Honey, I shrunk the climate zone

In mid-June of last year, I arrived on a North Carolina mountaintop that stays carpeted in a tapestry of flowers from earliest spring until the final killing frosts of late fall. To the untrained eye, this place might not seem like a garden: Here, nature is given an equal hand in the placement of many of the plants, and the structure is intentionally loose and informal.

The forest remains a dominant feature. A mixed sun-and-shade garden with an arm that wraps around a small cabin weaves through the trees all along the ridge. Well away from the cabin, a utility easement that has to be kept clear of trees has been planted as a combination wildflower meadow and vegetable garden. In early summer, the bold red of bee balm mixes with the pure white of asters and daisies. Day lilies are just beginning to bloom. Purple Liatris, golden-hued Rudbeckia, Helianthus and coreopsis add to this floral symphony.

Find your zone: The USDA plant hardiness zone map, in all its colorcoded glory. Much of WNC lies within zone 6B, with average minimum temps to -5 degress.

Still, it was a dramatic shift for me. For 20 years I’d lived and gardened in the solidly tropical zone 11 on Maui’s leeward coast. Many people are surprised to find that in Hawaii, one side of each island is wet and the other is desert-dry. I lived on the dry side, with an average annual rainfall of 10 to 12 inches and 320 days a year of crystal-clear blue skies. After several centuries of introducing plant species, the landscape resembled the acacia-covered savannas of Africa. Fortunately for a gardener (not to mention the Maui Visitors Bureau), all one has to do is add water and the lush, tropical fantasy garden that is the image of Hawaii will spring forth.

Meanwhile, one of the few remaining half-acre building lots in the neighborhood where I rented was listed for sale at $780,000. It was finally beginning to dawn on me that as a professional peasant gardener, I was never going to own the land I tended. The gardens I created would never truly belong to me, and an authority other than nature would have to be factored into many of my gardening decision.

Life unfolds in unexpected ways. I was offered an early inheritance of family land in the mountains of North Carolina if I would just come back to live there. I thought about the offer for six months, but in my heart I already knew the answer. Signs were pointing to troubling times ahead, and this voice kept whispering in my ear, “You can always go back to the land, Scarlett.” It was time for a new adventure.

I thought it would be best to arrive in the summer, so I could get used to the idea of having winter again as part of the natural progression. I was too late to see either the spring bulbs (snowdrops, daffodils and hyacinths) or the native woodland spring ephemerals, such as trilliums, anemones, hepatica and jack-in-the-pulpits. The rhododendron and native azalea had just finished blooming. Still, the mountain and meadow were filled with flowers of all kinds, and summer was just beginning. What I had given up in bodacious tropical ginger and Heliconia flowers was being replaced with ample abundance.

With a degree in ornamental horticulture and a passion for gardening handed down over generations, I do possess a rusty grasp of the temperate flora of North America. Still, I wanted to be somewhat assured of what I’d be able to successfully grow in my new gardens: There are so many botanical temptations. One of the best places to start is with the USDA plant-hardiness zone maps.

A peninsula of the colder 6a/b climate zone slips down much of the spine of the Southern Appalachians, all the way into north Georgia. My parents, who’d nurtured this mountaintop garden for the last 20 years, were quick to inform me that things growing down in the valleys wouldn’t make it up here, where temperatures can get down to minus 15 degrees. At just five feet shy of a 4,000-foot elevation, I needed to cough up another zone. With that, I’d been downgraded to a 5b—effectively cutting my former gardening zone in half.

As the guardian of sunlight, the forest exerts an equally powerful influence on what I can successfully grow in my new gardens. In my former nearly treeless savanna, shade was rarely a limiting factor. There was also “the view,” which wreaked havoc on the lives of trees in Hawaii. Here, however, the forest shade is a full-on presence.

There’s no rush. I have time to get to know this land, to discover the native inhabitants before I start adding to the mix. There are wild orchids—putty root and rattlesnake plantain—that won’t appreciate being disturbed. Other natives—mayapple, black cohosh and umbrella leaf—are now making their way into the landscape trade. I collected and sowed ramp seed this fall, in order to increase their germination rate and start new patches.

For now, I can garden a bit around the edges of my own small cabin’s construction zone, and I can wander in the forest for hours at a time, just looking and listening. I hate to say it, but the forest is a bit messy with so much deadfall; the gardener in me wants to tidy it up a bit. That alone should be enough to keep me busy for a lifetime—but then, it’s part of what gardening is all about.

[Christopher Carrie lives in Clyde.]

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