4 of Our Least Favorite Perennials in Asheville (2023)

 

lambs ear, asheville perennials, asheville groundcover

1. Stachys byzantina (Lambs Ear.) Admittedly, Lambs ear has some appeal. It’s easy to grow, spreads fast, and takes any soil or full sun slope you throw at it. If only it looked as good in the landscape as it does in a pot at the nursery. It tends to flower and rot up if we get a lot of moisture, leaving you with a patch of rotting foliage with lackluster flowers jutting out of it. The spreading factor can also be a double-edged sword, with it popping up in areas you don’t want it to. If you need groundcover there are better options, and if you want flowers there are much better options.asheville perennials, asheville flowers, wnc perennial flowers, wnc native flowers

2. Helenium  (sneezeweed). This flower may be a case of user error because it doesn’t seem to do well for us in pots. It’s been a frustrating plant to grow, with blooms that aren’t bad but are outshone by other species like echinacea or aster.

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3. Solidago (goldenrod). If you like goldenrod the best thing to do is probably to ask a neighbor with a pasture to dig some up. This stuff is everywhere. Lanky, scraggly, and all over the place in Western North Carolina. It’s easy to grow, we’ll give it that.

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4. Eutrochium fistulosum (Joe Pye Weed.) This might be the most controversial native Asheville perennial on this list. It has a lot of fans and is a decent draw for pollinators like butterflies. We find it leggy and blah as a flower, and even a bit underwhelming for us in the pollinator category. We had it in a patch next to some Agastache and the Agastache won hands down for the bees. To attract butterflies we much prefer milkweed, gaura, or butterfly bushes.

Conclusion

So there you have it, four of our least favorite Asheville perennials for the 2023 season. With a few exceptions, we find it best to avoid plants with the word weed in their name, they tend to get that for a reason. Do you disagree or have a cultivar to recommend? Drop it in the comments or let us know in an email. We’d love to change our minds!

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Fall leaf painting, Aunt Michelle

Many people put off raking leaves until well into the winter months, or even spring when the motivation for yard work strikes again. It’s generally a bad idea to put this off for that long, particularly for us in Western North Carolina with our wet winters and heavy clay soil. The winter rains often mat up the leaves, choking out the sunlight and killing the grass underneath.  So what to do with them? Here are some tips for dealing with fall leaves in the garden:

  1. Get those leaves up, particularly large leaves like maple (which most of us have around Asheville.) It is worth it if you value your lawn.
  2. Mow with a mulching blade if it’s just a thin layer of leaves or they are smaller leaves like birch. This adds some organic matter to lawns, as long as the grass is getting some sun.  It might take a couple of mows though, once the winds come around.
  3. Use leaves as mulch on your ornamental beds. This works best with shrubs or larger perennials like baptisia.
  4. Keep leaves out of beds with smaller perennials or that are sensitive to moisture. Plants like low-growing sedums and rock garden-type plants will have a hard time reaching the sun through the leaves, and won’t like the added moisture.
  5. Leaves take a long time to break down, don’t assume this will add nutrients that same season.  It can take a year or more for any nutrients to be available to plants, and even then it’s not very significant.
  6. Blow leaves off any hardscaping areas like gravel or rock paths and driveways.  Leaves will break down over time and create little bits of soil where weeds can grow. Try to stay on top of it weekly in the fall so they don’t form piles. Battery-powered blowers are great for this.
  7. Try using a small tarp for raking up piles, it makes it much easier to transport them where you want them.

What about fungus? Insects?

Fungi and bacteria are everywhere. There is no way to keep them out of the garden or the compost bin. It’s best as a general rule to not worry about it and let nature take its course. If the plant is susceptible to fungal problems, it will be there with or without the extra leaves. As far as pests, insects or slugs may overwinter in leaves, but they’ll be there anyway and it’s far better to build up the topsoil with organic matter here in WNC than it is to worry about pests. Healthy plants are the best defense against both insects and fungi.

Do we need to shred them?

