowered Chinese species Paeonia veitchii var. woodwardii. “I love the texture on that plant,” says Rick. “It has three flowers per stem and makes great cut foliage.”

By some magic common to great nurseries, a number of plants deemed too tender in encyclopedias perform perfectly in Fernwood’s cold Zone 5. Before offering new plants to their customers, the Sawyers test thoroughly for hardiness and health. Trial plants are grown in the ground, without winter mulch, fertilizer, or what the owners call “coddling.” According to Rick, “We take the ‘annual plant’ mentality and apply it to perennials. We try to tell our customers, ‘If you want something badly enough, why not try it? All it can do is die. And if it lives, you really have something.”’ One recent miracle is Fernwood’s Cardiocrinum cordatum, a giant Japanese wood lily that is challenging to grow even in Zone 6. After producing only vegetative growth for three years, to everyone’s amazement, it bloomed in 2003.

HOSTAS WITH A DIFFERENCE

Among the Sawyers’ special loves are hostas. Of the thousands of cultivated hostas in existence, the nursery has culled about 300 fine, well-priced varieties. No matter how tired a gardener may be of hostas, these are too good to ignore. The nursery’s breeding program, which values both good looks and slug resistance, has produced such excellent new choices as ‘Fernwood’s Jimmy Crack Corn’, a golden hosta whose meaty foliage is too thick for slugs to chew, and ‘Fernwood’s Tequila Sunrise’, a curled and rippled gold hosta with a lime edge. A fresh favorite is ‘Fernwood’s Butterscotch Ripple’, a true gold hosta with corrugated, heart-shaped foliage. Rick Sawyer’s latest, yet-unnamed hybrid, a stunning lime-green plant whose plump buds produce triple white flower sets, has prompted a fierce naming competition among nursery customers—ever since Fernwood promised the first offset in exchange for the perfect moniker.

The Sawyers’ hosta collection is closely associated with Mildred Seaver, a renowned hosta breeder and mentor who exerted a major influence on Rick’s hybridizing efforts. Indeed, much of Fernwood’s original breeding stock came from Seaver seedlings shared with friends. “Mildred loves the plant and makes it fun,” says Rick. It is a special point of pride that Fernwood introduced one of Seaver’s last blue hosta seedlings, ‘Blue Plate Special’, which grew popular in the trade and has provided income for Seaver in recent years.

A THRIVING PARTNERSHIP

Both Sawyers are full participants in the operations of their nursery. Rick’s plantsmanship is legendary, resulting in some of the lushest, hardiest nursery stock in the region. Gail is responsible not only for office paperwork, finances, and promotion, but also for selecting the whimsical garden sculptures that animate the nursery grounds. Even the pets help out—the cats by hunting down voles, squirrels, and chipmunks, the dog by patrolling the grounds and urinating on trees. It is a known fact among garden guerrillas that canine urine repels deer. “Gardeners ask us what to do about deer damage,” says Rick, “and we tell them, ‘Get a dog!’ One that free-roams, too, not a couch potato.”

The Sawyers are staunch believers in the old, generous traditions that have united gardeners through the ages. They are horticultural executors to the estate of their late friend, Roger Luce, a lifelong collector and hybridizer of rare woody plants with a renowned collection in north-central Maine. “Knowing Roger really stirred our interest in trees and shrubs,” they recall. While Luce’s plant trove will be under evaluation for some years, its rich holdings of magnolias, peonies, primroses, dwarf azaleas, and rhododendrons are sure to enrich Fernwood’s plant list in future years.

The nursery’s new display pond features uncommon sun-loving plants that are making their way into the Fernwood inventory. These include excellent selections of baptisia and heather. One especially fine groundcover, said to “flower like crazy,” is a trailing, glossy-leaved sand cherry (Prunus pumila var. depressa); last year’s entire stock was scooped up by a single customer. The pond’s bog garden displays such desirable muck-lovers as carnivorous pitcher plants (Sarracenia purpurea), native orchids (Spiranthes marylandica), and yellow, double yellow, and white marsh marigolds (Caltha americana, C. americana var. multiplex, and C. camtschatica).

Fernwood offers sophisticated gardeners a warm blend of guidance and companionship. Visitors are welcome to sit under the arbor, where the Sawyers like to pause and talk to their guests in the lacy shade of climbing fumitory (Adlumia fungosa). Although Fernwood does not provide formal design services, the Sawyers encourage customers to bring photos and drawings for help in planting shady woodlands, bogs, and ponds. They sometimes have to restrain overenthusiastic consumption. “We ask people, ‘How much can you maintain yourself, in your spare time?’ Once I had to stop a woman who was buying too many plants. I told her to go home and plant the ones she had in the cart,” recalls Rick. “You can tell when people get too excited.” H

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