Outreach with TC Henderson Elementary

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Our partnership with TC Henderson Elementary (“TCH”) began in the fall of 2019 after we received a grant from the Pisgah Health Foundation.  Prior to the grant application, in the summer of 2019, SHR staff created lesson plans for students focused on environmental education such as the food chain and how energy passes through ecosystems.  Local Boys & Girls Clubs summer campers attended a half day of education at the Reserve, allowing SHR staff to implement and then refine the lesson plans.

In December 2019, SHR staff entered the classroom at TCH and worked with kindergarten through 5th grade students once a month.  Each month had a specific lesson plan tailored to each grade level’s STEM curriculum and included hands on activities such as finding items in nature to include in a personal discovery bowl for each student.  SHR also worked with partners from the Southern Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative in 2020 to bring an arborist to TCH and discuss the profession and the important role arborists play in conservation and landscape management.  Students and teachers from TCH enjoyed the activity of counting tree rings to determine the age of a tree; however, they may have enjoyed decorating the tree ring ornaments for their Christmas trees even more!

In March with the onset of Covid-19, SHR was unable to reenter the classroom.  Yet, ever resilent, SHR staff then turned the focus toward improving the educational content and research.  Working with Professor Alfie Vick and PhD student, Joyell Hayley, at the University of Georgia’s College of Environment & Design, we began to develop a research component and refine the lesson plans.  Over the course of the next six months, the team created and expanded the lesson plans and teaching modules to include biophilic awareness, observing plant and human senses, the role pollinators play in the food system that humans depend on, and the importance of an ecological address.  Biophllia, a term coined by the legendary biologist E. O Wilson, is described as humans’ innate urge to seek a connection with nature.

This fall, SHR’s executive director, Kelly Holdbrooks, worked with TCH principal, Patrick Chapman, to determine a way to renter the classroom under Covid-19 protocols.  Both partners are thrilled to be working together again in the classroom and environmental education should resume this winter – fingers crossed!  We look forward to working with the students and teachers at TCH and sharing our progress with the community.

Gardener’s Corner

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Director of Horticulture, Eric Kimbrel

Now that we are officially in winter, all the plants in the gardens are slowing down their respirations and transpirations. I enjoy seeing the structure of the landscape that the trees and evergreen shrubs provide in dormancy. It feels less ‘busy’ as evergreens get more attention while perennials just ask to not be stepped on too much!

With the leaves now gone, we can make proper pruning cuts, eliminating bad branch structure in trees and shrubs.  Dead branches in rhododendrons attract borers, so we remove those. Now is also when gardeners can prune plants that have gotten too big and reduce them by one to two thirds to their desired size.

As we’ve done in years past, we ordered bulk delivery of aged horse manure this winter to be applied as a top dressing to shrubs and new plantings such as spruce, hemlock, chinquapins, and azaleas. Not all plants at the Reserve get the premium horse manure treatment; wildflowers and perennials tend to get leggy and top heavy when fertilized, causing them to fall over. We use aged manure over fresh to ensure the plant isn’t burned or over fertilized (plus, it doesn’t smell!).  A similar product that is more widely available at garden centers is Daddy Pete’s cow manure.  If that is not available, you can use any brand of mushroom compost. Black Kow bagged manure can also be used; however, it is heavier to handle because it contains sand in the mix.

Another important thing to do as soon as winter arrives, or at the end of fall, is to apply an anti-dessicant or anti-transpirant to your broadleaf evergreens such as rhododendrons, hollies, and mountain laurels.  Products such as Wilt-proof (which has a natural active ingredient) or Transfilm (a synthetic polymer) create a barrier on both sides of the leaves that hold moisture despite the wind and sun, for months at a time. You can also use those products on your Christmas tree, winter wreaths, and garlands to keep them looking fresh longer. At the Reserve we use the strongest application rate of anti-transpirant recommended to give us both the longest lasting protection and to avoid the need for secondary applications.  The most devastating thing that can happen to some evergreens like rhododendrons in the winter is that the ground can freeze, preventing water from reaching the leaves when the air temperature is warmer.  This causes the plant’s leaves and stems to eventually dry out and turn brown.  This is known as winter damage, or burn, and it can sometimes kill a plant completely .  Mulching or topdressing 3-4 inches will help keep roots more protected as well.