Shredding can be helpful if there are a ton of leaves and/or they are getting used to mulch smaller plants like veggies and annuals, or if they are going to be layered in the compost bin. For many applications, it’s not necessary. It’s far better to take care of getting them off the lawn or hardscaped areas than worrying about the added step of shredding.  Shred if it floats your boat, but don’t stress about it.

Conclusion

Leaves as mulch are…ok. They are useful as a natural insulation if there isn’t another type of mulch available, and of course, the price is right. This author spent a lot of time and energy picking up bagged leaves from North Asheville during his first couple of years gardening. They break down faster than bark mulch and have an irksome tendency to get blown all over the place. You’d probably be better off with even free local wood chips from the city. Alternatively, you can layer leaves and add mulch on top of the leaves to keep them in place, but again, is the juice worth the squeeze?

This guy doesn’t really think so.

Robert Pavlis over at Gardenmyths.com recently posted a much more thorough article on what to do with leaves in the fall, he is an excellent resource for good gardening knowledge and worth checking out.

Here is the 3rd installment of a series we are doing in December as the year wraps up to look at some of our favorite plants in 2023. This list is in no particular order and highlights the evergreen conifers we love both for their beauty and thriving growth in the mountains of Western North Carolina. While we are also big fans of fancy evergreens brought in from the west coast (like spruces), for this list we are sticking with conifers readily available from local suppliers in the southeast. Without further ado:

 

green giant arborvitae, asheville evergreens, wnc screening trees1. Thuja Green Giant arborvitae. While these trees are quite all over the place at this point, we have to include them here for pure utility’s sake. If you need a tall, fast-growing privacy screen, there’s no better tree on the market right now.

arborvitae asheville, arborvitae shrubs, evergreen shrubs asheville

Fire Chief Arborvitae

2. Thuja Fire Chief arborvitae. Another in the same family as Green Giant, this is a relatively new variety on the market and an excellent foundation shrub if you need an evergreen that is both colorful and compact. Fairly slow growing but that’s a good thing for foundations.

fernspray chamaecyparis, gold fernspray, asheville evergreens, asheville plant nursery

3. Gold Fernspray chamaecyparis (false cypress). We just love both the green and gold versions of fernspray chamaecyparis. They grow to around 8′ and make excellent specimen evergreens or corner foundation planting. The loose, wild form isn’t for everyone, but if you like that look, they grow very well in WNC, and are deer resistant too!

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4. Globosa Nana cryptomeria.  Cryptomeria is one of those conifers that gets a little touchy with the cold, particularly if left in pots. Don’t let that deter you from planting globosa nana though, they make very nice, if slow-growing, foundation plants or low-growing specimens. We love their soft feel and unique leaf structure.

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5. Thuja Polar Gold arborvitae.  Polar gold, for us, beats out some of the other upright yellow conifers on the market like Fluffy or Forever Goldy. We think it’s form, somewhat like a more compact green giant, size (12-15′ at maturity), and just the right amount of gold make this cultivar stand out.

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6. Thuja DeGroots Spire arborvitae.  DeGroots! It’s not just a cool name with this one. If you like that California look with the tall thin Italian cypress, this is the best option for the southeast.  We like DeGroots for corners or to frame doorways, and since they are hardy to zone 3, they are great if left in ornamental pots.

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7. Thuja Pancake arborvitae.  Pancake is a new one for us, and no doubt one of our favorites on this list.  Pictures don’t do it justice, it has a fantastic blue-green color during cooler weather, the bluest we’ve seen on arborvitae.  Pancake is very compact, making it very versatile in the garden. Don’t forget the compact conifers! Many people tend to look for perennial flowers or groundcover for border areas, but adding a few compact evergreens can make a very low maintenance statement as well.

There you have it, 7 of our favorite evergreen conifers of 2023 for growing in Western North Carolina. As you can tell, we are big fans of arborvitae, they just handle the dips in temperature we have in the mountains so well, as well as the heat and humidity of the summers. If deer are a big concern for you,  you might want to stick with chamaecyparis or junipers, or just keep an eye on them for the first couple of years until they get established.

