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A Fern Grows In Ossining

When John Mickels moved into his home on 1.5 acres of property on the Ossining and Briarcliff border 17 years ago, he knew exactly what he wanted to plant around his house - ferns.

The 76-year- old who lives on Farm Road has been studying ferns since he was a graduate student at the University of Michigan. He has written two books on the subject and his property is home to around 150 kinds of ferns, including native ones and some from Japan, China, the Himalayas, southern Mexico, the Pacific Northwest and other temperate regions.

"Flowering plants flower for a couple of weeks but ferns come up in the spring and they're lovely all through the season," said Mickels.

The previous owner of Mickels' property had filled the yard with a green groundcover called pachysandra. Mickels pulled, dug and rototilled the pachysandra out of existence and then added six inches of horse manure into the soil to make for well-nourished, fluffy garden beds.

"This place just opened our eyes. It changed our lives," Mickels said. "We've enjoyed it very much."

Mickels’ expertise is obvious from walking around his property. His front and back yards are filled with ferns that seem to have no brown or dried spots on them. All his plants, from the grey and white Japanese painted ferns to the tall Dixie Wood ferns to the dainty Himalayan Maidenhair fern, appear healthy and lush.

Mickels’ mostly shady garden also includes hostas, some flowering plants and a vegetable garden that is enclosed to keep out deer.

"Ferns are a procrastinator's delight because they don't need trimming. They're pretty low maintenance," he said.

Aside from working around his home every day, Mickels also researches ferns several days a week at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. He was employed there a fern researcher and curator for about 40 years before retiring.

Mickels occasionally hosts open house events at his home, where he will sell some of the plants. Last Saturday about 150 members of the New York Fern Society came to see and buy his ferns.

"It's nice because I can't bear to throw excess ferns in the compost," Mickels said. "It hurts my heart to kill them."

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