Written by Jennifer Fitzgerald
Local garden and landscaping experts offer advice for digging in the dirt.
Where is your happy space? As the weather warms, many Western North Carolina residents find joy in the great outdoors. Gardening—growing flowers, vegetables, herbs, landscaping the yard, even creating a relaxing outdoor living space—is a favorite hobby for many and, indeed, a happy space. There are unlimited possibilities when creating this space. The look and feel is dependent on many things, including your personality and likes, your budget, and what you hope to gain from the space.
The employees of B.B. Barns, a garden center and landscape services company located in South Asheville, hear a lot about happiness. The staff is passionate about people and plants. Their goal is for customers to have a successful gardening experience.
Explains Letha Hinman, the manager and buyer of the company’s annuals department, “We have people that come here, and one of the first things they might say is, ‘This is my happy place. I’m so glad I’m here today.’ What we want to do and what they know we will do is steer them in the right direction to take some of that ‘happy’ back home with them.”
There are many benefits to gardening, with therapy and health being at the top of the list. There is a joy that comes from gardening and the aesthetics that it provides. It is exercise that can be beneficial to one’s health and well-being.
“It’s health,” agrees Jon Merrill, the garden center general manager at B.B. Barns. “Emotional health, it’s spiritual health, it’s physical health, it’s mental health. It’s all of those.”
Merrill also mentions environmental health and being stewards of our planet.
“Trying to make sure we are planting the right plants and putting back the things that we are destroying, and that we are not destroying more from the things that we are doing,” he says.
“I’m going to come home tonight to my house, my backyard, and I am going to breathe it all in, and I’m going to look at all this beauty that God has given me and just enjoy my life,” Hinman adds.
Growing and Knowing
One of the trends in gardening over the last few years is the desire of people to grow their own food and know where it is coming from and how it was treated. And regional interest in gardening is very high, whether it is creating outdoor living spaces or growing your own food, according to Alan Israel, of Jesse Israel & Sons Nursery & Garden Center, located in the Western North Carolina Farmers Market.
“We have seen a trend in the last decade of using plants for multiple purposes,” says Israel. “For example, mixing in blueberries in foundation plantings works well to enjoy the ornamental and edible aspects of the plants. Also, knowing where your food comes from and how it was grown is very important here and can be done in your own backyard.”
“People are so much more conscious of what they are eating,” says Therese Figura. As the director of business development at B.B. Barns, this is a trend that she and the staff have witnessed.
“And growing your own food is knowing your food—especially in the style in which you grow it,” she continues. “Organic gardening has been a very big goal of people. We are buying more edible gardening plants than ever before because of the demand. Young parents are very focused on the organic gardening. They are very focused on purchasing organic food. They are very concerned about the environment and what their children are exposed to, especially by the food that they eat.”
Another trend is small space gardening for a variety of reasons—a young couple living in a small town home as they save money for their first home, or a retired couple downsizing and moving into a smaller space.
“They have much more limited space, but they still want a garden,” says Merrill. “So it’s either container gardens or it’s miniature plants. It’s columnar trees instead of big wide dogwoods. Just small spaces. People still love it; they still want to do it; they just don’t have the acre and a half like my parents, who had two acres, to garden with.”
The Great Outdoors
What’s involved in creating an outdoor living space that you and your family and friends can enjoy? It means something different to everyone, and can vary from a small deck with a table to hardscaping with arbors, pergolas, an outdoor kitchen, and a fire pit.
“If you are a senior who downsized and you have a good size deck, that’s an outdoor living space,” says Figura. “The fire pit is portable and small. You are going to want to look at some furniture that has endurance for the Western North Carolina mountains. We sell a lot of teak and a lot of furniture that is made of recycled materials. Furniture, umbrellas on a deck, possibly an outdoor rug, possibly a little flag. But containers, containers, containers. Trees in containers, herbs and vegetables. An outdoor space does not have to be gigantic because everybody wants to be outside, so what you are doing is adding charm through gardening, through the bones of furniture. Even trellises are fabulous on a deck, especially for privacy.”
