Uncovering Fernwood Falls
05 Apr 2023
Landscape Architects, Hugh and Mary Palmer Dargan, create an oasis in a sheltered cove
The low rumble from the ancient dome of Big Sheep Cliff mountain echoes across our watershed. First a plume of spray, then a flume of white water boils down the rock face. Transfixed in awe of nature, we watch from our deck as Fernwood Falls explodes. With a sound akin to a mad hive of bees, it intensifies with the cadence of a helicopter. Other days, the yin and yang of nature mellows the waterfall flow to a trickle, belying its nascent power. The river never runs dry.
The magic of dappled light in leafy green woods brought us to this tiny cove at the end of a gravel trail of little lanes. An eclectic community of tiny cottages etch the landscape alongside the headwaters of the Upper Horsepasture River in Cashiers. Lancewood claims to be the first subdivision in the area and is a kind of lone wolf. No rules are the rule once you pass local building inspections. Visitors can't find us, but we can walk to the Village Green and have coffee at Buck's in 10 minutes.
Having lived in High Hampton since 1998, Hugh and I were adventuring on a cold winter's day. We hit some wet gravel and slid downhill into Fernwood.
The tiny one-room cottage was a quaint, homemade structure with a barn-like roof profile perched on the side of a very steep slope. Featuring orange shag carpet, a wash station with an enormous hot water heater and strip heating, the kitchen left a lot to the imagination. Perching our car precariously on the verge of the two tire-track gravel drive, we marveled at the mature hardwood and pine forest with its dense rhododendron “hell.” The waterfall was invisible.
After modernizing the cottage, we purchased adjacent land. Our friends, Corabel and Martin Shofner, discovered the waterfall one very wet summer. Because of plentiful rain, a heavy flow of water began to slowly reveal the rock cascade. Joining in the fun, we put up a Montana frame canvas tent on our land and made paths thru the dense rhododendron forest. The Shofners stewarded the property for a decade, returning it to our care in 2020.
By 2020, we’d weathered Covid, unexpectedly sold our Dovecote farmhouse and were ready for a building adventure. Corabel asked if we wanted Fernwood back just at the right time. Steve Gajda, builder extraordinaire in Cashiers, kindly took us on. We decided to double the very small house and add a room downstairs. This resulted in taking the cottage apart from the roof down and the floor up while keeping the same footprint. Everything was modernized, customized and spit-shined.
The fun began when Wayne Miller, our top-notch grading expert, brought over his toys. The monster yellow track hoe dwarfed our tiny home as he began to lower the old parking area by 5’ to make a great lawn and boulder wall. He then provided access down the steep 35% slope thru the rhododendron hell to reach the river. Terrace walls, underground electricity, a new dining terrace and a woodland drive evolved. After 5 months, we had access to the river and a bridge to the waterfall. Wayne then removed over 40 logs that jammed the river to allow it to run free.
Gardens came gradually into existence on the steep hillside. The Great Lawn now sports a topiary kingdom of mossed dogs around a large bubbling dog bowl. Tiger and Carolina lilies reach 6’ heights on the terrace wall and Rozanne geranium cascades off the boulders. Our stone fountain, designed by Carl Peverall, uber sculptor of atmospheric creations from Celo, NC, accents the view of Fernwood Falls with its companion weeping Snowmound Cherry. Cinnamon ferns outline the overlook trail to the river and tall Veronicastrum virginiana, native Culver’s root, pair with tiger lilies in the spring seepage discovered during construction.
The Out of Africa canvas dining tent sprang into being to honor the big birthday of dear friend and artist Penny Pollock, and soon there was a companion Glamping sleeping tent down by the river. The creekside outdoor cooking area quickly included twin personal pizza ovens, a charcoal cast iron cook station, a green marble topped washstand and a standard grill. A discretely tented WC featured the newest in composting toilets.
Night lighting is magical and set to Dark Sky standards with low wattage fixtures automatically extinguishing at 10 p.m. The Outdoor Lights, our favorite go-to lighting experts, once again knocked it out of the park with copper deck lighting on the rustic handrails to offer understated access to the gardens.
Getting around a mountain property is challenging on steep, slippery slopes, so we prioritized trail-making with Enrique Hernandez of Black Bear Landscape. His crew’s work amplified our enjoyment of the great watershed with trails to the waterfall and the Bear’s Den. Miguel Angel dropped several enormous trees to open views without crushing as much as a rhododendron.
Our wildlife love it here; we are just their appreciative guests. A stealthy, mature crawfish suns in the late afternoon on the rocks of the cascade. Sporting his unmistakable crimson-orange mating plumage, he sidles into the rock cover when spotted. Kingfishers regularly dive bomb their creekside territory with a cackling sound. Dinosaruric pileated woodpeckers hammer trees in search of larvae. In spring and fall, Fernwood is loaded with birdsong. Avarian passerines like the black-throated blue, black and white warbler, gold finches and rose-breasted grosbeaks cheer up the place. Slate-sided juncos are regulars. Red foxes are heard barking on the hillside at night. Bobcats, opossum, raccoons, deer and the odd bear wander down the gravel track at night—and sometimes in daylight!
At the end of the day, the most special treats are the lightening bugs. Members of the Lampyridae family, these light-emitting fireflies display for six weeks from mid-May until the end of June. From high in the cove hardwoods and pines, their search for companionship results in a magical display of twinkling and synchronous light shows.
As stewards of this sheltered cove complete with majestic waterfall and river, we’ve applied best practices to our landscape architectural canvas, using local materials, labor and expertise. We’ve beaten back invasive spiraea and blackberries to encourage native grasses and wildflowers on the waterfall cascade.
Each season brings more joys, but the best part is sharing the space with friends. No matter where you live on the plateau, you can enjoy the beauty and power of nature. May we all engage in shinrin yoku, the Japanese practice of forest bathing, which encourages time to reflect and meditate as nature does its healing work on your body and psyche. Fernwood Falls is a gift and a great environment to let nature take its course.