Winter is an ideal time to plan and or order what you want to plant in the spring.  Currently we are cleaning seeds from their husks and have begun stratifying them in storage bags with moist sand or sphagnum moss in a refrigerator.  This will last up to three months for many of the species.  This process mimics winter conditions which will enable the seed to wake up, or break dormancy, and germinate when warmer temperatures are introduced.  Some seeds have even germinated in the refrigerator after staying in there too long!  Another stratifying technique is to sow seeds in pots and leave them outside for the winter but protected from animals.  When spring temperatures rise, the seed will then germinate.

“Anyone who thinks gardening begins in the spring and ends in the fall is missing the best part of the whole year; for gardening begins in January with the dream.” Josephine Nuese

Stewards of an Endangered, Prehistoric Tree

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Torreya taxifolia Safeguarding Project

It is our responsibility to the land and our ecosystem to do everything we possibly can to help endangered plants and animals find a safe haven here at the Reserve.  One project we have been working on since April of 2018 is safeguarding Torreya taxifolia seedlings.  Working with the Atlanta Botanical Garden, we signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) memorializing our commitment to protect this endangered species to the best of our ability. In 2018 we set up five 3’x3’ square raised beds and filled them with different substrates.  The boxes have a mesh bottom to prevent burrowing animals digging from underneath and a high arching fence to deter squirrels from eating the seeds before they germinated.

Torreya taxifolia was one of the first species to be federally listed as an endangered plant in 1984, in large part due to fungal and needle blights and logging.  This tree has been around for 160 million years!  It is estimated that there are about 500-600 trees left in the wild – only 0.3% of their original population – making them one of the rarest conifers in the world. Scale and root rot are other factors in their decline.  Planting seeds we acquired from Atlanta Botanical Garden in various substrates allowed us to determine how these soils affect the growth of the tree.  Although the common name for this species is Florida nutmeg or stinking cedar, North Carolina has claim to the largest living T. taxifolia at 45 ft tall and 35” wide.  All five of the trial bed substrates contain pine bark fines, sand, and lime.  The first trial bed had aged pine bark fines as the variable while the next two beds have fresh pine bark fines as the variable.

DieHard was added as the variable in the third raised bed. DieHard contains mycorrhizal fungi, bacteria, humic acid, sea kelp, vitamins and amino acids, all things that are important to a plant’s growth and development.  The mycorrhizal fungi rely on the plants to sustain their existence, so when the seedling is stressed, the mycorrhizal fungi kick into action, supplying nutrients to the seedling.

The last box has Biochar as the amendment. Biochar is found all over the world and occurs naturally from vegetation fires.  When biochar is added to the soil it acts as a moderator of soil acidity, helps with water retention, increases soil microbes and sequesters carbon in the soil.  There is research suggesting that the reduction in natural forest fires could be a reason why fungal pathogens are going unchecked and attacking T. taxifolia.  Thankfully, there are organizations such as The Nature Conservancy that offer fire management courses that talk about the beneficial effects of controlled burns. Biochar can be made at home too (think about a metal firepit at a campsite).  That solid ring around the pit excludes oxygen while the high temperature of the fire heats the wood.  If you put a fire out with water before the wood turns to ash, you have made biochar!

This year we measured the Torreya taxifolia seedlings in all the raised beds and found that the plot with the biochar is the tallest, averaging 7”, with one reaching a full 12”!  In second place is the plot with the well-aged pine bark fines at 6.8”.  Third is the plot with fresh pine bark fines at 6.5”.  Fourth place goes to the plot with the DieHard at 6.2”. Lastly, the second plot with fresh pine bark fines only germinated eight out of 100 seedlings with an average height of 5”.  These results do support the effects of biochar on Florida nutmeg seedlings (see Tables below).  The germination rate of biochar plot also performed best by far, with 80 out of 100 seedlings sprouting. Interestingly, between 2019 and 2020, five extra seedlings per plot germinated – we’ll take it!