If customers are interested in creating a big space that involves large construction, the B.B. Barns staff will direct the customers to their landscape division.
You may want to take your outdoor living space a step farther by inviting birds and pollinators to visit.
“Butterflies, hummingbirds, honey bees, native bees—it’s all nature, all restful—great for the soul,” says Hinman.
If you are new to gardening, you may be feeling a bit overwhelmed as you walk into a garden center. The choices of beautiful and colorful blooming plants are exciting but can also be intimidating. How do you know what will work best for you and your space? It’s the job of the professionals to answer those questions, provide solutions, and take that intimidation away.
“Usually with beginning gardeners, it’s keep it simple,” says Merrill. “We’ve got so many varieties of plant materials, but we also know the ones that you are going to be successful with. You can still have something beautiful, but it doesn’t have to be this huge perennial garden that takes tons of work.”
“Starting small is good,” explains Hinman. “If you branch out too far, you will see it takes more time, perhaps, than you want. You don’t have enough time to take care of it, therefore it could be an entire loss. So starting small, starting simple and starting with the best plants that we know will be successful for them. We will hold your hand, and we will make sure that the first plant, if you are at square one, is a success and you can nurture it, and be happy. We try and say there is a square one for everybody and here is square one for you and you can make this work. And then come back for square two.”
“Worst mistake a new gardener can make is to walk into a garden store and pick the first blooming plant they like. Find a reputable independent garden center to make your plant purchases.”
Do Your Homework & Know Your Zone
At the Mustard Seed Market, a garden center located on Highway 321 South in Blowing Rock, owners Robb and Danielle Stewart always ask numerous questions of their customers because there is a plant for every spot. They encourage gardeners to know their yard’s sun/shade conditions: Wet or dry? Do they have deer problems? Is their space protected, or exposed to brutal winds? Is their home a year-round or a summer home? Are they a nurturer or a neglecter? Type A or laid back? What species of plants are thriving at their home? What have they tried before?
“We, as garden designers, can quickly assess our customers’ needs [and] help them choose wonderful appropriate plantings,” says Danielle Stewart. “Worst mistake a new gardener can make is to walk into a garden store and pick the first blooming plant they like. Find a reputable independent garden center to make your plant purchases. They have the best selection, best value for the investment, and should have the best educational experiences as well.”
In addition, when determining which plants to buy, it’s important to consider the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map. This is a standard by which gardeners can determine which plants are most likely to thrive at a location. The map is based on the average annual minimum winter temperature, divided into 10-degree Fahrenheit zones.
“It’s important that we have everything for the right zone,” Hinman says, about the inventory at B.B. Barns. “Our zone is 7, with different sorts of pockets that might be 5 at the top of the mountain [because it is colder], or there might be a pocket in Lake Lure that is a 7B because it is warmer there. We have to know where these plants fit into the USDA zones and where that person lives, and connect them.”
Dana Stenger, owner and manager of Painters Greenhouse, LLC, in Old Fort, says we are fortunate to live in an area where many cool-weather species and warm-weather species can both be grown. If we moved a bit further north or south, our planting options would become more limited.
“As long as you properly prepare your soil and planting site, you can plant just about anything around here,” she says. “We have a lot of beautiful plants that are native to our region. If you want something that is easy to grow, often resistant to local pests and diseases, and offering both beauty and support to pollinators and wildlife, then native plants are a great choice. Another great option is to try edible landscaping and incorporate perennial edibles and useful plants into your ornamental landscape. Some edibles do better than others in our climate—blueberries, hardy kiwi, passionflower vine, rhubarb, and goji berries are all great examples of edible plants that are also very attractive. Probably our biggest challenge in the Asheville area is the hot, often humid and wet weather we face in the summers. Look for plants that are resistant to mildew, are grown specifically for heat and humidity, and make sure you allow space between plants for air flow.”
Stenger stresses to her customers the need to prepare spots completely before they start putting plants in the ground.
“If you’re planting in the ground, it is important to note that our local soil has a lot of clay and can struggle with drainage. We advise amending your soil with a topsoil, potting, or compost mix to improve drainage and add a bit more nutrition. It also helps to test the pH of your soil. Most local extension offices will do the test for free.” (Fun Fact: The color of some flowers—hydrangea, for example—is determined by the pH of the soil and can be altered as desired.)
