TimberTop Garden in Blowing Rock takes gardening to the extreme
By Ross Howell Jr. • Photographs by Sam Froelich
Google “extreme gardening” and you’ll get some tantalizing results — how to create an organic garden in the Southwestern desert, for example, or how to grow perennials in the Alaskan wild.
Gardening where the environment offers scarcely any organic material and precious little moisture is tough. As is raising flowers where the earth can freeze to a depth of 10 feet in winter, and summer blossoms are a salad bar for moose.
But if your search algorithm doesn’t yield the garden Monica Perry has created in Blowing Rock it really should.
Perry’s magnum opus clings to a five-story section of a precipitous sandstone face of the Johns River Gorge, the site of an old growth forest and the Johns River headwaters, lying some 3,000 feet below the town of Blowing Rock.
I’m sitting in the living room at “TimberTop,” Monica and Chip Perry’s home. To my right are big windows looking onto a deck. Window boxes mounted along the railing dazzle my eyes with red petunias, gold and magenta cockscomb, sweet potato vine and more. At least a dozen hummingbirds dive and flash among feeders placed among the flowers.
Beyond lies the grand, blue expanse of mountains and sky.
To my left is a native greenstone fireplace that reaches from floor to ceiling. Above the fireplace mantel is a landscape painting of a mountain stream that flows right toward me. On the wall are more landscapes.
Perry comes in and notices my interest in the paintings. She puts me right at ease with a quick smile.
“Most of those are North Carolina painters,” she says. As she takes a seat opposite me, her dark hair just brushes her shoulders under a jaunty, Newport straw hat with black bow. Her skin is fair; her eyes the color of the pale blue view out the windows.
“See?” she asks. “I didn’t even have time to get the dirt from my fingernails.” She holds out the strong hands of a gardener for me to inspect.
I know she’s spent the morning working with a crew of men sprucing up her garden for photographer Sam Froelich and me because when I drove up to the house, I counted no fewer than eight pickups in the driveway and along the road.
“Is this the Perry residence?” I asked a man walking by with a leaf blower on his back.
“Are you the writer?” he asked.
When I said yes, he motioned toward the front door, and started to unsling the blower. With that, several other men appeared and began packing gear into pickup beds. By the time I was at the door, they’d pretty well cleared out.
And now I’m sitting with the architect of it all., who looks fresh and trim as a flower.
“Oh, I’m a North Carolina mountain girl through and through,” Perry says. Her mother’s people — Scots-Irish, with a great-grandmother who was Tuscarora — were from Little Switzerland. As a young girl, Perry spent time in Mitchell County. But most of her growing up was done in Catawba County. Later she would study speech language pathology at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, and for 21 years, she worked as a speech therapist at various North Carolina locations.
The house was built in 1946 by J.E. “Ed” Broyhill and his wife, Satie. Born in Wilkes County, Broyhill attended Appalachian Training School for Teachers — now Appalachian State University — in Boone. After serving in World War I, he worked in the furniture industry with his older brother Tom, who owned the Lenoir Furniture Corporation. While still working full-time in his brother’s business, Ed founded Lenoir Chair Company in 1926, the same year Tom built Creekside, a grand house in Blowing Rock next to the Glen Burney Trail.
In 1929 the brothers joined forces and were able to expand operations during the Depression by purchasing smaller manufacturing businesses in the area. After Tom’s health failed, Ed assumed responsibility for running the companies.
During World War II, Ed headed the Furniture Industry Advisory Committee of the Office of Price Administration, helping the federal government divide resources between civilian and military needs. Years later, he became a member of the Republican Party National Committee.
“Oh, yes,” Perry says. “Richard Nixon came right to this house. We’ve seen the picture.”
The first major garden project on the property was initiated while the Broyhills were owners.
As the story’s told, Satie Broyhill was concerned that she might not be invited to join the Blowing Rock Garden Club because, well — she didn’t have a garden. TimberTop was connected to the road by a wooden platform used to park cars.
The Broyhills had the wooden platform removed. Steel beams were installed, over which a concrete pad some two feet thick was poured. A hole was left in the concrete to accommodate an old hardwood growing between the house and road.
Topsoil was hauled in and voilà! Satie had her garden.
Intervening owners had left the tree growing through its concrete collar when the Perrys bought the house in 2007. When they decided to improve what was a front yard with a few shrubs, they called in an arborist to examine the old tree’s root system using sonar equipment. Sadly, it was too far gone and had to be removed.
The Perrys dedicated a portion of the front yard to a driveway, installing massive stone pavers 2 feet thick and between 3 and 6 feet in length. Monica found an enormous copper kettle once used to cook apples and had it placed over the hole in the concrete to serve as a planter.
We walk by it as we start our garden tour. The kettle is loaded with bright flowers and resonates with the hum of a multitude of happy pollinators flitting about. Along the front of the house there are big earthen planters with an abundance of flowers. There’s a space of green grass where Monica tells me her Boston terriers like to play.
