Fragrant Viburnum in Spring

It was a pretty brutal winter this year (2022-2023), reaching -2 this December, then the usual up-and-down warm and cold weather in February and March.  


For two good weeks this year the early spring bloomers were just fantastic.  Quince, flowering almond, magnolias, and the forsythia were having one of the best parties I’ve been to in a while.  Then of course the cops came and it’s back to winter again.


The talk of the town is plant loss this year.  Many people lost a lot of plants, even very established evergreens like holly’s and skip laurels that are supposed to be able to handle the cold


While -2 degrees isn’t common for us in Asheville, it does happen every decade or so.  Here are a few tips to help your plants survive if it does happen again.


  1. Mulch, every time.  This doesn’t help the top half much, but protecting the roots gives you a better chance of the plant bouncing back in the spring.
  2. Go for plants rated to zone 6.  Yeah, much of Asheville is in zone 7, but that little extra hardiness can make a difference.
  3. Provide some wind protection, particularly if it is a plant rated to zone 7.  The wind can be brutal in the winter and is a big factor in survival.
  4. Plant in the spring.  Trees and shrubs love the cool nights and warm soil of the fall, but they don’t get the same chance to get established for the season that they do when planted in the spring.  Particularly smaller plants like 1 gallon size.
  5. Plant bigger plants.  Bigger root systems often means better growth and survival.  We don’t have the best soil in the world.  It helps to have a head start.
  6. Look for plants that bloom in late spring.  We love the Japanese magnolias, but it’s hard to justify fooling with them up here on a ridge in the mountains.  Many plants have a number of cultivars- look for varieties the bloom in mid to late spring, or on new growth in the summer.
  7. Be careful with fertilizing, particularly in the fall and early spring.  New growth is particularly sensitive to frost.

One saying that stuck with me early on in my plant adventure was, “For every dollar you spend in the garden, .90 cents should be on the soil.”

I would add, soil and roots.  The size of the plant/root system matters almost as much as the soil you put it in, not to mention that the idea of spending a lot on soil amendments can be very misleading.

This week I put in a few fall annuals in a new bed in front of the house.  The owner at some point had put down plastic and then mulched on top of that.  So of course weeds were growing from the mulch that had broken down and the area was a mess.  After removing the weeds and what I could of the plastic, I needed some better soil to grow them in.

So I went to Lowes and picked up a few bags of cheap topsoil and pine bark mulch.  The topsoil they carry is basically composted mulch, my guess from whole trees.  It looks a little like chunky sawdust.  Whatever, it drains better than the clay it’s on top of.

The pansies and kale went right in that, with maybe an inch or two dug into the clay.  To finish I put pine bark mulch on top of that layer and around the plants.

One of these days I’ll water them with Miracle Grow or similar to give them a boost of nitrogen.

Total for soil and mulch:  $25.62.  Total for plants:  $54.  Guess the 90% theory is down the toilet.

Speaking of down the toilet, what about adding bonemeal to your new beds?

Up in these hills we rarely need calcium or phosphorus, and even if you do, there are much better sources than bonemeal.

Like almost all the stuff you buy in bags, it’s mostly good marketing.  There is a smidgen of usefulness for a tiny minority of growers, but just barely enough to justify its existence.

Don’t buy that crap.

If you get a soil test and for some strange reason you are low on phosphorus, superphosphate will address that deficiency much faster, or just use an all-purpose fertilizer like 10-10-10 that will give your plants nitrogen as well.

Almost all plants prefer rich but well-draining soil.  Clay is rich in nutrients but terrible at draining.  Sand is great at draining but very low on nutrients.  In the middle is loam to varying degrees.

The goal when we plant in our good ole red clay is primarily to improve drainage to help the roots expand and breathe.  We don’t need to worry too much about nutrients with the exception of nitrogen, particularly with annuals and vegetables.

The key to good root growth is the quality and quantity of your topsoil.  Often we have no topsoil at all.  Topsoil is created naturally from organic matter:  Leaves, dead branches, and other decaying material.

Amendments like mulch, manure, and compost break down into topsoil over time.  Just top dressing with organic matter like these every year can be enough to soften the clay and give plants time to get established while adding to the layer of topsoil as it breaks down.

