Homegrown in West End: the Ballard-Fioccola Gardens

When she’s in a Beatrix Potter mood, my gardener/granddaughter Ivy Rose begins to hint that we ought to pay a visit to what she calls the “storybook garden” in the West End, a neighborhood Joe Fioccola and Byron Ballard have dubbed “Asheville’s forgotten historical district.”

Byron and Joe live at the West End’s west end, just a few blocks from Patton Avenue. And with the help of a neighborhood grant from the city of Asheville, they’ve turned half of their small front yard into a perennial garden as part of a long-range campaign to annihilate lawn care on their fifth of an acre. For Ivy Rose, the main attractions of this garden are the “amoeba” plot (a collection of flowers, herbs and succulents that has what Byron calls a “weird, amorphous, ever-changing shape”), a young witch-hazel tree, and six ceramic gnomes that tend to lurk in its vicinity. My granddaughter likes to visit in midwinter, when the witch hazel blooms. She says its orange-and-yellow flowers are like candle flames at the darkest time of the year. Ivy Rose, who has thoroughly researched both gnomes and witch hazel, informs me that gnomish folk are subterranean dwellers, skilled at guarding treasure. She fancies that the little people in Joe and Byron’s garden are security for the witch-hazel tree (which is, indeed, a treasure chest of folk remedies and ingredients used by the modern body-care industry; a botanical valued by Native Americans and multinational corporations alike; a power tree despite its diminutive, 6- to 8-foot stature.

Ivy Rose also likes to visit Byron and Joe in spring, when the West End rose is perfuming the yard and infusing it with a lovely pink glow. The West End rose is an heirloom, grown by Byron’s grandmother in her West End garden on Roberts Street. Byron’s cutting of the rose has spread prolifically: Between it and the grant-funded garden, the front lawn has all but disappeared.

Joe was raised on Long Island, where his father worked for a gardening-supply business. Joe grew up amid manicured lawns and clean-clipped hedges. He got over the lawn part but, happily, not hedges. He’s an artist with his electric hedge clippers, and Ivy Rose likes to time a summer visit to the West End to coincide with the blooming of Joe’s no-budget Rose of Sharon hedges. He turns those pesky sprouts into an asset by transplanting them in straight rows, about four inches apart. As they grow, their branches interlace. They take about four years to reach 5 feet, after which Joe keeps them pruned to that height.

A 60-foot Rose of Sharon hedge along one side of the house creates a privacy barrier. At its base sits a row of bearded purple iris, made from divisions that started with a small bed years ago. In back of the house, Rose of Sharon hedges box in the “Rose Room,” a 12-by-15-foot space with a 12-foot cherry tree in the middle. It’s a comfortable garden to sit and relax in, with “doors” Joe formed by allowing a few of the flexible branches at the edges to grow long, then weaving them together into arches that span the openings. Ivy Rose says the arches turn the Rose Room into a true hobbit habitat.

The back yard also boasts two small, fenced-in food gardens. The “Italian garden” Byron and Joe grew this summer — only 10 by 12 feet — is an impressive example of how much food can be produced in a limited space. The harvest included zucchini, radicchio, Italian bush flatbeans, green peppers, Italian parsley, globe artichokes, lettuce (grown in window boxes), eggplant and a huge Roma tomato. In the other garden, meanwhile, a crop of Juliet tomatoes lived up to their reputation, proving impervious to blight. “Roma and Juliet,” says Ivy Rose with a wink.

This second garden also yielded harvests of cucumber, onions, lettuces, mesclun, spinach and chard. Then there were the herbs: catnip, fennel, vervain, nasturtium and chocolate mint. Martha Stewart snow peas from K-mart were still producing sweet, flavorful pods at the end of July. According to Joe, the snow-pea vines grew 12 feet tall. There’s also a Martha Stewart grape arbor in the back yard, so called because Joe was inspired to build it after reading an article on training and pruning grapes in Martha Stewart Living magazine. It provides the fruit for Byron’s grape conserve. Three raspberry hedges, currant bushes and a Macintosh-apple tree supply ingredients for the pastries she bakes. And the garden shed nestled in the midst of this horticultural abundance is a recycled child’s playhouse.

Joe and Byron share the garden labor. She plans, plants, weeds, harvests, cooks and preserves; he makes hedges and fences, digs, mows, prunes, composts, weeds and mulches. Joe’s creative, low-budget use of garden materials is much in evidence. The area beneath the grape arbor is mulched with recycled bricks; the raspberry hedge is mulched with chunks of wood and brush that slowly decay and feed the plants.

Many of Joe’s fence and trellis posts are 8-foot landscape timbers, some topped with birdhouses. Fencing around the food gardens is crucial, since the West End’s groundhog population is thriving. Their favorite habitat within the Ballard/Fioccola eco-niche is a steep, extensive, kudzu-covered bank that runs the length of one side of the property, giving the “whistle pigs” a penthouse view of Mount Pisgah and the French Broad River.

Joe keeps the kudzu from invading his gardens via diligent mowing, hacking and black plastic laid along the edge of the bank to smother the rampant vines. He uses no herbicides. The kudzu keeps the steep bank from eroding while giving the groundhogs a food supply other than his food crops. Kudzu is a high-protein legume crop relished by many animals, and the groundhogs have been observed nibbling the tender young shoots.

But that doesn’t deter them from also scouting the firmly fenced gardens. Joe and Byron don’t begrudge them the parts of crops that grow over or through the fencing. “We produce enough to eat and freeze and some for the critters,” Byron tells Ivy Rose, who loves her tales of groundhogs scaling the Macintosh and snitching apples to munch for lunch.

Munching is also the way Ivy Rose hopes a West End visit will draw to a close, with a Beatrix Potter-style tea party. Byron’s kitchen will be redolent with just-baked blackberry, raspberry or mulberry scones (made with fresh or frozen berries, depending on the season) and chocolate mint/catnip tea. Byron has taught my granddaughter how to brew this tisane by pouring boiling water over handfuls of dried catnip and chocolate mint, letting the tea infuse for five minutes, then straining it. Ivy Rose likes hers with a dollop of honey and a little cream.

“Joe and Byron are experts at sharing,” she says with a sigh before blissfully sinking her teeth into a scone that’s been slathered with butter and Byron’s homemade grape conserve.

[Victoria Maddux tends her garden in a mountain cove near Asheville.]

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