Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Gracious Gardening: The Gentlings' Historical Blue Briar.

Lately, I've been wrapped up in the rush of summer activities. 

I know that might seem like an oxymoron. 

But with our family--we don't do "bored." We have divergent interests that take us in many directions. And we're very fortunate that we can pursue those interests. 

Sometimes, though, I wish for an hour of uninterrupted stillness. Just 60 minutes to sit, relax, and reflect on the garden. To think about what I'd like to add, decide what might need to be moved. I'd make a plan, during that time, determining where to add texture, where to add color, and what to just let be. 

Instead of focusing on weeds and watering, I'd just luxuriate in the garden, enjoy it for what it is--and envision what it might become. 

I can only hope it becomes a garden as full of history, stories, and serenity as the garden of Peter and Jasmin Gentling. 

On day two of the Asheville Garden Bloggers' Fling, I discovered my idea of paradise. Nestled into mountains of North Carolina reside the Gentlings and their historic home, Blue Briar Cottage. 

Founded in 1906, the home is filled with history. William Jennings Bryant lived there during his term as Secretary of State while he built a home in Asheville. Dignitaries visited. After being vacant for years, the police found more than 1,000 cases of whiskey hidden in the house during prohibition. Later, Herbert Hoover's son recuperated within its wall while battling tuberculosis. 

Finally, the Gentlings became the stewards of Blue Briar.

The Arts and Crafts-style home looms 300 feet above the city of Asheville. In fact, some kismet occurred when the couple looked to purchase the property in 1971. According to the story, the young couple couldn't afford the mortgage--so the elderly owners reduced the price and took out a second mortgage to help the Gentlings. The kindness of Blue Briar's previous owners was well-placed, as the Gentlings' love and dedication to the property is without equal. 

And their graciousness? Imagine two bus loads of garden writers pulling up along the mountain road, then walking the path approaching the hour and a half early! With leaf blowers still whirling, we surprised the Gentlings, who expected our arrival at 10:30 a.m., not 9 a.m. Without batting an eye, they put down their tools and warmly welcomed us, sharing a bit of the home's history and encouraging us to explore the gardens....while they sneaked inside to change clothes. 

(Would I have handled the early arrival so graciously? No. No, I don't believe so.)

Peter, a former surgeon, is the garden artist...literally and figuratively. Approaching Blue Briar from the road, the first building we came upon was Peter's art studio. 

His paintings often incorporate plants and subjects from the garden, such as the Koi, above.
However, his art expands far beyond the studio. Every bed within the garden is subject to his artistic vision.

Peter focuses on filling beds with color...


 ...and lush landscaping that seemlessly integrates unique specimens into the woodland setting.

In fact, one of the first specimens brought to our attention was Metasequoia, or dawn redwoods. 

Discovered by Professor Hu of the Beijing Botanical Institute, the dawn redwoods were first identified in fossils, thought to be an extinct specimen. A forester stumbled upon an unidentified grove of trees in the Szechuan province of China--and the trees proved to be the same as the fossils, shocking the botanical world. 

More than 60 years ago, as the story is told, Dr. Elwood Demmon, then director of the Southeastern Division of the United States Forest Service, traveled to China, bringing 200 dawn redwood saplings in tomato cans, along with more than two pounds of seed, back through Asheville. The ultimate destination was the Arnold Arboretum in Boston--however, two of those trees reside in the gardens of Blue Briar, which was then the home of Demmon and his wife.

The magnificent trees tower 125 feet over the gardens, the stars of the show that boasts of woodland, Japanese, perennial, water, and vegetable gardens.

Native plants share space with rare cultivars...

...while flowers add vibrant colors in borders.

During our introduction to the home and gardens, Jasmin explained that the couple spends most of their free time in the gardens. "We're not golfers," she said--quick to apologize if anyone took offense. 

(She needn't worry--most of us gardeners would much prefer working in the garden than playing 18 holes of golf.)

The climbing hydrangea spoke loudly to me. Ours, planted just last year, barely reaches three feet high. This wall of blooms made me pause and imagine what our gardens might look like in 40 years.

