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Shopper’s Diary: Sandy Mush Herb Nursery, Off the Beaten Path in the Blue Ridge Mountains

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Shopper’s Diary: Sandy Mush Herb Nursery, Off the Beaten Path in the Blue Ridge Mountains

February 27, 2024

When a former student at Great Dixter in East Sussex moves to North Carolina and recommends a remote nursery in the Blue Ridge Mountains, we take note. “Fairman and Kate’s nursery has an amazing selection of plants: herbs, natives, pelargoniums, salvias, et cetera,” reports Ben Pick of nearby Saturnia Farm. “It reminds me a lot of some of the old nurseries in England.” It is called Sandy Mush Herbs, another reason to investigate. Established in 1977, the nursery produces collectible handbooks designed and embellished with calligraphy and line drawings. The catalog begins, “Dear Herb Friends, We continue to expand our collection of handmade plants…”.

Let’s delve in.

Photography by Christopher Jayne.

Above: Sandy Mush Nursery, near Leicester, North Carolina, was established over four decades ago and is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Talking to Kate Jayne and her son, Christopher, it quickly becomes apparent that here is a nursery that is focused on growing things properly, and offering advice on how to do that—in other words, real customer service rather than a chatty bot in a pop-up window. Christopher maintains that Kate, who is the person answering the phone, recognizes all of her older customers before they have a chance to identify themselves. Plants are sent out all over the country but mainly in the eastern half. Kate discourages people from ordering plants from Sandy Mush when they could be had closer to home.

Above: Fairman Jayne, applying skills in propagating seeds learned at least 60 years ago when he studied in London at Kew’s famous horticulture school.

Kate and her husband, Fairman Jayne, met at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, where he was assisting the director of the arboretum and she was a student. Fairman already had a degree in horticulture from Kew, having been one of the first overseas students admitted to the renowned school. Says Kate: “Fairman’s been working with plants his entire life, and I’ve been involved with plants ever since I went to college.” With a shared interest in hard-find-plants, they knew early on that they wanted to run a plant nursery together.

Above: Bleeding hearts (Dicentra spectabilis) growing around the Sandy Mush gardens in spring.

The couple moved to Asheville, North Carolina, before heading further out to the surrounding mountains. With herbs and aromatic plants high on their list, the couple  realized that if they couldn’t find them locally, they should be supplying them. “We put an ad in Organic Gardening magazine and had a very enthusiastic response, and that generated publicity on a national scale,” Kate recalls. This was 1977, proving that Kate and Fairman’s interest in “handmade plants” struck a chord back then, and is today ever more relevant.

Of their specialisms, Kate says: “Our collection reflects our interest in fragrant plants and herbs, then going on to trees and shrubs, and then moving on to more wildflowers and native plants as interest has grown in that field.”

Above: Immaculately tended evergreen shrub cuttings.

A note on the nursery’s name, as related by Christopher Jayne (who photographs the nursery for the website and social media): “Sandy Mush is the name of the community we are in. The oral history is that in the early days of European settlement, animal drovers would stop in the valley. When they went to get water for their mush (think oatmeal, cornmeal, or porridge) it would always have sand in the water. So it became Sandy Mush Valley. We have fast-moving streams coming off the mountains, and the sand never completely settles.” And the soil is well-drained.

Above: Kate recognizes the telephone voices of all her old customers.

Kate and Fairman look for new plants to sell from outside sources, but they also find that their property is naturally conducive to a rich selection of plant life. “We scout all the time for new things coming up on this piece of property, which is 400 acres of secluded Appalachian cove. There’s water coming out of the mountain; it’s almost a temperate rainforest.”

Fairman’s time is spent with plants, while Kate’s attention is divided between plants and customers. “I do have a portable telephone so it’s possible to be out and about and talk to people at the same time.”

Above: Plants are shipped in good old newspaper, to places where it is sensible to ship.

Instead of sending out quite so much, Sandy Mush encourages visits to the nursery. “We’ve done some improvements on the access, because years ago people had to ford streams to get here,” says Kate. “They thought they were going to the most remote place in the world, which of course they weren’t.” For visitors to the Asheville area, Sandy Mush Nursery is on the Visit North Carolina Farms app, and is part of the Farm Heritage Trail.

Above: A pollinator busy with a tea plant, Camellia sinensis sinensis ‘Sochi’. The handbook description reads: “Large leaf; fragrant white blooms; shiny green leaves and buds for making one’s own tea.”

The handbook is designed for reading, rather than skimming. Before the plant list begins in earnest, there is plenty of engaging information, hinting at lives well-lived. “The plants we grow have myriad uses. Fantastic bouquets with lots of texture and fragrance wait in an herb garden.” Plant lists for insect repellant, dye, and wreath materials are followed by a recipe for garbanzano rice and green bean salad (with plenty of parsley).

Above: Up on the mountain. The spectacularly beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains are part of the Appalachian Highland range.

And an example of the plant descriptions, beginning with the first listed under ‘A’: “Abeliophyllum distichum…  earliest of the pale pink and white flowering shrubs, blooming soon after Cornus mas; the sweet fragrance and graceful arching form are perfect for a small, enclosed garden. Zones 5-8″. Sandy Mush Nursery is a regular at local plant fairs, in a region that also has a lively food scene.

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Frequently asked questions

When was Sandy Mush Herbs established?

Sandy Mush Herbs was established in 1977.

What type of plants does Sandy Mush Nursery specialize in?

Sandy Mush Nursery specializes in fragrant plants, herbs, trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and native plants.

Where is Sandy Mush Nursery located?

Sandy Mush Nursery is located near Leicester, North Carolina, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

What is the history behind the name 'Sandy Mush'?

Sandy Mush originated from the early days of European settlement when animal drovers would stop in the valley and find sand in the water for their mush, giving rise to the name 'Sandy Mush Valley'.

What is the primary focus of Sandy Mush Nursery?

Sandy Mush Nursery focuses on growing plants properly and offering real customer service by providing advice on plant care.

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