Plot Height Average 2019 Height Average 2020
A (Biochar) 5” 7”
B (Aged pine fines) 4” 6.8”
C (Fresh pine fines) 4.5” 6.5”
D (DieHardÔ) 3.3” 6.2”
E (Fresh pine fines) 2.7” 5”


Plot Germination Rate 2019 Germination Rate 2020
A (Biochar) 75/100 80/100
B (Aged pine fines) 50/100 49/100
C (Fresh pine fines) 64/100 70/100
D (DieHard) 55/100 64/100
E (Fresh pine fines) 3/100 8/100

We plan to pot up all seedlings in April while they are still dormant and send our results to the Atlanta Botanical Garden.  Increasing the population of this endangered species by 271 new trees is important and allows us to continue our mission of research to help sustain biodiversity.

Leave the leaves

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Fall is the natural world’s swan song for the growing season. Colors from trees and shrubs glow brilliantly as they bid us adieu until next spring.  The beauty of fall color draws people from all over the world to great view sheds such as the Blue Ridge Parkway; however, leaves play a much more important role than just beauty. In the springtime, leaves absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, converting gas into organic carbon compounds.  Come autumn, trees shed their leaves, leaving them to decompose in the soil as they are eaten by microbes.  Over time, decaying leaves release carbon back into the atmosphere as carbon monoxide, all part of the natural cycle of a forest ecosystem.

At the Reserve, we practice adaptive management, a systematic approach for improving resource management by learning from management outcomes.  Fall is a bountiful time of year for resource management at the Reserve in our high elevation forest.  Just like other species in the landscape, we spend our days gathering and collecting resources for the winter and spring.  Our main focus in the fall is collecting leaves and branches.  These leaves and branches are a crucial part of our carbon management program.

Once leaves are collected in a large storage area, we then shred them with an attachment on our tractor to create brown gold, otherwise known as leaf mulch.  This allows us to speed up the decomposition process for garden rooms, using the natural resources from the forest as mulch.  By keeping nutrients on site, we reduce costs, labor and the need to bring foreign materials onto the landscape.  Healthy soil equals healthy plants and ecosystems. Using leaf mulch instead of hardwood, pine needles, or pine mulch creates a more natural look to the woodland garden.  It’s best to shred the leaves as needed; shredded leaves left for an extended period of time tend to grow mold. Leaf mulch is also a favorite food of worms so your soil will be improved with the aeration their boring creates and the castings they leave behind. At home, you can make leaf mulch by using your lawn mower. Laying the leaves in a one-foot-high pile spread on a concrete parking pad or other flat surface is a good method. Be sure to use dry leaves, wear a dusk mask, gloves and other protective gear.

Cleaning forest floors by removing branches and deadwood is not considered a best practice for the forest ecosystem.  However, we go a step further in our resource management.  After collecting the branches, we then chip them back into the forest floor, speeding up the decomposition process and keeping nutrients on site.  At the Reserve, we strive to balance how humans and ecology intersect.  Taking these extra steps in gardening our woodlands is both important to the health of the ecosystem and to the aesthetics of the garden.

Fall Gardener’s Corner

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Fall seemed to arrive quickly this year. Cool temperatures twenty degrees below average always get my attention.  But guess what?  The plants were expecting it! The shorter daylength was already beginning to occur and the plants were tracking its progress, slowing down photosynthesis and storing up sugars for energy in the spring.  Evergreen plants will continue to take advantage of the sunlight on warmer winter days and sporadically continue to photosynthesize. While most plants will be dormant, don’t ignore your newly planted evergreen shrubs and trees in the winter if there is a dry spell. Some evergreen plants, such as boxwood (Buxus sempervirens), actually do grow most of their roots during in the winter months.

When the green chlorophyll is gone, the compounds that are left give leaves their different hues. Those compounds are anthocyanins, carotenoids and flavonoids. There is also fall color that most of us don’t expect to see – white. We have several species of plants that exhibit white fall color, due to a lack of chlorophyll in the leaves. Since no other color compounds remain once the chlorophyll has been broken down and absorbed into the plant, only a white leaf is left.  Examples are Hayscented fern, Mountain Angelica, and Mountain Holly.

Did you know Rhododendrons exhibit fall color too? The oldest leaves turn orange and yellow before they drop, so don’t think something is wrong with your rhododendrons in the fall when they shed a few leaves – this is normal. The Pinkshell Azaleas we enjoy, grow and sell in the nursery exhibit a stunning red fall color and Flame Azaleas tend to have beautiful orange fall color.  Autumnal foliage is a wonderful way for the plants to say thank you for the growing season and give us one last hurrah before their winter hibernation.