Tucked throughout the garden, art accented the plantings...


Peter is the visionary for the plantings, while Jasmin oversees the flower and vegetable gardens. Together, the couple created a seamless integration of plantings throughout the gardens, from the tiered, steep landscape... the water features... the woodland borders and trails... the perennial beds... the kitchen garden, curtained by a weeping blue atlas cedar.

And, of course, there are the plants...





While Peter's artistic sense and Jasmin's nurturing provide a solid basis for a beautiful garden home, the stories they tell of the varied plantings in the garden are joyful, bringing the garden to life.

Gifts from botanical rockstars abound, including Mike Dirr and J.C. Raulston. The couples' travels led them to many locations abroad, where they often returned with historical--and botanical--souvenirs. 


The rugosa rose grew from seeds Peter collected from the battlefield at Agincourt, France. An Acer palmatum sprouted from a seed brought home from the zen garden at Ryoan-ji in Kyoto.


 Peter introduced us to his own Three Stooges--Larry, Moe, and Curly.

And then there's the greenhouse, where Peter spends his time propagating plant material for his small specialty nursery. He told me that as he began to build the greenhouse, a local greenhouse company that specialized in large greenhouse construction approached him. They offered to build his greenhouse for him as a trial, to test the waters of smaller greenhouse construction.

His beautiful greenhouse, which would cost more than $30,000--was free. 


And the company never branched into smaller, residential greenhouses.

At every turn in the garden, spectacular views...


...and destinations for visitors to sit, relax, and enjoy those views. 
While wandering along the greenhouse, nosing around to see what Peter had propagated, I spied this sign tucked behind the greenhouse, out of sight:

Somehow, the sign struck me as funny--what an understatement! 

The 40 years of talent, sweat, and passion the Gentlings invested in the gardens of Blue Briar produced so much more than just a "Prize Winning Garden." As Jasmin said, "A garden is not defined by plants. It's defined by the people in it."

What a lucky garden, to have the Gentlings caring for it.


And maybe, in 40 years, our little garden might grow up to look like the Gentlings'.

I can only hope.

XO ~


Friday, June 22, 2012

Squashing Squash Vine Borers.

Yesterday, I harvested our first perfect, adorable yellow crookneck squash. 

Isn't it the cutest thing ever? 

While I'm thrilled to think about the deliciousness of lightly saute├ęd squash with a hint of Parmesan melted on top, I'm also a bit nervous. Last year, our first good harvest of squash was also our last harvest. 

Squash vine borers invaded the garden. 

This season, a gardening friend of mine already reported that he's lost a zucchini vine to the evil beasts. They're rampant, invasive, highly destructive. One day, you're harvesting lovely squash for a delicious ratatouille--the next, your vines are wilting. You think your forgot to water the bed--but no. Instead, your perfectly tended vines are being eaten from the inside out. 

It's like a horror movie. 

The larva of the squash vine borer (Melittia cucurbitae) tunnel into stems of the squash plants, feeding on the basal portion of vine--which kills the plant. Sometimes, the borers venture to the fruit. 

Beastly brutes.

Squash vine borers mature into a moth known as a "clear wing," due to the lack of scales on the hind wings. The moths are often mistaken for wasps, as they fly during the day, laying eggs on the leaves of cucurbits. The larvae are white, thick, and more than an inch in length when fully grown. 

The biggest challenge for those of us in warm climates is that these nasty borers emerge early. The insects overwinter in the soil in the form of a larva or pupa, emerge in early summer, and lay eggs on the stems of the plants--typically in late May. The larvae hatch, bore into the vines, and complete their development in about four weeks. After they wreck havoc on our crooknecks and zucchini, they crawl into the soil, spin a cocoon, and transform into a pupa. 

Have I mentioned how much I hate these nasty borers? 

A friend of mine who is a fairly new gardener but a talented, crafty kind of girl tried to grow pumpkins with her kids last year. She thought it would be a great experience for the family to grow their own pumpkins, harvest them, and then carve them for Halloween. 

Guess what? 

Squash vine borers. 