If the clay you are planting in isn’t too dense (you can dig the hole with a shovel without a hernia), topdressing is enough for most trees and shrubs.

A faster and more luxurious solution is to bring in topsoil before you plant.  If you can hardly get a shovel in the ground, consider bringing in topsoil to lay on top of the clay and plant in. You’ll still want to mulch annually, at least for the first couple of years.

What about adding amendments to the hole?

I’m of the school of thought that the roots should be exposed to as much native soil as possible, so I shy away from adding soil amendments into the hole itself.  If you need a pickaxe to dig, try adding a bit of bagged soil conditioner as you break up the chunks of clay.  This is essentially composted mulch and will help loosen things up a bit.

Usually I just throw a little triple ground bark mulch in the hole when nobody is looking.

Another way to loosen things up is to till, either with machines or by hand.  Tilling with a shovel feels a little too much like work, but it is worth it particularly if you need to use the space that season.  Since it needs to be done annually it’s primary use is for your vegetable garden, but it can be helpful with perennials if you are prepping a large area to plant in.

Sombrero Sangrita Coneflower

It’s the middle of July, and a great time to reflect on the season while we hide in the shade in the middle of the day with an iced tea.  We stretched ourselves with the amount of plants we grew this season, maybe a bit too much.  Here are some of our favorites this year, chosen for beauty, ease of growth in the Asheville area, and long bloom time.  In no particular order.

1.  Aphrodite Sweetshrub

This native cultivar, or nativar (ugh) is in my top 5 favorite plants for sure.  The big leaves have a tropical look and it’s still blooming now, in mid-July.  It starts blooming later than the natives but has bigger blooms that just keep on coming.  It gets big though.  An excellent specimen.

2.  Raspberry Wine Bee Balm

I planted a few of these last spring and they have run wild all over the place.  I wasn’t sure I’d like how aggressive they are but they look surprisingly cool intertwined in with the shrubs like forsythia that look blah this time of year.  I think I like this color better than the red Jacob Cline, which has a similar habit.

3.  Eastern Snowball Bush

I fought liking this old classic, but its later bloom time in spring gave me a fantastic show of flowers this year on my windy ridge.  It’s not much to look at during the rest of the year, but it’s putting out some red berries now, which redeems it a little.  I’m diggin’ it now, you were right gram.  The true Eastern Snowball Bush is a spring blooming viburnum, not a smooth hydrangea (that one blooms early/mid-summer.)

4.  Sombrero Sangrita Coneflower

The Sombrero series has me hooked.  They have a nice habit, lots of branching, and vibrant flowers.  Love the Sangrita color in particular.

5.  Soft Serve False Cypress

This is a beautiful conifer that is a much better choice as a specimen evergreen than most spruces in our heat and humidity.  The size is about perfect to anchor a perennial bed or for the corner of the house.  There is also a gold version that’s just as purdy.

6.  Lemon Merangue Baptisia

I fell in love with baptisia this year but Lemon Merangue, with its silvery foliage and bright yellow flowers, was my favorite.  I can’t wait for next spring to see it again.

7.  Storm Cloud Amsonia

I’ve been luke warm to our native amsonia hubrichii.  This one, amsonia tabernaemontana, doesn’t have the bright fall color of its cousin, but makes up for it with almost black new growth followed by sparkling blue flowers in spring.  Fantastic.  It’s native too.

8.  Fire Light Hydrangea

Fire Light is probably my favorite sun hydrangea right now.  It has a nice dense creamy white flowers popping up now (mid July) that start turning pink/red fairly quickly.  It gets big though, about 8’.

9.  Berry Timeless Coral Bells

This heuchera has flowers that are just as good as the foliage.  They bloom all summer long and even make good cut flowers.  It’s a native villosa hybrid and holds up to our southern heat and humidity.  A very low maintenance beauty for the shade garden.

10.  Karl Forester Feather Reed Grass

Grasses don’t sell very well for us, but the more I grow the more I appreciate them.  Karl Forester is an oldie but goodie, and still very popular for a reason.  It stays narrow and very upright, looking stately and graceful in the wind, especially in late spring.  It doesn’t self seed, and does just fine in heavy clay.

