Archives for May 2012

A Sweet Sight Out in the Country

Birds and Customers: Turn Right

I’ve seen bird feeders in a lot of places, but never attached to the side of a business sign. This one was out in the country, on a side road, off the stretch of interstate between Asheville and Knoxville. There was no house, business, or human in sight. The small feeder was nearly full. If I lived around here and needed repairs for my car, I might just turn right at the arrow and check this place out.

Blue Briar: The Gentling Garden

A Warm Welcome from Jasmin Gentling

Peter Gentling: Gardener and Plant Propagator

Forty years ago, Peter and Jasmin Gentling moved to a house called Blue Briar. It was surrounded by fifteen hillside acres that overlooked the skyline of downtown Asheville. The Gentlings began the process of making a garden — one that reflected the region, as well as their wide interests in plants and design. Year-by-year, spade-by-wheelbarrow, they’ve transformed their property into a haven for people and wildlife.

The Gentlings’ garden is diverse and compelling and, at the same time, serene and restful. Peter is drawn to out-of-the-ordinary ornamentals, while Jasmin likes vegetables and herbs. Together they’ve woven a tapestry of plants, grassy paths, and stone walls, accented by small buildings including a painting studio, potting shed, and greenhouse.

Beside the Greenhouse: Whimsical Touch

Over the years, the Gentlings have welcomed students, artists, designers, community groups, and plant and horticulture societies. This week, they hosted ninety garden bloggers and plant enthusiasts. If there were guestbooks for garden visitors, the Gentlings would own a hefty one.

As an Asheville native and member of various plant-related groups, I’ve seen the evolution and changing seasons of the Gentling garden. I’ve also had a personal reason for feeling connected to this place. As a surgeon, Peter Gentling operated on my dad, later giving him a pair of scissors to use for certain pruning tasks in the garden. This physician knew that healing takes more than medical intervention, and that made an impression on me. I now have my dad’s scissors and a nice association to go along with them.

Moss Path

Diverse Textures and Shades of Green


Gardens of the Fling

Exuberant in Asheville

Garden Bloggers Fling, 2012. Four days of garden exploration, Asheville, North Carolina.  Photos coming soon!

Traveling the Cherohala

Morning on the Cherohala

Cherohala Skyway, part of the National Scenic Byways system, is a forty-three mile road that winds through some of the most beautiful, historic land in southern Appalachia. It connects the towns of Tellico Plains, Tennessee and Robbinsville, North Carolina and crosses both the Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests — hence the name “Chero-hala”. A trip on the Cherohala is memorable and inspiring. National Geographic includes the Skyway on their website in a series called “Drives of a Lifetime“.

Driving time for the Cherohala is listed on the America’s Byways website at about two hours, one-way. This is a conservative estimate — you’d best allow a good part of the day, as there are lots of trails, enticing views, and stopovers to savor before returning to home base.

The highest point of the Skyway (at 5390′ elevation) is on the North Carolina side, but most of the best long-range views are in Tennessee. In late spring, the mountains are very quiet except for the sound of occasional motorcycles coming through. We heard their approach long before they passed us by.

Picnic on the Edge

We stopped near the crest of the Tennessee side of the mountain and saw this lone picnic table. It was very close to the edge of a lookout ( “LOOK OUT!”, in this case), above a very steep ravine. Maybe the low board enclosure around the table is supposed to create a sense of security. For me, it did not, but the lovely long-range views of blue mountains made up for any nagging sense of impending catastrophe.

Picnic Area, Looking Down

Travelling on the North Carolina section of the Skyway, we saw terrain that reminded me of the heath fields of Scotland. (Unfortunately, my camera’s memory card failed at this point and I have no photos to demonstrate). There is a diversity of plants and habitats all along the Byway and side trails. This calls for repeat visits to take it all in.

The sign to Snowbird Lodge shows that you’re nearing the end of the Skyway, which is eleven miles away in Robbinsville. If you’re returning to Knoxville or Nashville, you might consider a different route home. The Tail of the Dragon (highway 129) is a two-lane, eleven-mile road that eventually ends up near Fontana Dam.  To get there, you will navigate 318 curves. These are some serious curves — if you are prone to motion sickness, go a different way. The last time I travelled this road was in the 1980’s, on the way to the old-growth Joyce Kilmer Forest. I vowed that I would never again set tire or body on the Dragon and I have kept that promise. The Cherohala Skyway? I’ll go back anytime.

