Down the garden path

You might figure the odds of running across a perfectly manicured Japanese garden in Madison County to be a tad on the slim side. Ditto for happening on a nest of carnivorous swamp plants in a renovated gas station in Hendersonville, or a diminutive version of the Alps in Burke County.

But armed with a new guidebook — Farms, Gardens & Countryside Trails of Western North Carolina — your chances of encountering such exotic finds skyrocket to a nice, round 100 percent.

Page 64 gives directions to Jarvis Landscaping and Japanese Garden (on Old Mill Road near Mars Hill). Landscapers Jack Jarvis and Randy Doan have turned a former tobacco farm into a sanctuary complete with lotus-filled ponds and a gated bonsai garden harboring a 500-year-old ponderosa pine.

“That place always surprises everyone,” reveals Jan Love, who researched and wrote most of the 240-page guidebook, published in January by the Asheville nonprofit HandMade in America as a follow-up to the group’s successful The Craft Heritage Trails of Western North Carolina (published in 1996).

The unexpected metamorphosis from gas station to garden shop is also detailed with a photo and description of Rupach’s Garden Gallery (402 S. Church St. in Hendersonville).

Then there’s the Trail of Faith in the Burke County town of Valdese, founded in 1893 by the Waldensian families of the Cottian Alps. Tons of dirt lovingly bulldozed into miniature Alps highlight the unusual trail.

And that’s not even mentioning an alpaca ranch (Fireweed Alpaca Ranch near Valle Crucis), a pick-your-own berry farm (Dogwood Hills Farm at Ox Creek), or the growing number of labyrinths winding around WNC.

Overflowing with charm, the guidebook highlights more than 500 sites in 21 WNC counties, including farms, gardens, vineyards, orchards and nurseries, along with bed-and-breakfasts, restaurants and heritage sites with an agricultural or horticultural connection. The discoveries are clustered into six proposed driving excursions with names like Jewels & Gem Meander (for the counties north of Buncombe) and Quilt Top Ramble (through the High Country in and around Boone, N.C.).

Anyone attempting to visit all the stops on any one trail would surely drop dead of exhaustion. A less-taxing approach would be to pick and choose (and plan ahead — since more than a few entries suggest calling first for an appointment).

Despite the suggested itineraries, Farms, Gardens & Countryside Trails does give wanderers permission to get off the beaten path, suggesting: “If you see an interesting road that’s off the map, take it. Getting lost (and found again) is half the fun.”

Although the book is aimed at tourists, there are more than enough little-known nooks to make the book worthwhile for garden-loving locals in quest of verdant day trips. Families, in particular, will appreciate the hints on kid-friendly sites. Crammed with color photos, the book also wedges in recipes, gardening tips and other snippets of information in its margins.

Saving the family farm

Love (who also serves as HandMade’s director of tourism) says the impetus for the book was the nonprofit’s desire to help locals benefit from tourism — which brings in $12 billion annually in North Carolina.

“Agri-tourism is one way to bring in more dollars to the west and help people sustain their farms,” says Love.

Those people, she notes, include both second-generation farmers trying to make their family-run operations economically viable and more-recently-arrived corporate dropouts attempting to make a go of a simpler life.

The whole project began three years ago when HandMade staged a series of community meetings throughout WNC, seeking local input on what sites to feature in the guidebook.

Sifting through those suggestions, Love personally checked out 1,200 potential sites. The ones that didn’t make it into Farms, Gardens & Countryside Trails are being considered for another book, she says.

And to give the locals yet another edge, HandMade is conducting workshops offering practical tips on such matters as hospitality, site interpretation and setting prices for farm and garden tours.

All told, the effort is tilling new ground for both participants and prospective visitors.

“There’s not another guidebook out there like this guidebook,” declares Love. “This is pioneer territory.”

For garden lovers or other outdoor ramblers, this pioneer effort is well worth a look.

Farms, Gardens & Countryside Trails of Western North Carolina can be found locally at Malaprop’s and at Barnes & Noble throughout the Southeast. Cost: $19.95. For more info, call HandMade in America at 252-0121.

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