Western NC Planting Guide
Scroll down for some helpful planting information that’s specific to Asheville and Western North Carolina.
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Western NC Planting Guide
At this point, I’ve dug my share of holes in this good ole clay on my ridge in Weaverville. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.
The primary issue with the soil in WNC is drainage. Roots need oxygen, which they have a hard time getting in our heavy soil, especially during winter rains. After much trial and error, I decided that it was best to keep things as simple as possible. That boils down to a little technique, some good mulch, and patience.
Step 1: Get a nice BIG pile of triple ground bark mulch.
The first rule of buying mulch is that you never have enough. Skip the bags and get a nice big pile delivered from one of the many fine mulch yards around Asheville. Hardwood or pine doesn’t matter so much as long as its all bark and not the whole tree.
Some places only sell bark and others sell some of everything, so make sure you ask for bark. It’ll be more expensive. The finer the grind the quicker it will break down, which is good for the plants and not so much for your wallet.
Unless you want it to look a certain way I’d suggest just getting the cheapest all-bark mulch and then choosing the grind depending on the area you are mulching:
- Soil amendment, gardens, or plants you like to baby: Pine fines or triple grind
- General purpose, perennial beds, landscaping: Double grind or triple grind
- Slopes, neglected areas for weed control: Anything cheap (no need for an all bark product). Chunky is better in this case, or use free wood chips from the city.
Step 2: Stick it in the Ground
- Dig the hole. Most people say to dig a hole double the size of the pot or something similar. You probably want to listen to them but I get a little tired so to tell you a little secret I don’t usually do it. I dig a little bit wider and a little bit deeper than the pot, throw in some bark mulch or soil conditioner and mix it a little. If I dig up big clay clods I chuck those somewhere because I’m too lazy to break them up. The small chunks I do try to break up some. Sometimes, if the ground is a little softer and it’s a good day I don’t really amend at all, just break up the clay using a digging fork.
- Plant level with the soil or just slightly above. DO NOT plant below the soil line which can cause the plant to suffocate.
- Break up the soil as much as possible, but pack it back down around the roots once it’s planted to eliminate air spaces. This will seem counterintuitive but you don’t want the roots exposed to air pockets below the soil. Use your hands, not your feet to tamp it down, double-checking that the root ball isn’t too deep.
- Don’t fertilize if it’s in the fall, in the spring sprinkle all the way around the canopy of the plant with slow-release fertilizer (optional). Skip this if the plant has been fertilized at the nursery.
- Give it a good drink. This helps settle it into its home, but I admit to sometimes slacking on this step. If you water the plant before you plant that is usually good unless it’s hot and dry.
- Mulch mulch mulch like crazy on the surface around the plant. I’d mulch around my bum if it would stick. Just go wild with it. Nice and thick and wide, but of course leave some space from the base of the plant. I like to go extra wide around trees so I can plant flowers around them the following season.
What about compost/manure/peat moss/etc etc?
For the most part, all that stuff just makes things confusing and expensive. There is no standard when it comes to those amendments, so who really knows what’s in those bags and what they do for your plants.
If you are lucky enough to have a farm nearby and can get manure or compost cheap and in decent quantity, go for it. I would use that as a top dress seasonally for beds, either tilling it in or no-till, followed by mulch on top of that. No doubt you will have some great beds and better soil.
Buying bags of that stuff is a money pit with very little return on investment. For plants to thrive they need loose well-draining soil and a steady supply of nitrogen. The most efficient way to achieve that is with mulch and slow-release fertilizer.
Edit Spring 2022
Live and learn, right? Always keep growing, no pun intended.
After a number of years of digging and planting in VERY heavy clay on this ridge in Weaverville, I’ve come to the conclusion that if I could do it over I would bring in topsoil for my new garden and perennial beds. Nothing fancy, just decent topsoil.
The above information still stands, this would just be for starting new beds, followed by the same yearly mulch. Hopefully, your soil is a little bit easier to work with than mine is.
Do you have a brown thumb? These 6 plants are beautiful and super easy to grow.
Questions, comments, and plant jokes are always welcome: firstname.lastname@example.org
A Mulch Primer
If I could pick just one thing that you could do to improve your green thumb, it would be to mulch. Mulch more and mulch more often, using the right kind of mulch. Say that three times real fast.
