Forget-Me-Not Nursery Finds its Niche in Indian
By Amy Newman
Courtney and Brandon Ruckel made the spur-of-the-moment decision to buy Forget-Me-Not Nursery in Indian during a summer barbecue.
It was August 2012 and the Ruckels and their sons, Cedar and Tyson, were having dinner at the nursery with its then owners, Kathy and Dea Feathergill. Courtney had worked at the nursery since she and Brandon, who grew up in Nikiski, moved to Girdwood from Hawaii in 2003. The Feathergills had talked about selling the nursery and retiring for months, Courtney said, but hadn’t found the right couple to take it over.
“My husband looked around and said, ‘This is probably the next 20 years,’” Courtney said. “I hadn’t even thought of it.”
Back at their Crow Creek Road home that evening, Courtney and Brandon, who for years had considered the idea of someday “growing food in the back of our house, a flatter piece of land with a barn, having chickens, and working at home,” decided that the nursery checked every box.
They told the Feathergills that night and took over running the nursery immediately.
“They were like, ‘Okay, order your tulips – we’re packing,’” Courtney recalled, laughing. “They stopped taking care of everything and we took over; they were ready to retire.”
Gardening hadn’t been a part of Courtney’s life before she began working at the nursery – and Brandon hadn’t gardened at all – but they jumped right in, she said, learning by doing and collaborating with fellow gardeners, many of them their customers.
“Everybody’s at a different level of knowing, and that’s the fun part,” she said. “It’s actually fun for new gardeners to know that you can get down to the science of it, or you can just play with it. You can just try stuff and see how it goes.”
The Ruckels have experimented a lot over the past six years. They’ve added vegetables, fruit trees, and a variety of perennials to the nursery’s plant selection (the nursery used to offer only annuals) and focus on unique annuals that aren’t available at other nurseries, Courtney said. They’re also catering to the Girdwood area’s unique climate.
“We’re dialing in what does well for Girdwood,” Courtney said. “We’re trying to find plants that just thrive in certain places.” Their intimate knowledge of Girdwood’s topography means the nursery can guide customers to plants that will thrive in their microclimate, whether it’s a windy hillside that receives a lot of sun or a shaded lot.
The nursery’s season starts when they begin seeding and potting in February and runs through October, when the last perennials are sold and Courtney begins placing orders for the following season. Karen Montague, a master gardener who worked at the nursery when the Ruckels took over, runs the greenhouse with Brandon, Courtney said. In February, every table, shelf, hanging pole, and even the floor in the greenhouse is packed with plants.
“There’s tens of thousands of I don’t even know,” she said with a laugh. “It’s kind of a ridiculous amount. We pack every corner of that greenhouse that we can, and we have to keep them healthy until people start coming to buy them, which isn’t until May.”
Brandon takes care of keeping them watered, a methodical process that Courtney said can take up to eight hours a day in May, when the plants are in bloom. Courtney likes to experiment with new plant varieties each year, on top of growing the standard annuals, perennials, and fruits and vegetables she knows do well.
“Every year I have three new perennials that I don’t know what they’ll do,” she said. “But I tell people, ‘Join the experiment!’” She’ll send customers home with new plants and confer with them throughout the season to see how they’re doing, and winters new perennials in pots to test their cold-hardiness – those that do are added to the nursery’s offerings the following season.
Another big change the Ruckels made, one Courtney said sets them apart from other nurseries, was eliminating the use of chemicals and pesticides. They use fish, kelp and compost that Brandon makes as fertilizer for all their plants, and visually inspect every leaf on every plant to eliminate bugs. It’s an incredibly labor-intensive process that many find hard to believe, Courtney said. But she says they quickly decided there was no other option.
“This is a family nursery,” she explained. “We’ve got kids crawling under the table, we have volunteers coming in to help, there’s little two-year-olds scooping dirt and helping us. We can’t have chemicals here.”
Courtney says she lots of ideas for the nursery that extend beyond the plant world. The greenhouse is empty from July through February, and she’s considered starting a folk school, offering camps for kids, or opening it up to the community to offer classes or events. The greenhouse has been available for weddings in the summer since the Ruckels took over, and they host an annual Harvest Potluck every October complete with games and crafts, food and an open mic.
Owning and operating a nursery may never have specifically been part of their life plan, but Courtney said the decision to take over was the right one for her family, and that she and Brandon have no regrets.
“We really enjoy just engaging with people, that’s what it becomes about,” she said. “(Customers) tell you their garden stories, they tell you their life story, and you just share a lot in a very short amount of time. It feels like we were meant to be here.”
Forget Me Not Nursery is located at 480 Indian Rd. in Indian. They’re open April to September; visit their website at www.forgetmenotnursery.com for hours of operation or call (907)653-7673. Their annual Harvest Potluck is Sat., Oct. 13 from 4-8:30 p.m.