“It’s gated and fenced, so it’s safe,” she says. She points out the attractive stone pillars of a fence along the road, joined by beautifully styled metal sections.
“When they were rebuilding the road, they wanted to install those galvanized guardrails you see on the highway,” Perry says. She was able to convince the town to let her install (at her own expense) the attractive fence standing there now.
We walk onto the road. Perry points out how she also landscaped the mountainside rising nearly vertically opposite the house.
“See the ground cover?” she asks, then tells me she had more than 12,000 pachysandra set along the roadside and up the bank. I ask her to repeat the number, because I can’t believe I heard it correctly.
In the dappled sunlight by the road are wild geraniums, heartleaf brunnera and native ferns. Perry points out the mossy face of an escarpment above the road. She tells me she had the stone sprayed with three different moss “milkshakes” until the moss finally took. Farther up the rock face we can see wild ginger and Solomon’s seal, shaded by mountain laurel and native buckeye trees.
Now we’re at the place in the road where the story of Monica Perry’s extreme garden begins.
On July 4, 2013, the town of Blowing Rock saw plenty of fireworks, and not just the kind you’d expect. Fierce thunderstorms caused flash floods in several areas, including the section of the two-lane road next to TimberTop.
The road collapsed, sending earth and boulders tumbling into the Johns River Gorge below. What remained was a gash of barren rock in the mountainside, tangled with tree roots and debris.
Monica Perry resolved not only to restore it, but to improve it. She hired stonemason David Mason of nearby Todd to begin rehabilitating the mountain. In just over a year’s time, Mason and his crews brought in some 270 tons of concrete and stone to the site. Yes, I asked Perry to repeat that number, too.
We look into the distance. Perry indicates the mountains: Grandfather, Grandmother (“That’s the lower one with the tower,” she says), Hawksbill, Table Rock.
She gestures towards a pale blue peak in the distance.
“Mount Mitchell,” she says. “That’s 82 miles.”
We peer over the edge of the precipice. I’m only able to discern concrete where Perry points it out to me, so cleverly is it formed to simulate original stone. Boulders — some of them cantilevered into the mountain and strengthened with rebar — are placed strategically to support planting areas. Perry tells me about the hidden metal cleats used to secure belaying lines when gardeners are tending some of the more precipitous spaces.
I’m flummoxed by the magnitude of what she’s described.
“Monica,” I venture, summoning the courage to ask, “was there ever a morning when Chip looked at you over breakfast and asked if you’d completely lost your mind?”
“No,” she answers matter-of-factly, “because he has his cars.”
A Harvard M.B.A., Chip Perry was the first employee of Autotrader.com, and went on to become CEO of the company, which was later sold. He recently retired from another auto-related online company, which he also headed. Chip maintains a private collection of automobiles in Blowing Rock.
“He’s convinced he’s the only one who holds the polishing rag just right when he’s working on them,” she concludes.
We turn from the gorge and walk the length of the house to its other side, where a natural wood lattice overhangs the entrance to a stone path. As we step through, I can see into the forest way below the house. A stream descends the steep incline, crisscrossing in stages, as does the path before us.
Monica points out the lime-green color of the trim on the house.
“There was quite a discussion about that,” she says, smiling. “It’s my favorite color, and if you have a shady garden spot you want to brighten up, there’s nothing better for it,” she continues.
To settle her point, she directs my attention to a shaded terrace above the path. It’s brightened by lime green creeping jenny. I nod in agreement.
She tells me when she started planning a path here there was nothing except a few trees. There were none of the native rhododendrons that cover so many of the steep ravines in this part of the world.
“See the maple there?” she asks. She tells me she would crawl — because of the steep incline — to the tree and hang onto it, mapping in her mind’s eye a path down. Now we descend its stone steps to a pleasant stop she calls the Shade Terrace.
The terrace features a handsome stone bench built by David Mason and his crew. The bench is overhung by native witch hazel, the shrub’s purchase on the incline a little tenuous. Perry shows me the metal support she had added to help the plant withstand winter winds and snows.
We pause for a moment. She explains that the whole garden — now comprising five stories — was designed in this way.
“I didn’t have a master scheme,” Perry says. “We’d just build a path to somewhere, and then we’d build another.”
She points up toward the roadway, maybe two stories above us.
“There were two big drainpipes up there,” she says. “They were so ugly.”
They were able to figure out a way to do away with the big pipes and install a bed for the creek. They built another path leading deeper into the gorge, and a footbridge over a pool of the creek.
“It was just a puddle,” Perry says. So she found a spot farther into the gorge where a coy pond was cantilevered into the side of the mountain. A system was set up to circulate water from the pond back up the incline.
We make our way down the path toward the pond, listening to the play of water in the stream. As we near the pond, the surface roils with activity. Perry’s coy are hungry, and they’re making sure she understands. As I approach, they move back into the shade at the edge of the pond, unsure about my presence as an interloper.
They’re beautiful fish. Some are bright orange with ink-blue patches, some are orange and white, others are bright gold. There are 20 of them, Perry tells me, and each is named, with monikers like Marilyn, Diamond Jim, Sunshine, Molly Brown, Peepers and Lady Chablis — a platinum-colored fish with pale blue eyes, Perry’s favorite.
