About the Reserve

Southern Highlands Reserve is dedicated to sustaining the natural ecosystems of the Blue Ridge Mountains through the preservation, cultivation and display of plants native to the region and by advocating for their value through education, restoration and research. Located in Western North Carolina at an elevation of 4,500 feet, the varied topography and forest types found on our 120 acres allow us to emulate many of the plant communities found in high-elevation forests of the Southern Appalachians. Southern Highlands Reserve has been aptly described by some as “the largest and most diverse collection of native Southern Appalachian plants and their cultivars.”

These high-elevation forests are home to rare forest ecotones that provide unique opportunities for education and research. With the help of landscape design professionals, the Reserve grew out of a master planning process encompassing strategic management and aesthetic goals. The Reserve’s gardens are managed to illustrate how thoughtful design combined with complex native plant communities can showcase our high elevation microclimate. Each garden room is designed to elicit an emotional experience, fostering a human connection with the plants, animals and environment surrounding us. We hope our visitors experience the gardens as a place to reconnect with nature and reflect upon their role in the Grand Design.

Founders

BETTY & ROBERT BALENTINE

Lifelong outdoor enthusiasts, Betty and Robert Balentine aspired to bring their children closer together in the mountains of their own youth when they noticed their big-city kids suffering from what they call “Nature Deficit Disorder.” This love for the nature of family and the family of nature has evolved into The Southern Highlands Reserve – integrating hands-on research and education with conservation of the rare ecology of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. The next chapter in their adventure is preserving this unique horticultural landscape for generations to come as a self-sustaining nonprofit organization. Join us!

Southern Highlands Reserve - Chestnut Lodge Rooftop Garden

Staff

Kelly Holdbrooks

Kelly Holdbrooks

Executive Director

Full Bio

With decades of experience in Western North Carolina’s vast horticulture, Executive Director Kelly Holdbrooks demonstrates her passion for fostering human connection with nature. Engaging her audience through her wealth of knowledge and love of storytelling, Kelly offers an educational experience to enliven your visit and inspire you. Kelly’s research in experiential methods and the humanism of nature earned her a master’s degree in Landscape Architecture, with honors, from the College of Environment and Design at the University of Georgia. She is on the steering committee for the Southern Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative (SASRI), an organization formed from a partnership of diverse interests with a common goal of restoring spruce ecosystems across the high elevation landscapes of the Southern Blue Ridge. Kelly enjoys hiking, gardening, yoga, and playing in nature with her family. She is proud to call Western North Carolina her home.

Eric Kimbrel

Eric Kimbrel

Director of Horticulture

Full Bio

Director of Horticulture Eric Kimbrel is a native of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. After earning his Bachelor of Science degree in Horticulture & Design from the University of Tennessee, Eric developed his skills at the Atlanta Botanical Garden as a woodland gardener. Years later, the Tennessee hills called him back from the big city, and he worked for more than a decade as the maintenance specialist for a large landscape company in Johnson City. With twenty years of experience, Eric founded a company focused on gardening for private estates in Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina. His wealth of knowledge about horticulture, maintenance, and nursery management is critical to the success of the Reserve. Eric is happy to be back in the mountains and focused on native plants and ecosystems. When not gardening, he can be found flying drones to inspect plants and capture aerial images of garden rooms for the Reserve.

Kody Stanley

Kody Stanley

Gardener

Full Bio

Growing up in the Sandhills of North Carolina, Kody Stanley was always intrigued by nature. He attended Missouri Southern University and completed their fire academy, but meeting his wife and having two beautiful children shifted his professional trajectory. Kody honored his longing to be back outside and trained as an arborist. Quickly rising from groundsman dragging brush to foreman managing a bucket truck and climbing crew, he landed a dream transfer to Western North Carolina. Soon, however, he found purpose missing from his professional life. He had grown tired of just cutting trees and harming ecosystems. He took another leap of faith and joined the Reserve as a gardener, bringing his passion for nature and eagerness for education on conservation. Kody is raising his family in Western North Carolina and teaching them how to live with the land, not just on it. He enjoys hiking, photography, exploring, and spending time with family.

Holly Renehan

Holly Renehan

Communications Manager

Full Bio

Communications Manager Holly Renehan grew up among the tall pines, hurricanes and mosquitoes of the Florida panhandle, where her parents made her spend most of her childhood outdoors. She earned creative writing degrees from Rhodes College and Florida State University before becoming a journalist in New Orleans, where she covered nonprofits, banking, restaurants, music, and sports. She taught writing at Florida State University and Tallahassee Community College and has also worked as a freelance book editor. She is passionate about storytelling and connection with nature, and is tripping-over-herself happy to combine those two loves in her job at SHR. When she’s not writing about trees, you can find her hiking in the forest, cooking, petting dogs, hatching a plan to bring all her favorite music heroes to the Reserve, and forcing her own daughters to go outside.

Partners

Southern Highlands Reserve partners with local, regional, and national agencies and organizations, and we are proud to be affiliated with the entities below. If you would like to learn more about our projects and partnerships please email us.

American Chestnut Foundation

American Chestnut Foundation

American Public Gardens Association

American Public Gardens Association

College of Environment & Design at the University of Georgia

College of Environment & Design at the University of Georgia

Cullowhee Native Plant Conference

Cullowhee Native Plant Conference

Marshall Native Garden Initiative

Marshall Native Garden Initiative

Mountain True

Mountain True

Mt. Cuba Center

Mt. Cuba Center

Muddy Sneakers

Muddy Sneakers

The Nature Conservancy

The Nature Conservancy

North American Land Trust

North American Land Trust

North Carolina Forest Service

North Carolina Forest Service

North Carolina Wildlife Resource Association

North Carolina Wildlife Resource Association

The Pisgah Conservancy

The Pisgah Conservancy

Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative

Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

U.S. Forest Service

U.S. Forest Service

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