Paint the Fall with Color
Any of you planning an autumn visit to Peter and Jasmin Gentling's mountainside garden should also plan on bringing a bottle of wine to share—because you won't be leaving anytime soon.
Scarlet and orange Japanese maples fluoresce on the slopes. Yellow button mums tumble over weathered stone walls. Purple beautyberry resonates the color of royalty. Ginkgo showers the ground with leafy fans of gold.
Come to think of it, maybe you'd better bring two bottles.
The garden's fascinating story begins in 1906, when Edwin Grove built a house for himself using the same kind of stone he was using to construct his famous Grove Park Inn in Asheville. After finishing the inn, he moved out, and Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan moved in. In 1931, President Herbert Hoover made the home his Summer White House, taking advantage of the cool mountain air to care for his son, who had contracted tuberculosis.
By the time the Gentlings bought the place in 1971, disrepair was rampant. Plants had outgrown their bounds; stone retaining walls that had stairstepped down the incline lay collapsed. Peter took on the reconstruction himself. "I personally consolidated 15 terraces into 7," he says. Those terraces would become the heart of the couple's garden.
This is a year-round garden with splendors to enjoy in every season, but let's focus on autumn, the season at hand. While mums, asters, oakleaf hydrangeas, witch hazels, ornamental grasses, goldenrods, and fothergillas blaze, Japanese maples simply amaze.
The origin of these trees is as mind-blowing as their foliage. Instead of being named selections, they're all grown from seeds. Where did the seeds come from? During a trip to Japan, Peter visited the world-famous gardens of Ryoanji temple in Kyoto and met the emperor's garden designer. "I saw the most glorious maple there, and it was loaded with seeds," he recalls. "I collected pocketfuls. All of my maples come from those seeds."
Peter prefers seedlings over named selections because he wants plants that no one else has. All of his mums are seedlings. His numerous hostas, now cloaked in autumn gold, are seedlings, too, children of a hosta called 'Ryan's Big One.' Once during a garden-club visit, he told two ladies the name of the parent hosta. Peter recalls, "One of them said, 'He calls this plant 'Ryan's Big One,'' and the other woman said to her, 'I'd love to meet Ryan.'"
Peter grew up gardening in Fort Worth, Texas. Jasmin's mother was president of the Federated Garden Clubs of New York State and a renowned flower arranger. Jasmin inherited her mother's love of flower arranging. She also enjoys cooking for and entertaining a constant stream of friends. "Our garden is the only one around that has a level area with grass," she explains. "So every Mother's Day, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day, the neighbors call and say, 'We're having a party at your house.'"
The couple bring two distinct sensibilities to the garden. Peter is the scientist, knowing the name and history of every plant. Jasmin is the romantic, enjoying the peaceful environment as she deftly dispatches weeds. They do all the work themselves without any helpers.
Everyone who visits here finds a short stay to be impossible. The garden just sings to them. Jasmin recalls a phone call from two garden-club ladies visiting from Seattle. They wanted to come by but said under no circumstances could they stay longer than an hour.
"They arrived at 10 a.m.," says Jasmin. "At 7 p.m., they were still in my garden. I asked, 'Would you like to stay for dinner?' So while we were eating on the back patio, I said, 'I'm curious. You insisted you could stay only one hour.' And they looked at me and said, 'We just can't leave this place!'"