11.  Sky Pencil Holly

Another oldie but goodie, this narrow holly looks stately framing entranceways and even does great in pots.  Give it full sun and good airflow for best performance.  Sky Pencil is Sarah’s favorite.

Raspberry Wine Bee Balm
Fire Light Hydrangea
Aphrodite Sweetshrub
Soft Serve Gold

Some of these tips are from learning things the hard way and some are from my chats with old-timers that knew better.  Take what you like, with a four-finger pinch of salt.

  1. Fertilize the heck out of them.  Tomatoes are hungry plants and often under fertilized.  I use Ozmocote in a pink bottle, but it’s expensive.  10-10-10 or similar generic brand works, just apply according to the directions on the bag.  Just don’t forget to re-apply if you go that route.
  2. Stake with big, heavy-duty tomato cages.  Don’t chince out with these, you’ll thank me later.
  3. Mulch around them after planting.  I’ve tried shredded leaves, compost, straw, you name it, but the best is the old standby:  Triple ground hardwood bark mulch.  Slather on the mulch and it will save you a lot of watering.
  4. Spray with a fungicide every couple of weeks.  I have had the best results with Mancozeb, but Immunox is the easiest to use.
  5. The type of tomato matters.  Most experienced gardeners get sick of fighting the blight and go with hybrids.  I fall into that camp but can’t help but grow at least one or two heirlooms.  La Roma 2, Earligirl, and Betterboy are the most popular hybrids. For heirlooms try Cherokee Purple or Mr. Stripey.  See number 4 if you want to grow heirlooms.
  6. Pests- slugs and deer are the most irritating pest problems.  Slugs are an issue when the plants are young and deer just when they are ripe on the vine.  Put some slug bait down when you plant them and install a high fence around your garden.  For other bugs, just monitor and spray when necessary, in the early morning or evening so you don’t get the bees.
  7. Till the clay or truck in a thick layer of topsoil to grow in.  Tomatoes have huge roots and need lots of room, both above and below ground.
  8. Don’t be afraid to prune the indeterminates.  The less of the plant that is touching the ground the better, and pruning the top will keep it reasonably near the cages so you can keep it tied down.

If I were to pick 4 to grow this year it would be Roma, Betterboy, Cherokee Purple, and Sunsugar (or Sungold).  5th would be Brandywine just because.  Or Early Girl.  Don’t hold me to it.

Ego 56V with turbo, baby

We’ve come a long way with electric tools. Some still aren’t there yet (I still haven’t found an electric weed whacker I like), but ther are two in my toolbox now that I wouldn’t do without.

First is an electric blower. I’ve used a few different models, and with these, you get what you pay for. You want one with a turbo button, trust me, and those get pretty expensive. The more money you spend, the more power you get and the longer it will run before needing to be charged.

I like the 56V EGO brand, available on Amazon or Lowes. Use your best judgment; if you only need to blow off your deck and pathways, you will want a lighter-weight model without the turbo. Most people will appreciate having the extra power come fall though.

The second is hedge trimmers. I have a 40V Kobalt from Lowes that runs forever and tackles most jobs I throw at it. I much prefer the regular trimmer to an extendable one. It’s not worth the additional weight for how little the extensions get used.

Hedge trimmers are great for deadheading perennials like echinacea or lavender, especially if you are a “leave the crap there to compost” kinda person like I am.

I haven’t used any other brands besides my Kobalt, but they seem the same if you go by battery size. The 40V hits the sweet spot of weight to power ratio.

Electric tools have come a long way.  Two of my favorites are my 40V hedge trimmer and 56V blower.

The hedge trimmer won’t get through big branches but is perfect for shrubs that tend to get leggy, like the pink flowering almond in the video above.

Tardiva Hydrangea

A few years ago I was lamenting my clay soil at work one day when a friend mentioned Ruth Stout and the lasagna gardening method. It sounds great, skip the tilling and layer hay between green organic materials and boom, great plants without any weeding, tilling, or digging.

This simple idea set the tone and has been my approach to gardening until now. No tilling, lots of organic matter, and lots of hot wheelbarrow action.

