Jen Nathan Orris is a writer and gardener based in Asheville, N.C. She writes Carolina Gardener’s Tidbits column and contributes profiles and feature stories to magazines in the Southeast.

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Have Shovel, Will Travel
by Jen Nathan Orris       #Garden Profile   #Trees

The garden’s brick pathways lead viewers through the garden.


When Ralph Coffey decided to move his garden from Lake Norman to Asheville, N.C., he knew the 100-mile journey was a risk. He spent years cultivating his collection of unusual plants and he couldn’t imagine leaving them behind.

He was lured to western North Carolina by the opportunity to establish The WhiteGate Inn and Cottage in a historic home built in Asheville in 1889. The stately bed and breakfast is now surrounded by a lush garden marked by large Japanese maples, magnolias, conifers, and perennials.

Some gardeners would leave their precious plants behind or gift them to a friend or neighbor. Instead, Coffey brought along approximately 450 of his favorite perennials, shrubs, and trees with him to the mountains.


The gardens surrounding WhiteGate Inn’s historic home welcome visitors.

left: Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) grows near the greenhouse, which contains approximately 1,500 orchids and tropical plants. middle: Various maple trees bring fall color to the WhiteGate Inn’s porch.
right: Stone gargoyles stand guard along the garden’s steps.


The process of transplanting a massive garden can be daunting, but for Coffey it was all about timing. He started the transition a full year before the move, digging around the roots of the trees every two or three weeks to ready them for their journey. When the plants were dormant in late November, he made his move. “I didn’t lose a single thing,” says Coffey. “And I moved some fairly large Japanese maples here.”

In the months leading up to the move, he gradually pruned the trees’ canopies to compensate for the loss of roots. Giving them relief from supporting too much weight helped to avoid placing excessive stress on the plants. He moved a prized magnolia when it was 10 feet tall. It now towers over the garden at a full 25 feet, bringing with it fragrant flowers in the spring and year-round interest.

Starting with mature plants gave his new garden an established look from the beginning. “I transplanted so many of these plants that it created an instant effect,” he remarks.


left: Wooden and metal sculptures punctuate the garden’s wooded areas. right: Water features weave around the garden’s natural growth


Entering the garden feels like slipping into a hidden cove full of deep greens and subdued colors. Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) reveal their vibrancy each fall before the evergreens take center stage. A robust, well-established garden mirrors the feel of the historic inn, creating an enticing oasis for passersby.

The gardens are primarily for the inn’s guests, but anyone can visit with advanced notice, says Coffey. It’s been 16 years since his initial move, but he’s still finding the ideal layout for his garden. Simplicity guides his process, which relies heavily on self-seeded plants that emerge each year. “When you have self-seeded plants it creates a wilder effect,” he says. “I like the idea that every year is different. You don’t know where these things are going to pop up.”


left: Ivy (Hedera) grows throughout the historic inn’s garden. middle: ‘Flying Dragon’ hardy citrus (Poncirus trifoliate ‘Flying Dragon’ is an unusual garden addition. right: Found objects like this antique radiator add visual interest to the grounds.


As his garden evolves, so does Coffey. “Now I spend more time moving things around, relocating things and pulling things out than I do planting things,” he says.

Gone are the days when he’d buy a dozen flats of annuals each spring. Now he spends his days tending to the plants he already knows and loves, always ready with a shovel to give them a new home just a few feet down the path.


A version of this article appeared in Carolina Gardener Volume 27 Number 9.
Photography courtesy of Jen Nathan Orris.


Posted: 09/19/16   RSS | Print


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