Euonymous: The Worst Shrub to Plant in Asheville

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I want to be nasty about this one, I really do. Euonymous suckered me in, enticing me with the bright yellow and green mix of the foliage, a unique option to add some color for a foundation-type evergreen.  All was well, for a few years.

It takes a while until the problems start to happen. Leaves drop, and scale slowly creeps in. It starts by looking ‘rough around the edges’ for a year or two before it’s decimated like the picture above.

The main problem is scale, and believe me, that’s enough. Scale is one of the hardest pests to deal with, enough that wholesale nurseries will stop growing plants that get it rather than try and treat it.  Think big burn pile.  That’s not all though:  Aphids, powder mildew, and anthracnose can also be a problem.

Don’t fall for the pretty face of euonymus like I did.  It just might be the worst shrub to plant in Asheville.

What should you plant instead?

If you are looking for evergreen yellow foliage, try Sunshine Ligustrum, arborvitae like Fire Chief, or perhaps Brass Buckle holly if you need a more compact foundation shrub. You can’t go wrong with arborvitae or most holly’s for evergreens here in the Asheville area.

 

Gaura: A Butterfly Magnet in Western North Carolina

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Gaura ‘Whirling Butterflies’

Gaura, also known as wandflower, is a genus of North American native flowering plants that are a true delight for both gardeners and pollinators. These elegant perennials boast airy, graceful blooms that flutter in the breeze, making an easy landing pad for butterflies all summer long.

At Flat Creek Plant Farm, we have been a little late to the party in growing this wonderful flower, but it has rapidly become one of our favorites over the last couple of seasons.  Not only is it easy to grow, but if you deadhead the spent blooms they will give you a repeat show in the late summer.

Why Butterflies Love Gaura

Butterflies are drawn to gaura’s abundance of nectar-rich flowers, which provide them with a vital source of energy. The long, slender flower spikes offer easy access for butterflies to reach the nectar. Additionally, the open flower structure allows butterflies to land comfortably while feeding.

Gaura Varieties for Every Garden

Several gaura varieties cater to different garden styles and preferences. Some popular choices include:

  • Gaura lindheimeri: This classic variety features tall, airy stems adorned with white or pink flowers that bloom from early summer to fall.
  • Gaura sinuata: This compact variety offers a shorter stature and a wider range of flower colors, including white, pink, red, and yellow.
  • Gaura ‘Whirling Butterflies’: This aptly named variety boasts a profusion of delicate white to pink flowers that dance in the wind, often 2-3′ tall.  This classic variety is our favorite so far, though we are excited to try some new varieties this year.

Planting and Caring for Gaura

Gaura thrives in full sun and well-drained soil. They are relatively low-maintenance and drought-tolerant, making them an excellent choice for busy gardeners. Here are some tips for planting and caring for gaura:

  • Choose a sunny location with well-drained soil.  In heavy clay like most of us have in Western North Carolina, it’s best to break up the soil well and add some soil conditioner to encourage drainage.  They aren’t that fussy and take our good ole clay fairly well though.
  • Mulch around the plant with a good shredded bark.
  • Water regularly during the first year after planting, then reduce watering once established.  They can be thirsty when in bloom, but with a good mulch don’t need much more than once a week in dense clay soil.
  • Deadhead spent flowers at least once during the season to encourage continuous blooming.
  • Divide plants every few years.

Benefits of Gaura Beyond Butterflies

While attracting butterflies is a major draw, Gaura offers several other benefits for your garden:

  • Long blooming season: Gaura provides months of continuous blooms, adding color and texture to your garden throughout the summer and fall.
  • Low maintenance: These plants require minimal care, making them ideal for busy gardeners.
  • Drought tolerance: Gaura thrives in dry conditions, making them a good choice for water-wise gardens.
  • Versatility: Gaura can be used in various garden settings, including borders, mixed beds, containers, and meadows.