When I ask about winter temperatures, she explains that there are heating rods at the pond’s bottom to ensure it won’t freeze solid in winter.
We’re about to embark on a path Perry calls the Boston Microduct (“Boston” is her maiden name; microduct, wordplay on “viaduct”), which takes us below the house and starts back toward the precipice where the road washed away. I look up toward the house and roadway, five stories above us. Even lower in the gorge beneath us is what Perry has named the Wilderness Path.
Of necessity these pathways are narrow. Perry steps to the side, so that I can get a better view. My shoulder catches the brim of her hat, sending it spinning. But the gods who rule the winds of Blowing Rock are merciful this day. The hat settles on the stone pathway, and Perry rescues it and has it placed on her head before I’ve even stooped to reach for it.
We’re approaching a spot just below an area designated the Sunset Terrace. Here the gorge falls sharply from the pathway, and there is no railing to hold onto. I’m fairly good with heights, but if it’s not vertigo I’m feeling right now, it’s vertigo’s first cousin.
I step back from the edge, focusing on the near-at-hand. I count six tiger swallowtail butterflies perched high on a blossom of Joe-Pye weed overhanging the path. Intoxicated with nectar, the butterflies are oblivious to us. A chorus of other pollinators drones in blossoms on other stalks of the Joe-Pye, and a black swallowtail flicks its wings on a blossom at the very top of the plant.
We continue on various paths. There are cockscombs in a variety of colors, creeping jenny, black-eyed susans, and other bright flowers scattered in planting areas by bare rock faces, along with azaleas, “Brass Buckle” Japanese holly, “Lion’s Mane” maples, and buckeye trees. We cross Perry Pass, a cliff of native rock jutting from the face of the gorge — where I’m especially grateful for the newly installed metal-and-rope hand railings — to see the Secret Garden, a secluded little terrace with stone benches and a fire pit overhung by native rock.
We head back toward the house by way of the Path to Nowhere, which, when first installed, Perry tells me, had no destination. So she had what she calls her “gazebo” built there.
It was quite a project. Pilings were jackhammered in, building materials lowered by crane and concrete carried down the gorge by hand. The result is not what I think of when I say “gazebo.” It is one of the most beautiful rooms I’ve ever seen, featuring on one side a breathtaking view of the Johns River Gorge; on the other a view of the massive, mossy rock face on which the house is built, with native rhododendrons shading a pair of enormous Jack-in-the-pulpits.
As we near a back deck of the house, we see two figures making their way down the stone pathway by the stream where we first started our tour. They’re carrying buckets and hand tools.
We wave to them, and Perry tells me they are Anne Calta, who is the gardener, and Ryan Visingard, her assistant.
“This wouldn’t be possible without them,” Perry says. “They manage the garden day-to-day and when Chip and I are traveling.”
As I prepare to take my leave, Perry tells me she’d like to show me a special place. We walk down the long second-level deck of TimberTop. Near the midpoint are two big chaise lounges.
“We’d make up one of the chaise lounges for my mother when she visited,” Perry says. “She always slept out here. We lost her two years ago.”
She tells me how proud her mother was of what she and Chip had accomplished at the house and garden, how whenever she was coming to visit, she would ask on the phone, “Do you have my bed made yet?”
I step to the railing. The view where the chaise lounges sit is dizzying. The rock face plummets away from us. The gorge turns sharply toward the house, ending right below where we stand.
I spot a tan speck veering over the dark green canopy of trees in the gorge. It’s hundreds of feet below our feet, a red-tailed hawk, as near as I can make out, hunting just as its ancestors had when this was the land of the Cherokee. Closer by, I admire the contrast of Perry’s bright flowers with the warm-colored stone walkways of her garden.
Classical Roman religion described an element of landscape called genius loci, a protective “spirit of a place.” As I gaze over the mountains from this vantage, I feel certain such a spirit stands guard here.
“I see why your mother loved it,” I say. Somehow that doesn’t seem to be enough to say, but it’s all that comes to me.
I ask Perry what she hopes people will remember about her garden.
“If they remember anything about me, I’d want them to remember that I was brave enough to create an extreme garden,” Perry answers, “and that I wasn’t daunted by not having ‘the easy yard’ to keep up.
“The more gardening I do,” she continues, “the more I like it. Especially the heavy stuff. You can stand back and say, ‘I did that.’”
Weeks later, I find my thoughts returning to Perry’s garden.
Is she taking a respite from spreading mulch to watch cloud shadows drift over the treetops of the Johns River Gorge? Or feeding her beautiful, gluttonous coy in the pond? Is she weeding flowers on a precipice, a belaying rope tied snugly about her waist?
Monica Perry is the person who introduced me to the concept of “extreme gardening.”
And I’m grateful. h
Ross Howell Jr. is doing research for a new historical novel. If you have a garden topic you’d like to read about, email email@example.com. (Please note the number “1” in the address.)