As the leaves fall, I am already thinking about new leaves grown next year. Recently, I experimented by sowing seeds of Baptisia tinctoria and Thermopsis vilosa I had just collected.  I sowed the seeds before they dried out after the seed pods (fruit) had turned black.  The reason was to see how successful freshly mature seeds, not yet dormant, would germinate without an extended cold wet period or stratification, which brings the seed embryo back out of dormancy.   About three weeks later, both species were beginning to germinate, but in low numbers.  Out of 160 seeds only 29 Baptisias germinated and survived.  Thermopsis did a little better, with 15 out of 30 seeds germinating.  While successful, the seedlings will have to be taken care of till next spring as, more than likely, they will not go dormant during winter since they are assuming it is spring!  We will keep them indoors under artificial light and give them a diluted fertilizer now that they have made their first set of true leaves.  Next spring, we will plant them or pot them up for sale later.

Another important fall horticultural task is deadheading aggressive species before they release seeds. Some of the bigger ones we focus on are Joe Pye weed and Solidago. Food sources for wildlife become harder to find as the dormant season of winter approaches.  Therefore, we leave the seed heads on all winter long for certain species like rudbeckia lancinate (cutleaf coneflower) and echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower) as food for the birds.

As we embrace the changing of seasons there is much to reflect on and enjoy. Each day brings new wonders in the natural world from white fall color, to seeing seeds sprout or the landscape opening up to blue skies as the leaves fall. I’m ready to see what wonders the next season will bring.

Fabulous Fungi

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Visitors to the Reserve this season have noticed an unusual abundance and variety of mushrooms popping up everywhere, given the increase in rainfall this season.  In addition to enjoying their delightful shapes and colors, our staff have feasted on chicken-of-the-woods, chanterelles, oyster and black trumpet mushrooms. Fungi play an important role in forest ecosystems and are the largest living organisms on earth. By definition, they are a diverse group of eukaryotic single-celled or multinucleate organisms that live by decomposing and absorbing the organic material in which they grow, producing fruit, called mushrooms, which provide food for wildlife.

Not all mushrooms grow above ground. For instance, truffles that grow on the roots of red spruce trees provide an important food source for the endangered Carolina northern flying squirrel, found in the high elevation spruce-fir forests of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. These truffles (Elaphomyces spp.) have a strong odor when mature, allowing the squirrels to locate dense areas of truffles by scent. (Loeb et al., 2000) Southern Highlands Reserve partners with federal and state agencies as a founding member of the Southern Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative (https://southernspruce.org) to restore the habitat of Carolina northern flying squirrel and many other species by growing red spruce trees from cones collected on public land.

A mushroom you are more likely to see this time of year is the Jack-O-Lantern mushroom (Omphalotus olearius). Its bright orange and poisonous fruit can be found growing around tree stumps in the fall. One interesting fact about this mushroom is that it is bioluminescent, meaning that it glows in the dark, emitting a color similar to a firefly. The purpose of this chemical reaction is to attract nighttime insects that then spread spores, using compounds similar to those fireflies use. The difference is that bioluminescent mushrooms contain enzymes that have the ability to create other glowing colors.  This could prove useful for bioluminescent imaging and other, not yet conceived, uses.

Mushrooms help our native animals and enchant our minds.  Staff at the Reserve have found ways to incorporate mycelium into projects and best management practices.   For example, we add a powder containing endomycorrhizal, ectomycorrhizal and Trichoderma fungi to our potting mix for red spruce trees. This helps with water and nutrient uptake for the new seedlings. This spring, we implemented a composting project in the greenhouse. Staff were introduced to the idea of using mushrooms as a composting component that Diana Hiles, our horticulturist, learned from Max Dubansky of Backbone Farm, in Maryland. He uses wine cap mushrooms (Stropharia rugoso-annulata) to speed up compost on his organic farm. With further research, our staff have started a mushroom composting simulation in a 33-gallon barrel, filling it with wood chips and fresh green debris from our compost pile. Then, second-generation grain spawn of the wine cap mushroom are layered into the mix, creating a mycelium lasagna. Yum!

