Think on this: “edible landscaping.” Roll it around in your mind. Does it conjure up images of chocolate rivers with lollipops sprouting like flowers on the banks? Or maybe hedges speckled with fat blueberries, with stalks of creamy-white sweet corn standing sentinel by the gate?
Many of us imprison ourselves with the idea that an herb is something that goes from the little bottle into the spaghetti sauce — or, at best, from the windowsill into the pot roast.
Once again, try this phrase on for size: “edible landscaping.” The whole point of this horticultural term is to help us think of useful plants in new ways. Why plant mere shrubs or flowers when we could be growing useful herbs — ornamental, flowering bushes that can garnish our salads, season our soups, flavor our teas and delight our hummingbirds?
If you’re game to expand your herbal horizons, there’s probably no one better to get you started than Kate Jayne of Leicester. Some 26 years ago, she and her husband, Fairman, moved to the top of a mountain in Little Ball Cove, in the Newfound Mountains. As soon as they built a home, they started a plant nursery.
Since then, their plant collection has blossomed, and their reputation has grown like a well-fertilized garden. Most of their business is mail-order, but many serious gardeners from across the country have managed to weave into their vacations a visit to Kate and Fairman’s, the same way some families make sure they catch Disney World on a swing through Florida.
Many people are introduced to the Sandy Mush Herb Nursery when they order an unusual plant or see the operation profiled on TV or in magazines. Martha Stewart has spotlighted the herb nursery in both her magazine and her TV show; the nursery also was featured on “The Gardener’s Diary” on HGTV (Home & Garden Television.)
“We have plants that nobody else has,” explains Kate, who is forever collecting new varieties and receiving unique specimens as gifts. “People who are growing plants always have a little goody to share with somebody else,” she says.
In one of the greenhouses, Kate has bay trees taller than she is, some 4-foot-high scented geraniums, rosemary trees that are 15 and 20 years old, and a popular dragon topiary fashioned of sweet myrtle. Visitors can browse for grape-scented sage or pink chintz thyme or golden rain rosemary or buttercup ivy; there are so many options that choosing a common plant like Italian parsley would seem shamefully dull.
The nursery’s brochure lists 113 types of geraniums (categorized by the type of scent), plus 28 mints, 13 kinds of oregano, 15 kinds of catnip and 21 subspecies of bee balm. The nursery offers three types of ginger, four kinds of echinacea, plus valerian and ramps (for those who know of the folk remedy’s reputed benefits as a spring tonic), and many more.
Some practical advice
“If a soil will support weeds, it will support herbs,” Kate promises.
Still, to give your garden its best shot, you should start by feeding it the nutrients it’s lacking.
Certain native plants are indicators of soil condition, but not everyone recognizes them. Kate recommends the soil tests offered through the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service.
These soil tests are a great deal: They’re free, and within a month-and-a-half you should know what your soil is hungry for. Simply stop by the Extension office at 31 College Place, next to the Beaucatcher Tunnel. The office is in room 112 of the Asheville Office Park, Building B. You can pick up a soil-sample box, follow the instructions, and return the box to the same Extension office.
While you’re awaiting your test results from the lab in Raleigh (and wishing warm weather would hurry home to WNC), you may want to do some reading. Kate recommends GreenPrints. The eight-year-old magazine is published by Fairview resident Pat Stone, a former editor at Mother Earth News. Kate values this particular magazine for its gardening philosophy. (To obtain a copy, call 628-1902).
Then, when it comes time for planting, you’ll find plenty of tempting and perky young herbs for sale. But you’ll save money if you start some of them from seed. Annuals that grow readily from seed include basil, coriander, dill and summer savory — but don’t sow the coriander and dill before April, and don’t even think about planting basil until mid-May, at the earliest.
“Basil cannot stand cold. It just rots,” Kate says. “Sometimes it’s better to wait until June to plant it, because, once the ground gets warm, it grows really fast.”
Other herbs are harder to start from seed — but if you buy them from a nursery, they’ll take off with just a little encouragement. Easy herbs for beginners include chives, mints, oreganoes, thymes, parsleys and lemon balm.
If you’re looking for perennials that winter over in this climate, Kate recommends chives and garlics, oreganoes, lemon balm, lavenders, thymes, sages, parsleys and certain types of rosemary. (Other types of rosemary and bay trees need protection from Asheville’s winters.)
Once you have an herb garden, you’ll be able to experiment with the leaves as seasonings — each variety in each herbal family offers a subtly different flavor. Besides the psychological benefits of gardening, you’ll be able to reap the healthful rewards of less salt and less oil in your diet.
The flowers of any herb — scented geraniums, rosemaries, even mustard or creasy greens — can be tossed into your salad, along with the better-known edible flowers, such as pansies and nasturtiums. And it isn’t hard to find recipes using scented geraniums or other herbs to flavor jams and jellies.
While you’re in the market for plants, why not think about the animals, too? Certain plants, like pennyroyal and camphory or piney-smelling wormwoods, are reputed to repel fleas. Catnip — well, that one word says it all (but if you plant enough, your feline might just be willing to share some with you for your tea).
More importantly, think of the wild creatures. There must be 40 or 50 types of salvia (decorative sages) that bloom from late summer until the frost, Kate says — and all of them are adored by butterflies, bees and hummingbirds.
It’s crucial to feed our pollinators, so there will be pollinators in the growing seasons to come, Kate insists. The pollinators that need our help the most are bees — many of which have been devastated by tracheal mites.
For the sake of the animals, the insects and ourselves, Kate advises gardeners to never, ever spray. And “at all times, go for organic,” she urges.
The nursery helps control its larvae pests with diatomaceous earth, a fine powder of prehistoric shells and plankton that doesn’t seem to hurt earthworms. But Kate says it’s best to handpick bugs off your plants, and to boost your plants’ own defenses with good nutrition (think compost).
In extreme circumstances, Kate says insecticidal soap can be used to fight a particularly virulent swarm of pests. However, “insects out of control are a sign of the balance of nature being out-of-control,” Kate points out.
“We humans have got to accept what we call ‘imperfect’ produce,” she counsels. “We can’t kill everything, or we’ll kill ourselves.”
The Sandy Mush Herb Nursery in Leicester is open for phone calls and visits from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday through Saturday; the rest of the week is devoted to handling mail orders. To plan a visit, you should call ahead (683-2014) to ask for directions, check road conditions (it’s a challenging uphill drive), and make doubly certain they’re there. Plan to make an adventure of it: Getting there takes longer than you think, you’ll see all sorts of interesting farms and houses and terrain on your journey, and the property has plenty of gardens to wander.