The 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 4500 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.



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, big-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 roll your sleeves up, 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 non-profit organization. Join us!



With over decades of experience in Western North Carolina’s vast horticulture, Executive Director Kelly Holdbrooks demonstrates her passion for fostering a human connection with nature. Engaging her audience through her wealth of knowledge and love of story-telling, 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 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.


The Reserve’s 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 over 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 or capture aerial images of garden rooms for the Reserve.


Growing up in the Sandhills of North Carolina Kody was always intrigued by nature. Being closer to the beach than the mountains most vacations were spent at Cherry Grove in South Carolina which fueled his interest in Western North Carolina. After relocating to Missouri he attended Missouri Southern University and completed their fire academy. Meeting his wife and having two beautiful children changed his education and professional trajectory. Kody honored his internal longing to be back outside and shifted toward training as an arborist. Starting as a groundsman dragging brush he quickly worked his way up to a foreman managing a bucket truck and climbing crew. His hard work paid off by landing him the dream transfer to Western North Carolina. Kody and his family loved being in the mountains; however, he found purpose was 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 plans on raising his family here in Western North Carolina and teaching them how to live with nature and not just on it. Kody enjoys hiking, photography, exploring, and spending time with family.



With more than twenty-five years of experience in public garden design and master planning, W. Gary Smith has distinguished himself as a landscape architect who celebrates plants and the connections they offer between people and nature. As an ecological designer and professional horticulturist, he combines art, horticulture, and architectural features in innovative ways, exploring the intersection between ecological design and artistic abstraction.


It was the Southern Highlands Reserve’s good fortune to have begun our project at the same time that Dick Bir was retiring from a 25 year career with North Carolina State University at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research & Extension Center in Fletcher, NC.


The Southern Highlands Reserve is fortunate to have formed an early alliance with Ron Lance. Ron has served as chief botanist in charge at the Reserve, keeping us on the straight and narrow as far as which plant is which is concerned. Ron’s plant knowledge is thorough, authentic and personal. A walk in the woods with Ron is truly a sensory experience. When asked about the identity of a plant, Ron often insists you feel, taste and smell it. You’ve pretty much got it down pat from that point forward.



Aaron Bailey and Jesse Morgan, both graduates of Brevard College’s Outdoor Leadership program, are imaginative and creative in their approach to solving unique woodland construction problems at the Southern Highlands Reserve. Their challenge has been to provide access to fragile environments without destroying what we are traveling to see.


Jack and Travis Owen, a father and son team, have left an indelible imprint on the Southern Highlands Reserve. From the many large native boulders used for steps and walls all over the Reserve, the unique Jacks’s Barn, the chestnut boards inside the office building and the large soapstone rock used for the patio fireplace on the roof garden, Jack and Travis have left a lasting impression.


C&E is a family operation. Owner Jim Eiland and his son, Peter, along with nephew Sean Cogan, began construction in the spring of 2006 on the Southern Highlands Reserve’s research center, Chestnut Lodge. The Eilands and Cogan brought along a staff of experienced artisans and craftsmen that have completed a much talked-about building. Regarding the amount of wormy chestnut embedded in the walls of our handcrafted Chestnut Lodge, many of those in the wood business have commented, “there is not another building like this in the U.S.”