Though the Appalachian Mountains are not quite as formidable as the Rockies, their ancient ridges still boast impressive altitudes. The highest mountain in The Blue Ridge is the 6,683 feet tall Mount Mitchell, only some three hours south of Roanoke in North Carolina. Locally, the highest peak in Roanoke County is Poor Mountain, which towers over the valley at 3,928 feet. Nearby, there are even higher peaks—the tallest mountain in Virginia, Mount Rogers (5,729’), is about two hours south, near the state line.
In Roanoke and across The Blue Ridge, most people settle in the valley, but some chose to make their homes higher up—where changes in altitude drastically affect the climate. At high altitudes, average temperatures are colder, the air is thinner, the even the composition of the soil is markedly different. Thus, mountain gardening and landscaping require a special set of skills and know-how. For local landscapers, knowledge of mountain climates is essential to serving a customer base comprised of mountain-dwellers and valley folk alike.
The Basics of Mountain Gardening
Mountain soil is notoriously tough to work with. It’s often rocky and hard, with a clay-like consistency. Generally, avid mountain gardeners rework the soil before they begin planting and shaping. This can be accomplished through using soil amendments, or adding compost to existing soil. Some mountain gardeners bypass having to rework existing soil by using raised beds and container gardens to house their plants.
Mountainous landscapes are typically shady and cool. In the summer and wintertime, average daytime temperatures tend to skew much lower than they do in the valley, and late spring frosts or early fall snows are not uncommon. When choosing plants, go for hardiness over prettiness—and take inspiration from native flora. Most mountain plants are incredibly durable: cold-hardy, shade-tolerant, and drought resistant. The plants in your mountain garden should have a similar composition. Many varieties of perennial can also thrive in mountain climates during the warmer months. Early to mid-summer blooming perennials—such as Brown Eyed Susan, Tiger Lilly, Sunflower, Pansy, Hollyhock, and Columbine—do best. If the soil is still hard come spring, start perennials indoors in containers, and then transplant them outside when the weather warms.
Choosing dear-resistant plants is also a safe bet. Unfettered wildlife is one of the best perks of living in the mountains, but all of that wildlife is liable to cause harm to a vulnerable vegetable garden. Consider fortifying non-deer resistant plants with wire fencing or deer-repellent tablets and sprays.
In particularly pesky mountain climates, landscapers have come up with creative solutions to make gardening possible. Some mountaineers have started installing rock gardens made out of the ubiquitous pebbles and stones that are often found at high altitudes. Many perennials can thrive in rock gardens without much added help. Some seasonal plants, such as dianthus and allysum, can also thrive in rock gardens.
Ultimately, mountain garden is about understanding what is possible, and then adjusting your expectations accordingly. Anyone who’s been for a ride down the Blue Ridge Parkway knows that the mountains have no shortage of beautiful wildflowers, shrubs, and trees. But only certain, well-adapted plants can truly flourish in a climate that is marked by unpredictable weather, tough soil, and a short growing season. So choose wisely—what works for a neighbor down in the valley might not work the same for you.