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Diane Blanks, Blue Ridge Mountain Views #4: Of Growing Things and Crop Failures

Columnist Diane Warman Blanks writes about returning to her home, her heritage and her life in the mountains of North Carolina after many years away. Check out the “About Diane” section below for more information about her writing and her career.



“Of Growing Things and Crop Failures”


The official gardening season here is well underway, as Mother’s Day has come and gone. Mother’s Day is always the reliable start date by which the last frost has usually passed in these parts. Corn, bean, and squash seeds are now in, as well as tomato and cucumber plants. Root crops such as potatoes and onions, of course, were planted earlier, as late frosts won’t disturb them.

With the short growing season here in the mountains, I always marvel that people are actually able to get their crops to make. Again this year I wistfully thought about putting in a little garden, but I would have to put a ten-foot fence around the whole plot to keep the deer and rabbits out, so maybe next year. After three years of trying, though, I do have two stands of rhubarb leafed out. The first two years I had crop failures. So it finally occurred to me to plant it somewhere else….

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Flame Azalea. Photo by Diane Blanks.

The locust trees are blooming now–long, dangling clusters of yellowish flowers that resemble wisteria blooms. The bees are busy visiting them, making tasty locust honey. I read that they are members of the pea family, which is odd. Next to the American Chestnut tree (sadly, killed off many years ago by the chestnut blight), locust has always been a favorite staple here in the mountains. Due to its durable and strong wood, locust makes excellent fence posts, clothesline poles and grape arbors. After much asking, I finally found someone who was willing to make me some locust clothesline poles and an arbor for Mama’s grapevine. Evidently, not many people are willing to go to the woods and cut locust trees these days. It took a very nice man to go to the trouble for me.

The flame azalea in the front yard is in full bloom, lighting up the shade with its brilliant orange flare. When I was small, we called it honeysuckle. Back then, there were a number of widely used misnomers for native plants up here, some still in use today. We called mountain laurel mountain ivy. The rhododendrons were called laurels–and a dense thicket of them is still today called a laurel hell.

My grandmother used to talk about tamarack trees, and I now have it on very good authority that tamarack trees don’t even grow here at all! But there’s a Tamarack, North Carolina and a Tamarack, Tennessee, both not far from here, so Granny obviously wasn’t the only one mistaken.

According to Wikipedia, Larix laricina, commonly known as the tamarack,[2] hackmatack[2] eastern larch,[2] black larch,[2] red larch,[2] or American larch,[2] is a species of larch native to Canada, from eastern Yukon and Inuvik, Northwest Territories east to Newfoundland, and also south into the northeastern United States from Minnesota to Cranesville Swamp, Maryland; there is also a disjunct population in central Alaska. The word tamarack is the Algonquian name for the species and means “wood used for snowshoes.”

Tamarack has tiny pine cones, like the lovely native hemlocks. Maybe that’s where the confusion about tamaracks originated. Sadly, great swaths of old stands of hemlocks, with their long, graceful, swooping limbs, have been dying here in recent years, just like the chestnut trees. The hemlocks are victims of the wooly adelgid, a small, aphidlike insect native to Asia and discovered here in 1951. The wooly adelgid has been laying devastating waste to hemlocks and spruces ever since. Researchers are trying some botanical solutions such as natural predators, with some success; spraying large swaths of forest isn’t practical.


I think I may have unfairly maligned the crawfish for digging holes all over the yard. I now think maybe some of those holes are chipmunk burrows. At least, I saw a chipmunk dive into one yesterday, and it seems, now that I look closely, that their holes are slightly bigger than the ones dug by the crawfish, which also usually have a collar of gray mud around them. I always thought, by the way, that the crawfish Lived in the holes I saw, but someone told me that those lead to air chambers for the crawfishes’ underground homes. It seems to be a bumper year for chipmunks, by the way. They’re skittering all over the yard.

After three years of trying, I have finally managed to grow two lovely blue columbines from seed given to me by my 97-year-old friend Addie. Many years ago, my mother had given her the original plants, which she cherishes, so it’s a double joy to see them blooming. My next goal is to get a cutting of Addie’s grandmother’s rose to root here. Have tried for two years; maybe three’s the charm.

News at eleven,





DianeBlanksDiane Blanks, a native of Boone, has been a newspaper columnist, editor of a county weekly newspaper and a long-suffering (but always perky) public relations lady. After retiring from Atlanta’s Emory University, she returned to Boone, where she has been joyfully getting reacquainted with mountain life after many years away. She is a graduate of Boone’s Appalachian High School (Go, Blue Devils!) and the UNC School of Journalism.

Much, much earlier in her career, Blanks wrote the In the Mountains column for the Winston-Salem Sentinel and a weekly humor column for The Blowing Rocket entitled And Furthermore. “I was the poor man’s Erma Bombeck, back in the day,” she says. “What I write these days is through the filter of memory. Names have been changed to protect the innocent (and the guilty.)”