The goal of the experiment is to have the mycelium decompose the contents of the barrel and produce fruit. The barrel is kept in the green house because the mycelium need warm temperatures to colonize the barrel; the mushrooms it will produce are edible and might interest more than just hungry gardeners! Once fully colonized, the barrel’s contents will be mixed into the large compost pile. Wine cap mushrooms have been found on site prior to this project so we can verify that they are endemic. The spent mycelium will aid in the time it takes our debris to compost and add nutrients to the compost that can then be used in the landscape.  Caring for the old and fostering the new are an important part of what we do to keep SHR the special ecosystem it is.

Not all fungi are beneficial to us or other plants as many of you know from seeing azalea gall on your native azaleas or powdery mildew on your roses. In fact, the largest organism in the world is a fungus, Armillaria solidipes or A. ostoyae. This honey fungus causes Armillaria root disease, killing conifers and creating more food for itself along the way. This single fungus, with an identical genetic make-up, resides in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest, encompassing 2,384 aces. It’s estimated to be about 2,400 years old due to its growth rate but could be as old as 8,650 years old! (Casselman 2007)

At the end of the day, fungi are only one component of our ecosystem.  It takes many other organisms to make the cogs of Mother Nature turn, including all of us. The everyday choices we make impact the world we share.  Thank you for supporting organizations like ours, being environmentally responsible and trying to leave the world better for the generations to come.

Introducing our newest team member

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We would like to introduce the Reserve’s newest team member, Diana Hiles. Diana has six years of fine gardening experience, beginning during her studies at Montgomery College and continuing through horticultural mentors, later running her own gardening company. She loved to draw, install and maintain landscape designs, often growing her own plants such as zinnias, foxgloves, scabiosa (pincushion flower), and milkweed for her clients’ gardens.  Diana gets her green thumb from her parents who are also avid native plant gardeners.  She holds certificates from the National Green Infrastructure Program (NGICP) and the Maryland Nursery Landscape Greenhouse Association (MNLGA).


Diana has drawn inspiration from the many English gardens she has visited including Hidcote, Sissinghurst, Helmingham Hall and Margery Fish’s 15th century home and cottage garden, East Lambrook Manor. She moved to Brevard from Maryland at the end of March to pursue her love of native plants and the mountains. She enjoys uniting classic fine gardening with native plants and wilder areas here at the Reserve. There is never a lack of things to do!


Thus far, Diana has taken on communications with the GPCA (Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance) to secure endangered mountain pitcher plants for SHR. Bog plants are a favorite of Diana’s and she is working on securing more for the Reserve. She has also started an experiment with composting using mushrooms to help speed up decomposition.  All of the debris we gather on the Reserve is chipped or composted to help restore organic matter to the soil. To make compost more quickly (and enjoy edible mushrooms as a bonus), mushrooms spores are sown in compost piles.  This helps the plants get enough nutrients without needing to use fertilizer. Diana has been a big help in getting the gardens ready for summer tours and documenting the Reserve through via our social media feed.


Diana is a lifelong learner and is interested in teaching others. She recently met with our local TC Henderson Elementary School to suggest native plants and solutions for their existing pollinator garden that will not only help pollinators but educate children on the nature around them. She looks forward to growing with the Reserve and enriching the gardens through sustainable stewardship and a gardener’s keen eye. Welcome Diana!



Summer Gardener’s Corner

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Summer on a mountain is a somewhat different when it comes to gardening.  We can continue planting thanks to slightly cooler temperatures and regular rain.  Planting in May, we sometimes actually experience drier weather, forcing us to water more often.  Adding another task such as watering new plantings to the spring push should be accounted for in your daily and weekly schedule.  Soil temperatures are generally a little cooler which may slow establishment after planting.  So, we are planting woodland and sun loving plants now.  We are enhancing plantings we already have with more of the same plant species as well as new species or cultivars.


We are also able to continue potting up red spruce, azaleas, and other native shrubs this time of year.  Plants in two-inch RootMaker pots will be put into one gallon RootMaker pots.  This is an advantage again with the RootMaker system, allowing us to skip the 4” size in between, saving time and labor.  It is critical to repot when plants are actively growing new roots, and this can happen in late winter through the summer.  Doing so allows the plant to get established before winter temperatures arrive.


Darwin Thomas propagates carnivorous native plants at Darwin’s Backyard Nursery in Sylva, North Carolina.  On June 5th we met him to pick up twenty-eight carnivorous plants of varying species, shapes and sizes that he very graciously gifted to us!  We are so excited and have planted them in mass along the pond’s edge.  These types of plants require a wet site where water is fresh and oxygenated along with sun.  Our pond is spring fed and keeps the water cool and refreshed with new water, providing excellent conditions for these plants and others.