Gaura: A Flutter of Beauty and Movement

Gaura is more than just a pretty flower; it’s an invitation to bring a flutter of beauty and movement to your garden. By planting these charming perennials, you can create a haven for butterflies and add a touch of elegance and grace to your outdoor space. We find that they are fantastic in the middle to back of the border and mix well with other light, airy plants like verbena bonariensis or muhlenbergia. It’s a fun plant to mix in even when you think you don’t have room.

I hope this article has inspired you to add gaura to your garden. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask!

No plant is more Asheville and Western North Carolina than rhododendron. They grow like weeds up in the mountains all over the area, sprouting up and thriving even perched over rocks on cliff faces. Despite that, it’s crazy how fussy they can be when we add them to our landscape. Here are a few tips for success when planting these beautiful natives.

  1. Add lots of organic matter. They like shady woodland areas that get lots of natural compost. Add a wide and thick layer of compost and/or manure to the planting bed before digging. A raised bed might also be a good choice here if necessary.
  2. Give them some afternoon shade.  In the nursery trade, full sun is 6 or more hours. Many rhododendrons are rated for full sun, but they don’t like full-on exposed areas all day long. Giving them at least a little afternoon shade is best.
  3. Don’t overwater. A lot of root failure happens when they are planted in heavy clay and overwatered. They have shallow root systems and don’t want to sit in overly wet areas.
  4. Watch for deer. They like to nip the new buds.  Arguably they are more deer-resistant than azaleas, but they can still be a problem.
  5. Scout for lacebug. This pesky critter can cause quite a bit of trouble, stunting the growth of the plant over time. Look for mottled-looking leaves with a white powdery-looking topside and black spots under the leaf.  It may need a spray that season.
  6. Mulch after planting, nice and wide. This goes along with organic matter, but should be in addition to those soil amendments. Mulch breaks down and adds more nutrients to the soil, keeps weeds at bay, and helps regulate soil temperature and moisture. Don’t skip this step!

Here is a video of some rhododendrons  on Strawberry Gap, just south of Asheville.

“The best time to prune is when you remember to do it.”

That saying is basically true, particularly for large woody plants that have been in the ground for a few years. That’s because most of us forget to prune until branches are slapping us in the face when we mow.

The best time for plants is winter/early spring before they begin to leaf out for the season. It’s December now in Asheville and we’ve had a couple of hard freezes (27 or lower), so the leaves have fallen off of most deciduous plants. At this time of year, it’s definitely time to prune whenever you get motivated to do it.

Single-stem trees are probably the trickiest plants to prune, it’s a bit of an art and a science. If you keep a few things in mind, and get a few under your belt, it’s not so daunting. Here are 3 basic tips for pruning trees the first year or two after planting.

  1. Cut off branches growing lower than 2′ at minimum.  3′ is probably even better if it is a medium to large tree. This keeps things tidy and clean at the base.
  2. Thin out congested areas by cutting away a few of the smaller branches to create space.  This will depend on the size and type of tree.  Some species, like the cherry in the video below, tend to put on a lot of new growth in the season and need heavier thinning.
  3. Cut away small branches that are crossing (or about to cross), growing in towards the center, or growing down towards the ground. You are looking to create an open, vase-like shape to encourage airflow.

If you are interested in learning more about pruning,  “The Pruning Book” by Lee Reich is an excellent resource. Youtube is full of great videos on the subject as well, though not so much this one:

Ah, the Thuja Green Giant. Those towering giants of the evergreen world, promising privacy and peace of mind to homeowners with a penchant for seclusion. But before you rush out and plant a line of these emerald behemoths, there are a few things you should know.

Young Green Giant, Asheville, NC

Thuja Green Giant screening trees

First, let’s talk size. These things are the Usain Bolt of the tree kingdom, growing up to 3 feet per year! That means your little saplings will transform into privacy walls in a heartbeat, potentially blocking the view, the sun, and the good vibes of your neighbors. 

