Spring has bloomed in Southwest Michigan! In celebration, I ventured to Fernwood Botanical Garden with Clementine for our first exploration of the season. Sunday, April 23rd was perfect; we had weather in the mid sixties, and I had a 3 year old that was ready to be outside.   



It’s an easy drive to Fernwood, about 30 minutes south of St. Joseph. The drive itself is worth the trek; we saw orchards in full bloom, grapevines waking up, and a herd of little goats (awesome). Turning into the grounds of Fernwood Botanical Garden, visitors are met with a winding path and arches of green, with sculptures peeking through. The traffic slows, the vegetation grows taller, and the blooms seem to become more intense as you arrive at the blue house that marks the entrance.


Tiny train and bananas in the Fern Room; "Take Five" Sculpture

Admission is $9 for adults (seniors at just $7), $4 for ages 5-17, and free for 4 and under. We paid our $9 (the preschooler was free!), giving us access to the full 105 acres of gardens, nature trails, and family fun. Clementine and I chose Fernwood for the afternoon for the kid-friendly activities, so right away we headed for the Fern Room Overlook. The fern room is steamy and green, feeling like “The Land Before Time”, except for the turn-of-the-century model train rolling over the tracks. We even spotted some bananas growing! 

We stepped onto the Bauer Terrace, greeted by orange tulips. Down the stairs, our next venue was “the stick house” (christened by Clementine). She ran across the grass to Patrick Dougherty’s “Take Five” like a magnet, ready to explore the stick sculpture made with willow and dogwood cuts from US31. The sticks are woven together making rooms and spaces, and stoking the imagination of little ones. It was an awesome centerpiece to the grassy lawn, and we ran through the house-like structure many times.  

Scoping the birds at the Nature Center; heading into the web of trails

The ground around the entrance are an amazing playground; we also found a railway garden, a rounded herb garden with a circular stone hut, and a water wheel. The Nature Center was a huge hit for Clementine, too. There were touchable pelts of raccoons, squirrels, and possums, fascinating skulls (helpfully labeled), and binoculars for watching the birds. We watched bright yellow, deep red, and shimmering blue birds pecking from feeders, and talked about springtime. 

We ventured into the nature trails next, starting with a narrow path that promised pink and purple flowers and a bridge we could spot from the walkway. I let Clementine lead the way, and we went towards the wilds of Fernwood.  

The trails are numerous with such different experiences. We took the “Streamside Trail” first, winding down to the St. Joseph River. The trail is a boardwalk and easy to navigate, but with enough twists, turns and small streams to offer adventure. It leads to the broad flowing river, with a dock built out that’s perfect for some quality fish-watching. The carp and bass were huge, taking gulps of insects and flora from the top of the water. 

Our next trail was the Ecology Trail, a little over ½ a mile that circles a swampy pond. I couldn’t believe how excited and confident Clementine was getting, charging ahead and spotting turtles, frogs and interesting sticks. She led the way over the whole course of this trail, often stopping to get up close. The best vantage point was definitely flat on the path, but it was a beautiful day and there wasn’t much hurry. 

up close and personal with the Ecology Trail; Clementine (left) and Tess (me, right)

We roamed over parts of the river trail, the ridge trail, and the wilderness trail as 5:00 approached. Clementine had run and walked the entire way, but didn’t want to leave the magic of the gardens and trails. As a parent, I take this as a sign of success; and we’ll definitely return! 

Fernwood Botanical Garden is located at 13988  Range Line Road in Niles. They are open Tuesday -Sunday (you can find the full hours here). Check out their website and Facebook page for more, too!