“If you have compacted clay soil with lots of rocks,” Stenger continues, “you may want to try building some raised beds. Whatever you choose—amending your existing soil, making a raised bed, or planting in containers—investing the time and expense up front to properly prepare for your plant needs will definitely pay off in the long run. Plants will mature faster, grow healthier, and produce more food if you prepare accordingly in advance.”
When tackling a landscaping project, Stenger recommends properly prepping the soil, possibly building it up a bit, and making sure you have a very detailed and researched plan prior to planting.
“It’s easy to get excited and just start plopping things in the ground, but you want to look at the total expected height and width, as well as light and water needs, of each plant, and incorporate that into your planning,” she says. “No matter how much you love crape myrtles, they probably won’t bloom in a shaded yard. It’s also helpful—and fun—to peruse gardening books, magazines, and websites to get an idea of what appeals to you. Do you like old-fashioned cottage gardens, natural and native landscapes, manicured and formal, etc.?”
And while there really isn’t a general rule in regards to water and fertilizer frequency, Stenger suggests that when buying plants, make sure you take note of any informational signage or tags and/or do some research when you get home to ensure you are providing what each plant needs. It is very helpful to know how much water each plant requires when planning your landscape so you can group those with similar needs together.
“Gardening is addictive, makes you feel great, enriches our lives like nothing else, and, although challenging at times, worth every moment.”
Tools of the Trade
If you are just starting out on your gardening journey, you will need to choose a few tools of the trade.
“There are endless tools available to make gardening easier,” says Stenger. “Probably the most handy is a good, strong trowel. If you have trouble with your knees or back, you may want to invest in a padded kneeler or perhaps a raised bed at waist height. If you have lots of pruning, you may want to invest in a good pair of loppers. That said, you can make an amazing garden with nothing but your bare hands if you are determined enough.”
Regardless of your gardening status—a novice or a master— these local experts are here to offer you guidance and support in your journey. Enjoy the warm weather and take advantage of the time to create a space and grow something beautiful.
“Gardening is addictive, makes you feel great, enriches our lives like nothing else, and, although challenging at times, worth every moment,” says Mustard Seed Market’s Danielle Stewart.
Alan Israel additionally advises beginner gardeners not to overthink the process and just get their hands dirty. “Go out and try a project. If it works, great; if not, then you have learned something,” he says. “Also, start small and add on. It’s easy to get overwhelmed either with planning an entire landscape or planting a full garden. Pick one bed or one plant to start with and the rest will fall into place. We have a wealth of knowledge available in this area, whether it is your local garden center staff, the extension service, or your gardening neighbor. Utilizing these resources will help grow your own garden to its fullest potential.”
Right Plant, Right Spot
Local garden experts offer the following tips for creating a classic container garden
-Have good drainage material in the bottom.
-Use the best soil and fertilizers.
-Know if it’s to be put in the sun or shade.
-Know what your vision is and what colors you like.
-If you’ve got hot baking sun all day and you don’t want to be a slave to that, make a container that is going to suit your needs so that you don’t have to water three times a day.
-Account for how tall and wide each plant will be at maturity.
-Make note of those that might be likely to spread or take over a pot.
-Be sure you water and feed container gardens more frequently than those in the ground as they drain and dry out and lose feed much faster.
-Remember to plan for a non-living item to add that special contribution to the garden—a huge glazed pot or urn, architectural remnant, concrete ball, large bird bath, vintage obelisk, moss animal, rusty chair, or outdoor mirror.
-Remember to view your garden from many different angles, inside and out.
-Always find out where these pots will live, so you can choose the “right plant for the right spot.”
-Choose your container wisely, make sure it has drainage holes and can withstand our winter weather, and use good quality fresh potting soil.
-If your container is large, you can add empty plastic cups or packing peanuts to fill up the bottom.
-Remember in a container or small space garden, the plant choices are even more important because the whole plant needs to look wonderful all season, even if it’s not blooming.
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