The killers not only of vines--but of gardening dreams. 

When she asked what she could do to save the vines--I didn't have any answers. 

But now, I've done my homework. 

This year, before planting the raised beds, I researched every type of companion plant to help the garden flourish. Interestingly, I found that icicle radishes, planted in the same mounds as cucurbits and allowed to flower, are used as a trap crop for squash vine borers. Now, planted among all of the squash, zucchini, and cucumbers, the leaves of icicle radishes peek through. 

I'm crossing my fingers that it works. 

As a preventative, crop rotation is important to avoid the nasty borers. Because the larvae overwinter in the soil, avoid planting any members of the cucurbit family in the same location each year. (Cucumber, squash, and melon comprise the cucurbit family.) Also, destroy any vines killed by the borers to break the life cycle. 

Additionally, you can help prevent infestations by installing row covers over the crops--but then you'll need to hand pollinate your vines. 

But what can you do to save your crop now if you suspect a borer attack? According to Rodale's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, you can slit the infested vine lengthwise and remove the borers with a long needle. (Kind of disgusting, but still--you have dinner plans for that yummy squash, right?) After you've removed and destroyed the invaders, heap soil over the slit stem to encourage rooting. 

And cross your fingers. 

We will win the battle against these beasts. Who's with me?! 

XO ~ 


Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A Place for Peace.

Tucked into a rough section of West Asheville is a respite for neighborhood children. A safe zone to explore. A place to learn how to grow food, how to cook it, and how to break bread with neighbors. It's a space where a community comes together to discuss problems, create solutions, and work to implement those ideas. 

It's a place for Peace. 

From the road, the Burton Street Community Peace Gardens look more like a junk yard than a safe haven of horticultural and environmental learning. It's not exactly the poster child for a Garden Bloggers' Tour. In fact, for the visiting garden writers, many wondered--where are the blooms? And--how can this garden serve as a refuge for kids, with its rampant piles of debris, rusty statues, and evocative images?  

And yet, the Burton Street Community Peace Gardens epitomize how gardening profoundly impacts lives.

The brainchild of husband and wife Dewayne Barton and Safi Mahaba, the Peace Gardens provide a comfort zone, a sense of familiarity for children where they are encouraged to pick the flowers, play with the art, and simply be a kid in a neighborhood where youth is often lost.

For a community plagued with drug trafficking and crime, as well as a sense of lost identity, Barton and Mahaba provide a place that attracts and engages neighborhood youth with activities that benefit the community--and themselves. 

A pizza oven, often used for neighborhood gatherings.

Founded in 2003, the couple cleared vacant lots on Bryant Street and began growing food for the community.

Today, repurposed materials adorn every inch of the Peace Gardens. 

Barton is the artist, Mahaba the gardener. He collects trash from the community, turning the debris into art installations that address issues facing not only the community--but society. Social injustice. Corporate greed. Military might. Shouting fierce, political messages, Barton's work also teaches about the hazards of waste and consumerism. 

 Hear No Evil...with a gun dangling and a bloodied ear.

 See No Evil...

 Speak No Evil.

But within the garden, art also amuses.

Mahaba tucks tomatoes and lettuce among rusty signs displaying the evils of war. 

Poppies soften the edges of harsh reality.  

A river of refuse meanders through the garden, its message clear without explanation.

For many of the neighborhood children, the activities at the Burton Street Peace Gardens save them from a "Dead End." The couple hires area kids to work in the garden.

Throughout the garden, editorials, poems, and signs speak to the issues facing the community...

...while art installations shock--and engage.

Central to the garden is an interactive teaching and learning space built from discarded objects. As co-creator of Green Opportunities, an organization that helps at-risk youth develop employable skills for green-collar jobs, Barton envisioned a space where people in the community could repurpose junk into art or create function from trash. You can read more about "Mystic Dreams" here.

The Burton Street Community Peace Garden isn't an easy garden. Instead, it's thought-provoking. It inspires action. It shakes up gardeners, used to lovely landscapes and delicate blooms, forcing us to realize that gardening is more than just an entertaining hobby.

Gardening empowers a community.