One of the goals of gardening is to create an aesthetically pleasing atmosphere to be in, to move people with the garden’s beauty. This time of year, a lot of that is editing. We love our native plants; however, some can be more aggressive than others. Notice whether those hay-scented ferns are starting to creep a little too far into your garden. Today I uncovered heuchera, columbine, ginger and club moss that were hiding under a sea of ferns. You might be surprised what you uncover once you start editing the garden.  It’s a special delight to discover the soft orange colors of chanterelles lurking beneath.


Another plant to keep an eye on is Goldenrod (Solidago rugosa). It isn’t picky about sun or shade so it will slowly take over an area if allowed. Solidago is a nice, late blooming plant if kept at the back of the bed where it can provide some height. If you want to help keep the Solidago from seeding all, over cut the flowers off right after they are spent. The window is short from fading flowers to seeds. I suggest Solidago caesia and S. shortii ‘Solar Cascade’ or S. odora which is a clumping type that will not spread and is good in the shade.


Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium fistulosa), is another great plant for the back of the garden bed. There are cultivars that do not get as tall as the straight species such as little Joe and baby Joe. Joe Pye Weed has some of the most nutrient dense nectars available for pollinators, making it an essential plant for pollinator gardens. The same is said for this plant as Golden Rod: it will self sow. Cutting the flowers off is a personal choice you make as the gardener. The seed heads of Joe Pye provide winter interest when dusted with snow. Be sure to remove the dead leaves if you choose to leave the heads up for it to really shine in the winter.


Think about how the plants make you feel. Do you feel crowded when you walk around your garden? You might need to cut the shrub layer back. Are there enough ‘windows’ looking into the other parts of the garden? You might need to cut the lower branches and water sprouts of a witch hazel.  Leaving a select one or two younger trunks is good for the tree as long as they are not rubbing against another limb.


Weeding and pruning is an unavoidable part of gardening and can be quite relaxing if you get in the zone as I’m sure both our founders would agree!

Panthertown Valley by Marci Spencer

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About ten highway-miles west of Lake Toxaway on US-64 on land now bordered by Southern Highlands Reserve, developers planned to build a lodge in Panthertown Valley in the 1960s. A dam, impounding the headwaters of the Tuckasegee River, would offer guests a scenic, recreational lake. The National Park Service and local politicians were also charmed by the natural beauty of the area. Enthusiastic about the new, well-travelled Blue Ridge Parkway connecting Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks, officials proposed a parkway extension to Georgia that would slice through Panthertown Valley. Duke Energy also wanted to own the valley to build its power transmission line.


Tea-colored waterways, sandy beaches and over half-a-dozen premier waterfalls and a dozen smaller ones in Panthertown attracted the attention of outdoor enthusiasts. Unique plant communities in rare mountain bogs and atop monstrous granite domes fueled the passions of the NC Chapter of the Nature Conservancy. Through the organization’s campaigns and fund-raising efforts in the 1980’s, Panthertown was saved from development. Later purchased by the US Forest Service, Nantahala National Forest now maintains the 6700 backcountry acres as a primitive area for hikers and a sanctuary for black bears.  From its two main entrances, popular day-hike destinations in the open, flat valley are sheer rock cliffs, deep swimming holes and gorgeous waterfalls, like Schoolhouse Falls.


Recently, the USFS district ranger for Nantahala National Forest estimated that over 20,000 visitors explore the thirty miles of hiking trails and scenic vistas in Panthertown Valley each year. The organization, Friends of Panthertown Valley, partner with the forest service to help maintain the trail system. Each season, the group sponsors guided hikes, including wildflower walks led by renowned Appalachian botanist and retired Western Carolina University professor, Dr. Dan Pittillo. In 2017, the Friends joined Mainspring Conservation Trust to raise money to purchase 16 acres adjoining Panthertown’s Salt Rock Trailhead entrance. The Friends of Panthertown Valley provides further information about their activities on their web page: https://panthertown.org/. Maps are available at the USFS office and local outfitters.