I think of mulch as tucking the plants in for the season. Whenever you plant any perennial flower, tree, or shrub; you want to have enough mulch to spread 2-4” thick all the way to the width of the branch canopy. Wider is even better, that way over time it builds up the soil around your foundation plants so that you can plant in it later. There is no such thing as too wide. Do you really need that grass?
Most likely you’ll be picking up your mulch when it’s spring planting time, which is right when the suppliers are crazy busy and they just want to get your order done and move on to the next.
My first piece of advice is, if you have the space, to get stocked up before then; say in January or February. That is when supplies are high and you will have a much easier time getting your questions asked. You can also find better deals at that pont, especially if you bring cash. Suppliers welcome the revenue during the slow times, and it pays to build a relationship with a good local source.
Second, get more. Think you need 2 yards, get 5. You will use it. Put it in thick, your plants deserve it. Assuming you are getting it delivered, the cost of delivery is usually about the price of a yard of mulch, so you don’t want them coming out twice.
The Benefits of Mulching
This is specific to our compact heavy clay soil in the Asheville area. If you are lucky enough to be able to dig with a shovel and not a pick mattock like me, it may not apply to you so much, but I’d still mulch just the same.
- Keeps the weeds down. You knew this of course, but it’s worth mentioning. You get a lot less weeds when you mulch. Not zero-there are a lot of stubborn weeds. If you want more thorough control it’s a good idea to use a pre-emergent weed preventer like Preen right after mulching and before your plants leaf out.
- Regulates moisture. I find that with a good mulch watering is almost never needed with plants in the ground. Sometimes I can’t help myself and go to water in the middle of summer, only to get under the mulch and find the soil plenty damp despite days of no rain. By the way, it’s a good idea to do this- check under your mulch, because over watering is a real plant killer.
- Softens soil. This is the real biggie. Lets face it, gardening can be a lot of hard work. Whenever an opportunity presents itself to slack, I’m going to take it. So rather than work the soil or tilling it up, I topdress with mulch instead. Is this as good in the short term? Probably not, but over time that mulch breaks down and softens that heavy clay soil up. I’ve had great success planting in almost straight clay with this method. And I mean straight clay.
- Amends soil. Have you ever seen those bags of soil conditioner at the box stores? Or most “topsoil” for that matter? Those bags, in one form or another, are mostly composted (broken down) mulch. Rather than buying more bags of overpriced mulch, I just throw a shovelful of whatever mulch I have on hand into the hole when I break up the clay. Good drainage is our biggest challenge in this area, and that mulch will help break things up a little. Keep in mind that it’s best to use a smaller grind bark mulch for this and not big pieces of tree.
Types of Mulch
- Grind size: Basically the more times it’s been ground, the faster it breaks down. You don’t necessarily want it breaking down fast, that will depend on what you are using it for. If I have a bank to cover and forget I want the cheapest single grind I can find. If it’s for my tomato beds I’d want something much finer, say triple grind, or fines.
- Bark or whole tree: In general a bark mulch is preferred for your beds and most landscaping purposes, but when times are tight it’s better to go with the cheaper whole tree than nothing at all. Again, for banks and areas you want to forget about and keep tidy, there is no reason not to save the cash and get the whole tree. Arborist wood chips are another option for those spots, often available for free from the county.
- Type of tree: Around here there are basically two kinds of wood used; hardwood or pine. Unless you just like a particular wood, the important things are grind size and if it’s bark or whole tree.
If I were to choose the best all purpose mulch to have on hand it would be double ground hardwood bark. Bark being the key term here. The bark breaks down quickly (you want that if you have really heavy clay), and the bark is nutrient rich and fluffy.
Nuggets, dyed mulch, wood chips: All these are specialized items, usually at a premium price. These have their place if you have the need for a certain look or aren’t planning on planting much in those beds for the season. For most gardeners these products won’t be of much interest.
UPDATE 5/3/21: I have always used pine bark for my perennial beds and recently had a master gardener friend tell me she thought hardwood bark was better because it doesn’t acidify the soil as much. I think she may be right on that one, so I stand corrected! If you do use pine, it may be a good idea to sprinkle some pelleted lime over those beds every other year or so.
That said, all bark (pine or hardwood) is the way to go for your nicer areas. I’d suggest going to see Matt at The Longest Yard, and stock up now, all the construction happening has mulch at great prices.
Explore our family owned propagation farm and plant nursery located on a ridge in beautiful Weaverville, North Carolina – just 20 minutes north of Asheville.
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