The lovely Fernwood Botanical Garden is located in Niles, Michigan, a town of about 12,000 in the southwest part of the state. Niles is very close to the Michigan – Indiana state line – just a few miles in fact. From Niles, it’s only a short distance to South Bend, IN …
Fernwood began as the country home of Kay and Walter Boydston, who purchased the first 12.5 acres in 1941. During the years that followed, Fernwood became a popular gathering place for those who shared Kay’s love of nature, horticulture, and the arts.
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In 1964 Fernwood became a public place through the efforts of Niles philanthropists Lawrence and Mary Plym. Additional land purchases increased the size to 105 acres, providing space for an arboretum, prairie restoration, and additional gardens.
Fernwood’s mission is to enrich people’s lives by awakening and deepening their appreciation of nature and the possibilities of harmony between people, plants, gardens, and wildlife.
Exploring the grounds …
There’s a lot to explore at Fernwood Botanical Garden so wear comfortable shoes. On this visit we primarily focused on the gardens and part of the Nature Preserve due to time constraints.
As you can see from the map below, the southwestern portion of the Fernwood property contains several lovely theme gardens and the Visitor’s Center, Nature Center, and Education Center.
Love this idea … families visiting Fernwood can borrow backpacks with activities to do while exploring the grounds. For instance, the Birds Backpack includes binoculars, field guides, and checklists. The Gardens Backpack contains scavenger hunts, books on plants and flowers, an insect field guide, and a bug box. Clever idea to engage all ages in nature fun!
As we strolled the grounds, I noticed a lot of color from the prairie wildflowers in bloom: Smooth Blue and Small White Asters, Bottle Gentian. and Showy Goldenrod … caught my eye and peppered the landscape with early fall color.
A series of trails run through Fernwood’s five acre reconstructed tallgrass prairie. The views along the way change remarkably as the growing season progresses. Early in the season, one can see across the entire prairie from anywhere along the path. By late summer, when the tall grasses mature, one’s view may be restricted to only a few feet ahead.
The Railway Garden
Follow four trains on various levels of track as they pass favorite local landmarks made of all-natural materials, cross bridges, enter tunnels, and skirt ponds and waterfalls. The outdoor Railway Garden is open from May through the end of October.
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A detailed miniature garden featuring dwarf evergreens, specially pruned trees, alpine plants, and natural materials such as stones, branches, and moss are complementary features of the Railway Garden. Fun for kids of all ages!
The Fern Conservatory
The Kay Boydston Fern House, named for Fernwood’s founder who was a skilled grower, propagator, and hybridizer of ferns also contains an indoor railway garden. Rocky cliffs occupy the center of this 1,000-square-foot conservatory, with a waterfall cascading down to a small pond at one end.
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More than 100 kinds of tropical ferns grow in the rocks and nearby beds, along with a bevy of interesting companion plants. Goldfish inhabit the pond and visitors occasionally see frogs in wet hollows among the rocks.
The Japanese Garden
We discovered that Fernwood’s Japanese Garden is a variation of a Japanese dry garden. Gravel represents water and is raked to imitate the flow of the water. Benches around the edge of the garden can be used for sitting, meditating, and pondering the shapes, forms, and colors in the garden.
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Many of the forms represent symbols. For example, the two islands in the gravel represent the “turtle” and the “crane,” both of which symbolize longevity.
The Herb & Sensory Garden
The Herb and Sensory Garden was designed to engage visitors’ senses and inform them about the many uses of herbs, both present and past. More than 200 kinds of herbs are displayed in an adapted English design.
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Occupying the center of the garden is a stone dovecote, a traditional garden structure. The various beds feature plants used for seasonings, spices, teas, dye-cloth, insect repellents and much more. This garden also includes a sensory trail with beds that appeal to our senses of smell, taste, sight, touch, and sound.
Nature Preserve and Hiking Trails
Fernwood’s 55-acre nature preserve is both strikingly beautiful and unusually diverse. A 125-foot drop in elevation has given rise to several natural communities, including dry and wet forests, young second-growth woods, streams and ponds, and a carefully reconstructed tallgrass prairie.
Trails of varying length provide access to the preserve. Some climb steeply while … others offer gentle grades. All are kept simple so visitors remain close to nature. Surfaces are wood-chipped or bare earth, and there are steps on hilly portions and boardwalks over wet areas. Benches provide places to rest and observe the peaceful surroundings.
Other Things of Interest in the Area …
Fernwood is actually a couple miles west of Niles, just north of another southwest Michigan town, Buchanan. We actually drove through Buchanan to get to the garden. Buchanan features a compact walkable downtown district with a few interesting shops and conveniences, including the wonderful and inviting McCoy Creek Tavern on Front Street in the heart of downtown …
A comfortable family owned and operated place, McCoy Creek Tavern offers all the necessities you want in a local restaurant/bar. Local beer on tap? Check. In addition to tried and true domestics, there’s a rotating selection of Bell’s Brewery beers made in nearby Kalamazoo. Approachable menu with daily specials? Check. You’ll find a full selection of burgers, sandwiches, appetizers, and more. Daily specials include Taco Tuesdays, Friday fish fry, Italian Beef night, and Wing Wednesday, among others …
We enjoyed a terrific lake perch sandwich (a specialty in these parts), grilled cheese and chili, and a couple tasty Bell’s beers. Slip into one of the comfortable booths or sidle up to the long front bar for a true local tavern experience. Our kind of place! McCoy Creek Tavern is on our must stop list any time we’re in the area and we hope it’s on yours too …
Further West Toward Lake Michigan
U.S. Route 12 is the main east – west non Interstate thoroughfare in southern Michigan. Decades ago before I-94, Route 12 was the main route from Chicago to Detroit …
Fernwood Botanical Garden is only about 20 miles west from the shores of Lake Michigan. From Niles and Buchanan going west toward the lake, you’ll pass through the picturesque small town of Three Oaks. This small hamlet of about 1,700 is in the heart of Berrien County, just six miles from New Buffalo and the lake …
For a small community, Three Oaks has always had a lot to offer. You can easily spend the better part of a day here, wandering in and out of the shops on Elm Street, the town’s main drag. We happened to visit during a popular annual event, the Three Oaks Wurst Festival & Car Show … it seemed the whole town turned out to enjoy the community spirit!
Among the many highlights of Three Oaks are Drier’s Market, a meat market and butcher shop that seems wonderfully suspended in time. Drier’s has been around for well over a century and smoke their own meats on site. Insider Tip: Pick up a few of their natural casing hot dogs along with a jar of Drier’s house prepared mustard. These are what real hot dogs should taste like! If you’re not anywhere near southwestern Michigan, you can order online at the Drier’s website, linked above …
Three Oaks is also home to the Vickers Theatre, a handsome old movie house that has been reinvented into a live performance venue. There’s also Froehlich’s Bakery, well known in these parts for their chocolate goodies and freshly baked bread. And if you like good old fashioned local taverns, you won’t want to miss Nelson’s Saloon. Here you’ll find good food, cold beer, and a small town tavern vibe that’ll have you returning again and again …
All these Three Oaks spots are within a block or two of one another on Elm Street. The hardest part about visiting Three Oaks is you won’t want to leave!
From Three Oaks heading west on Route 12, you’re less than ten minutes to the relaxing harbor town of New Buffalo, which we explore in our Visiting Friendship Botanical Gardens feature, coming soon …
We hope you enjoyed travelling virtually with us to southwest Michigan to the lovely Fernwood Botanic Garden and surrounding areas. Have you been to Fernwood? Please let us know what you like most about the garden (or the nearby towns) by stopping by our contact page …