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 ~



  1. Very nice read! How nice to virtually walk through that garden and listen to Dr. Gentling's stories one more didn't leave out a thing!

  2. Julie, You told this story wonderfully. Great photos (except for one!) ;-)
    You heard parts of the story that I missed, saw some art work I didn't see, and got some wonderful shots of the garden that really showcases its beauty. Great posting!!

  3. Wonderful photo shoot, narration and garden.

  4. What a splendid post. You showcased many things I did not see. And how lucky to get that greenhouse for free!

  5. What a wonderous garden! I imagine all of you had to be dragged back to the busses when it was time to leave. Thank you for the WONDERFUL tour!

  6. What a great post, Julie! You did this beautiful garden proud. This was definitely my favorite garden of all we visited, and I agreed it reminded me of Paradise. Not only did you capture some places that I missed, but you included some history that I missed as well. Thanks for all these interesting tidbits, such as how they acquired this home and the free greenhouse--I hadn't heard either of those stories.

    I also didn't realize we were that early--I definitely would have panicked if it had been my garden:)

  7. Great job on putting this post together! You saw things my eyes did not spot but I am finding that with most of the Fling postings. There was so much to see and such a short period of time. Even though we had all morning long in this garden. What a treat to see this beautiful mountain side paradise....

  8. What a lovely walk through the garden, I felt like I was right there. Imagine having a garden like this. Asheville is so beautiful and one of my favorite places.