Second, prepare for some serious shade. Green Giants aren’t just tall, they’re also incredibly dense. That means they cast a whole lotta shade, which is great for keeping your house cool in the summer but can turn your backyard into a perpetual twilight zone. So, if you have sun-loving plants or a dream of becoming a backyard tomato farmer, these might not be the best choice.

Third, be warned: Green Giants are hungry. All that growth in a season means that they need lots of sunlight and nitrogen.  They need to be fed like a teenager, particularly in the spring.  We recommend a good dose of slow-release like Ozmocote.

But here’s the thing: Green Giants have their good points too. They’re incredibly low maintenance, requiring minimal watering and pruning. They’re also resistant to pests and diseases, making them a hassle-free addition to your landscape. And let’s face it, there’s something undeniably satisfying about watching these leafy giants tower over your property, creating a sense of secluded sanctuary.

So, should you or shouldn’t you plant a Thuja Green Giant? It all comes down to your priorities. If you’re looking for dense privacy and low maintenance, they’re probably the best choice of screening tree for us in Western North Carolina. But just be sure to weigh the potential consequences, including telephone lines and maybe even your neighbors view.

In conclusion, the Thuja Green Giant is a double-edged sword. It can be your sanctuary or your neighbor’s nightmare, depending on which side of the fence you are on. If you need a dense, tall evergreen screen in Asheville, whether hippy or hipster, there really is no better choice.

Green Giants in South Asheville

Fire Chief arborvitae is one of our favorite evergreens, particularly for the winter landscape.  It’s a sport of ‘Rheingold’ but with more vibrant color in the spring, more compact habit, and less prone to splitting over time. A cultivar of the Eastern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis), it is a beautiful evergreen shrub that adds a touch of color as a foundation plant. Here’s why it should be considered for your garden:

Appearance:

The Fire Chief arborvitae has a compact, globe-shaped form that grows to a mature height and width of 3-5 feet. Its foliage is really what makes it special. In spring and summer, the leaves are a vibrant golden yellow, adding a sunny pop of color to the garden. As the weather cools, the foliage transforms into a stunning apricot-orange, providing a captivating display throughout the winter months.

Winter Hardiness:

This hardy shrub is resistant to cold temperatures down to -30°F (-34°C), making it an easy choice for any elevation, from Asheville to Boone. It also tolerates wind and snow well, maintaining its shape and color even under challenging conditions, without splitting.

Low Maintenance:

The Fire Chief requires minimal maintenance, making it a perfect choice for busy gardeners. It thrives in full sun to part shade and needs only moderate watering. Occasional pruning of leggy branches to maintain its shape is all that’s required(if you even want to bother with that.)

Versatility:

This versatile shrub can be used in a variety of ways in the landscape. It can be planted as a single specimen, in foundation plantings, borders, or containers. It also makes an excellent hedge.

Overall, the Fire Chief arborvitae is an excellent choice for winter landscapes. Its vibrant color, compact size, and low-maintenance needs make it a versatile choice for almost any place in your garden.

Additional Tips:

  • To ensure the best winter color, plant the Fire Chief arborvitae in full sun.
  • As with most plants for us in the heavy clay of Western North Carolina, mulch it well and if necessary amend the soil with a soil conditioner or finely ground bark mulch.
  • Water the shrub deeply in late fall before the ground freezes.

Arborvitaes are the go-to family of conifers for WNC as they handle the cooler temps as well as the summer heat of the south.  Fire Chief is one of our favorite compact cultivars and will provide years of low-maintenance beauty in your garden all year long.

Old crochety multi-stemmed shrubs are perhaps the most intimidating plant to prune.  Here is a video where I go over the process.  There are two basic steps:

  1. Cut out 25-30% of the oldest and largest stems at the base of the plant each year until they are replaced by new growth (a 2-3yr. process)
  2. Finish by lightly pruning unruly and out-of-shape branches into a vase-like form.

You will be surprised at how good it looks once you get some of that old growth out of there.