Lately, I’ve been asking myself if I haven’t caused myself a lot more work than necessary. It sure wouldn’t be the first time.

How valuable is your time? We are the wealthiest country in the world with access to affordable dirt by the truckload. Is all this hauling and chopping and turning necessary?

What about composting? Sure, the plants love it, but one season I spent considerable effort hauling food scraps from a catering company, layering in browns, and turning it once a month with a turning fork (not easy). A few months later all that work got me a few bags worth of compost, something I could have bought for $40 or $50 at the mulch yard.

There are a lot of old-timers that grow serious gardens around here. They till it every season, fertilize it, and grow great plants. There is practical wisdom to that method, working the soil as we’ve done for millennia, though plowing has gone in and out of favor at different points in history.

Every piece of land is different. The no-till method might make sense for you. It’s one way of getting good results out of your garden, but I wouldn’t say it’s easy. Just be wary of making your job harder than it needs to be.

At the very least I’d suggest bringing in some good topsoil at the start of your project so it isn’t such a long slog to reach the goal of all this effort: Decent dirt to grow in.

Here’s what the science says.

When it comes to growing strawberries in Asheville and WNC, it REALLY matters to your success (and sanity) which type of plant you decide to grow.  I may be 62% full of it, but believe me on this one.

There are a slew of issues that bother strawberry plants.  Once you make it past the red stele, root rot, and leaf spot, and are just about to pluck, with hands shaking like uncle Pete on a bender, that first glistening red berry of the season,  in swoops Bambi and chews them all to nubs.

Is that laughter I hear as that white tail bounces off into the woods?  Yeah, I’m bitter.  Let my tears guide you.

Ever-bearing or June-bearing?  Most people think they want ever-bearing.  It sounds cool;  berries all season long, right?  Not really.  Technically it’s just two rounds of berries, one in early summer and one in late summer, with maybe a couple random berries popping up in between.

What else is ready in late summer?  You guessed it, everything else in the garden.  Do you really have the bandwidth to worry about strawberries at the same time you are picking tomatoes by the bucketful, or would it make more sense to get a good solid crop of berries in the beginning of the season and be done with it?

Ever-bearing berries are great if you have kids on the scout for them and/or just want a few berries here and there to munch while you are gardening.  They usually bear fruit the same year you plant them and are great for hanging baskets, pots, or small beds near the house.

If you want the best, biggest, baddest berries, have space for a decent patch, and like to stock up with jam, June-bearing is the way to go.  The berries tend to be better and the crop bigger.  This is the case with most plants that bloom twice in the same year.  The second flush of blooms comes at the expense of earlier blooms, and the following fruit.

June-bearing plants take 1 year to produce fruit.  Commercial producers in the south- those goood ones in May from South Carolina in the white buckets- are all June-bearing.  They might even be plugs treated like annuals and replaced every year, a neat idea but not for us in the mountains.

The number one tip for growing berries in the Asheville area is to pick the right variety, with disease resistance a top priority.  If you want ever-bearing, Ozark Beauty is the best I’ve found.  For June-bearing, try Earliglow.  Once you get the right plants, here are a few tips for growing them.

  1. Straw makes a great mulch for strawberries, but it can be weedy depending on where you source it.  You could try shredded leaves or pine straw as well.  The goal is to keep the leaves, blooms, and fruit off the ground and as dry as possible.
  2. They like well draining soil.  Sandy loam is great, but up here I’d do a raised bed or raised row topped with a loose topsoil, 6-8” or so.  Or grow them in a pot.
  3. Feed them well.  Ozmocote plus is my go-to for fruit plants when I want a great yield and low maintenance, or you can also use a slow-release lawn fertilizer with high nitrogen, just be careful how you apply it and how often.
  4. Spray with a fungicide like Captan every week during bloom and fruit set.  For maximum protection alternate with a systemic fungicide like Immunox after fruiting.
  5. Protect from the deers!
  6. If you want really low maintenance, try them in some big pots and start fresh after a season or two.


For the best crop of strawberries, look for plants that have good disease resistance, I like Ozark Beauty for ever-bearing or Earliglow for June-bearing.  Plant them in pots or raised beds with well-draining topsoil (or potting soil), fertilize with a slow-release fertilizer, mulch well, and grow them in South Carolina.

