Sandy Mush Herb Nursery in the Blue Ridge Mountains of NC

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.

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