View from Snowbird Lodge


A Rustic Welcome

Arch and Gate

NC Botanical Garden: Pioneer in Conservation

North Carolina Botanical Garden - Chapel Hill

Today is National Public Gardens Day. Of all the gardens I’ve visited in North America, I believe none surpasses the North Carolina Botanical Garden in overall excellence.

Decades before “sustainable” and “eco-friendly”became buzzwords, this garden in Chapel Hill was setting the standard for conservation in public areas. Its buildings, education programs and exhibits, plant and ecological communities, and dedicated, knowledgeable staff all continue to exemplify the Garden’s mission:

To inspire understanding, appreciation and conservation of plants in gardens and natural areas and to advance a sustainable relationship between people and nature.

The North Carolina Botanical Garden (part of the University of North Carolina) has attained just the right balance of wild and cultivated. If you want showy displays of annuals, this is not the garden for you.  What you will find is a diversity of trees, interesting shrubs, perennials, and wildflowers, mixed with lots of art and human activity.

Path to Paul Green Cabin - North Carolina Botanical Garden

Various areas in the Garden represent the varying ecological and plant habitats of North Carolina. The pathway to the Paul Green Cabin, for example, is a peaceful, ferny glade in the mountain habitat section of the Botanical Garden. It’s easy to forget you’re in the much flatter, hotter Piedmont area of the state.

This botanical garden is the real deal, folks. If you’re coming to the Chapel Hill or Research Triangle Park area, I hope you’ll schedule some time here. Or, check out the Garden’s website for more information about invasive plants, water conservation, and related topics. I’m pretty sure you’ll leave with a renewed commitment to preserving your own garden’s ecology.

The Emotional Appeal of Barns

Keeper of the Past

Old barns are disappearing from the fields and mountains of Appalachia and from rural landscapes across the country. Sometimes these venerable structures collapse from the unintentional neglect of their caretakers, who become physically or financially unable to maintain them. In other cases, the boards and rafters just give out after decades of adapting to weather extremes. Sometimes, barns are torn down; developers, businesses, or new landowners believe they no longer serve a purpose.

I can’t imagine a more functional category of buildings, yet barns are more than utilitarian. They proudly reflect the identity and architecture, as well as the agriculture, of their region. A cross-country drive through any state will tell you that. Some barns are round, some cantilevered; some are for curing tobacco, while others serve as cribs for housing livestock. Barns are different colors, and construction can be of stone, wood, or metal.

Whatever the material, I’m always touched by the eloquence of old barns. I wonder who worked there and what kind of animals were sheltered from the wind and rain. I try to imagine the farm equipment and the tools that are rusting inside. Most of all, I think about how important barns have been to farm families over the past century. Will a new generation of communities and landowners commit to preserving this cultural asset? I hope so.


Blue Hill

Years ago, an elderly client, Margaret, sent me home with starts of Myosotis sylvatica or forget-me-not. I planted them here-and-there and, right away, forgot my forget-me-nots! Last spring they appeared en masse — a soothing swath of blue under the now-much-larger ‘Forest Pansy’ redbud. This year, only a quarter of the forget-me-nots appeared.

I had forgotten the patch of Aegopodium or goutweed at the top of the hill. Last year, being busy (or lazy), I let some of  the goutweed stay. I knew its aggressive tendencies, but hoped that it would help stabilize the soil until I decided on something more appropriate. It did, after all, have nice yellow flowers and variegated leaves and I figured I could tolerate it for a while. Well, you guessed it — the “patch” took over the bank, spreading rapidly down the hill throughout late fall and winter. This spring, the delicate Myosotis sprouts could not compete.

Now, another garden task presents itself: remove the goutweed, then plant something that is desirable, deer-resistant, and able to play fair with forget-me-nots. (Also, remind myself that no good can come from ignoring or “forgetting” invasive plants)!