Image of Warden Falls courtesy of Thomas Mabry

A Garden Unapologetic by Kristin Landfield-Howe

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“Green mosses, being so many, are as good as brawny.
How important it is to walk along, not in haste but slowly,
looking at everything and calling out
Yes! No!

…To pay attention, this is our endless
and proper work.”

–Mary Oliver


Summer has arrived here in the Southern Appalachians.  For me, along with many gardeners, the resonance of a real garden is in the way it reflects passage of time. Perhaps better than anything I’ve known, this connection with plants and nature helps me notice and process the passing of days, weeks, seasons, years.  We’re terrestrial beings –more corporeal than we are cerebral. We require physical contact with the sensory world to find our place in the natural order. We walk—we hear the intimate crunch of leaves beneath our feet; we blink—we note the glare from the midday sun, and on our skin we witness daily shifts in light and shadow.  We sit—we observe the wind stirring the canopy and feel it lift the ends of our hair.  And so we learn to locate our bodies in space. The tumble of a stream around our ankles forces our feet to find purchase on the sandy bed below; we learn balance. The ripples left in the moving water delineate our presence.  Somewhat paradoxically, awakening to our senses is our one defense against time hurtling out ahead of us.


Up here on the Plateau heavy rains and a cooler May have yielded jungle-like vegetative growth. For me, the delight of the Appalachian spring is the parade of it—how it unfolds at a pace and succession that I can notice and enjoy.  Today though, lavish greens paint the roadsides and the hills. Their insistent greenness fills these woods, reminding me that summer isn’t coming; rather, it’s here. Green is the essence of summer—its first principle—especially in these mountains, where the green takes its time to emerge but is irrepressible upon fulsome arrival.   As I write, bloated clouds hang fat and happy below a blue sky.  Drenched boughs of my Beech trees hang with distended satisfaction. It’s all fireflies and jewelweed. The birds’ chirping isn’t so frenzied; many of their nests have fledged and their world has settled.  At every turn, organisms have moved from spring bourgeoning to summer ripening.  And herein we find the sweetness of summer. The intimacy of it.


During this surreal spring of 2020, virtually all of us have experienced a strange relationship to time.   For many of us, the order of our days slowed while the news cycle sped up.  Daily uncertainty interrupted our travel, our graduations, and in some cases, our sleep.

Yet the landscape, with its daylight (or darkness) dependent itinerary, continues as always.  Ground temperatures make their annual climb to activate soil microbes and warm-season growers.  The lengthening of days augments available sunlight, fueling photosynthesis.  Winter’s stored sugars migrate back inside plant cells, inciting respiration and phytogenesis.  Here is our everyday magic: the sun appears, it rains, plants grow.  We breathe fresh air.  And so it goes. Never in my lifetime have I been more aware of nor grateful for fresh air.


I’ve heard a several people comment that it’s been the prettiest spring they remember.  I wonder whether “remember” may be the operative word here. We’ve been grounded by this pandemic, at home, expending our nervous energy on walking, noticing, gardening—compulsory quiet. Most essentially, gardeners are keen observers, noting small distinctions in microclimates much in the way one observes the idiosyncrasies of a beloved. Ancestral tasks of cultivating a garden begin with noticing what is—in this moment—to guide our next move.  The alchemy of horticulture is wrought from trial and error.  It’s our human birthright to notice and tend, to enjoy the ripening, to harvest.  Stay-at-home orders have connected us with this legacy.  It all begins with attention and care.


In reading gardening magazines or home improvement shows, there is a sense that landscaping must offer curb appeal, resale value, provide utility.  We defend public gardens by listing their value to the public, considering them as event spaces and commoditizing them. These exploits matter, to greater or lesser degree depending on the goals for a space. But I believe that this strange spring has reminded us that beauty has meaning and resonance that transcends the utility or instrument of the space. Ars gratia artis—beauty for the sake of beauty itself.


When I walk under the cathedral of trees at Southern Highlands Reserve, my conflicting desires, my ambitions, my ego sink into the oceans of moss, and I’m humbled by the rugged tumble of boulders reflected in the still pond.  I become a witness to the breeze moving through the ferns, not merely the consumer of the pathway system the staff works hard to maintain.  It’s summer, and spring’s proliferation has carried us into the year’s ripening.  My mind quiets on this consecrated land, and I can hear nature’s conversation with this montane garden.  Again, I look to Mary Oliver translate:


When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come”