That last part is a joke.  Kinda.

Want to see what else we are growing this season?  Click here!

Here are ten tips for planting fruit trees in Asheville and Western North Carolina.  Although our climate is excellent for growing many types of fruit trees and shrubs, there are quite a few challenges involved.  We have a lot of disease pressure, spring is a yo-yo with the weather, and the soil is about as heavy as it gets.  That said, this area grows a lot of fruit, especially apples.

If you haven’t made the trip to some of the orchards around Hendersonville, do yourself a favor this fall and check it out.  They produce some of the best apples I’ve ever had.  I’m always sad when the last one is gone and I have to start buying grocery store apples again.

Henderson County is the number one apple producer in the state, producing 85% of the apples grown in NC and over $22 million annually in sales*.  The apple festival in Hendersonville every year is so packed that it’s hard to move in the streets. Even the kinds you think you don’t like so much are fantastic when you get them in season straight from a local orchard.

Even more fantastic is going out the back door and picking them straight from your own trees.

Here are 10 things you should know before planting fruit trees in Asheville and WNC:

  1. Standard rules apply as for growing most other things, only more so.  Fruit trees like lots of sun, rich, well-draining soil, and space for air to circulate freely.  This probably means that you need to amend and break up your soil when you plant, keep it mulched, and prune your trees yearly.
  2. If you buy bare-root, plant them in mid to late spring after the danger of a hard freeze has passed.  For container-grown plants you can plant anytime from fall to spring.  Avoid the summer, when the heat can stress them.
  3. Be very careful about online shopping, especially if it seems like a deal.  Shipping soil gets very expensive, so if it’s not, that means not many roots.  Not good.  Best case scenario is that you have to wait to get fruit for 3-5 years.
  4. Look for disease-resistant rootstocks and varieties.  Geneva rootstock tends to be resistant to fireblight, the worst nasty for apple trees. Geneva rootstock will give your roots some protection, but you still have to keep an eye on the tree and cut out those areas if necessary.  Best case for apples is a resistant variety on Geneva rootstock, like Empire or Liberty.
  5. Pay attention to growers in your area.  If they are growing a type of tree most likely you’ll be able to grow it too.
  6. Watch out for Junipers!  Upright Junipers (native red cedar) host cedar-apple fungus, which requires both apple (or another plant in the rosacea family) and a Juniper to complete its life cycle.  If possible, keep your apples a few hundred yards away from any upright Junipers.
  7. If you want some extra insurance against the nasties, spray with a fungicide, especially the first season or two while it’s getting established.  Immunox is the easiest to use and most available to homeowners.  Start with the program right at bud break in March/Early April and follow the instructions for your particular plant.
  8. Look for later flowering varieties, especially if you are up in the higher elevations.  Those late frosts can really hurt your feelings.
  9. Fertilize with a slow-release fertilizer in early spring.  Slow-release is much more expensive, but it’s by far the safest, easiest way to make sure your plants get enough nutrients the entire growing season.
  10. Don’t sweat the small stuff.  If your livelihood doesn’t depend on your trees and fruit being picture-perfect, don’t worry too much about a blemish here and there. Most of the issues that pop up don’t do lasting damage to the tree.  The biggest issue is usually a late frost, which you can’t do much about anyway.  If the frost gets those flowers, remember that at least the plant gets to put more of its energy into getting nice and established for the next year.


Fruit trees and shrubs take a little extra effort to thrive in Asheville, but it’s well worth it.  Choose disease-resistant varieties if possible (especially fireblight), site them well, and give them lots of love at planting time.

Fruit plants are an investment.  Don’t spend all that money on plants and then skimp on the soil amendments and effort to plant it right.  Use a soil conditioner to break up the soil nice and wide around the plant, sprinkle a little fertilizer all around the canopy (if it’s in spring), and tuck it in with at least 3” of a good fine bark mulch.

*Henderson County Chamber of Commerce

For a handy dandy chart on apple diseases;  click here.

We get two big fruit deliveries from Central TN, the nursery capital of the US- one in spring and one in fall.  Click here to see our current inventory.