gardens, gardening, wnc, tours, blue ridge mountains

SHR Seeking Full-Time Gardener

Posted Posted in SHR-News

Come join our team!

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Position: Gardener

Executive Summary 

SHR is currently seeking an individual to serve as an additional full-time gardener.  This position will support the Director of Horticulture in the maintenance and development of the gardens, applying best practices in horticultural techniques to a wide variety of plant materials to ensure they are maintained to the highest horticulture standards. This individual will monitor, manage and maintain garden areas including new installations, weeding, watering, pruning and grooming, composting, mulching, identifying problems and treating them. 


SHR is a nationally recognized native plant arboretum and research center dediciated to sustaining the natural ecosystems of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We accomplish this mission through the preservation, cultivation and display of plants native to the region, and by advocating for their value through education, restoration and research.  Our staff functions as a single team, dedicated to outstanding guest and partner service and excellence in conservation. To adhere to our culture of excellence, we have defined the following outcomes for this position.

Demonstrate and understand internal and external requirements in regard to all tasks by:

  • Following established operating procedures and policies
  • Taking direction while showing initiative, and thriving in a work environment where all staff wear many hats
  • Communicating effectively with colleagues and showing enthusiasm for working in a team environment
  • Creatively problem-solve new solutions to tasks and problems
  • Maintaining gardens with pride and ownership, achieving a high standard of aesthetic display

Job Description

Gardening & Landscaping:

  • Maintain all plantings on a daily basis, including watering, weeding, deadheading, mulching, fertilizing, pruning, and other maintenance as directed
  • Operate and maintain tools and equipment, including blowers, trimmers, utility and company vehicles to transport materials and equipment
  • Maintain landscape features such as walkways, stonework, and trails as directed
  • Monitor garden conditions for visitor safety and reporting problems to supervisor
  • Report problems related to pests, diseases, and/ or damage to gardens and ground
  • Assist with propagation of plants, seed collecting, and other greenhouse tasks
  • Assist with recordkeeping related to chemical applications, plant documentation, and equipment inventory
  • Supervise and work with garden volunteers
  • Work with SHR colleagues on conservation and restoration projects
  • Perform tasks related to weather protection to include repair work related to storm damage
  • Perform proper weeding by hand in landscape beds to create a neat, clean appearance and inhibit the growth of weeds
  • Assist with landscape renovations to include performing landscape construction to improve the visual impact of the garden
  • Assist with tour and event setup and breakdown as required
  • Maintain cleanliness of all assigned areas as needed
  • Perform other duties as assigned


  • Working knowledge of methods, materials, techniques, tools and equipment used in a wide variety of grounds maintenance activities.
  • Knowledge of the planting and care of native perennials, woody shrubs, and trees, and the appropriate control measures of their major pests and diseases.
  • Proficient in the use of computers and MS Office applications.
  • Ability to lift, carry, push or pull 50 pounds. Position often requires strenuous activity outdoors with exposure to a variety of conditions ranging from hot and humid to cold and wet.
  • Minimum of 5 years of experience in horticulture, landscaping, or any combination of related skills.
  • Proficiency with irrigation installation and repairs.
  • Comfortable performing minor repairs on power equipment.
  • Preference will be given to those candidates with experience in a public garden or museum environment.


  • Analytical Thinking
  • Ability to think logically through a situation to identify and avoid potential pitfalls and arrive at the best-case and most feasible outcome
  • High Standards/Attention to Detail
  • Extreme attention to detail
  • Treat every task and project diligently
  • Calmly maintain standards of excellence when under high stress or when presented with tight deadlines
  • Outstanding ability to communicate and listen
  • Ability to provide and receive information and instruction and respond accordingly in a professional and friendly manner in both verbal and written format


A competitive compensation package will be offered, including an attractive base salary and paid time off.  If interested, please send a cover letter and resume via email to  Please title the subject heading: Gardener – YOUR NAME.



Gardener’s Corner with Eric Kimbrel

Posted Posted in SHR-News

Nature’s schedule is always interesting to observe—it pays no mind to our calendar. The trees filled up with webworms early this year, and yet current warm temperatures are pushing fall back. Precipitation also plays a part in when the seasons change, with more rain causing plants to go dormant earlier than usual.

Fall is a great time of year to plant deciduous trees—but not in all plant hardiness zones. Fall plantings at lower latitudes and elevations are usually successful because plants have time to become established before harsh winter temperatures arrive. This prevents frost heaving which pushes the root ball upwards as the ground freezes. At higher elevations, however, winter comes early allowing for almost one month less of root growing time. We recommend planting in the spring or before September for gardens in cooler climates.

Soon, we will gather leaves which are just beginning to fall and store to keep them dry until shredded and placed back in the landscape. Shredding leaves makes it easier to spread them farther and to get them in between the plants. Leaves are great as a mulch as they get broken down by earthworms into organic matter. Over time this layer slowly works its way into the soil below and builds upwards as well, creating a rich environment for organisms valuable to plants such as beneficial fungi and bacteria which work with plant roots to transport nutrients. This is what we refer to as living soil, which can also be created with compost (worm castings) to speed up nature’s process.

It is not just N-P-K (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) that makes for healthy plants.  We are currently experimenting with granular and liquid additives of beneficial bacteria, probiotics and mycorrhizae such as Espoma and Biotone.  A relatively new material called Biochar is proving to benefit plant growth and health in propagation soils as well as plants already in the ground. We used it in potting soil and saw significantly more growth. Biochar is charcoal-like material that provides a home for organisms which then associate with nearby roots and “feed” the plant chemically.

One exciting species we recently planted is Castenea dentata hybrid American chestnut given to us by the American Chestnut Foundation. We placed six of these in various locations in the Core Park, some intentionally close to wild chestnut trees that are, of course, experiencing blight. Our location is a great proving ground for resistance due to the population of blighted trees already on the property.

We have been installing new plants to enhance the quantity and variety in our garden rooms. It is always fun to try new varieties of native plants that have recently entered the market but best to give a plant a few years to settle in before making judgement on its value. Remember, the first calendar year the plant is establishing its root system, so top growth is minimal until the second year. That is why watering the first year is essential. We have been using a product called Superthrive for watering plants before they go into the ground. This supplement contains Vitamin B as well as other ingredients that give the plant what it needs to get through transplant shock and begin producing root and shoot growth. Typically, we only use Superthrive once, but it can be used more often if needed. Amendments do not have to be incorporated into the soil prior to planting, and in fact they are not even recommended for trees and shrubs. It has been proven that the plants do no better long term when amendments are used. Instead, in the fall and winter months we top-dress with amendments like composted horse manure (stall refuse), or for homeowners Daddy Pete’s cow manure. This is applied on top of the root zone (inside of the dripline) at one to four inches thick. Worms then incorporate this into the soil over time, producing good results.

No matter what your garden calls you to do, this is a wonderful time to simply be in it. Make note of the cooler air on your skin and the crisper days opening up the vistas and allowing those fall colors to appear just a bit brighter. Being outside during all seasons is nourishing to the soul, but spending time tending your gardens this time of year not only prepares the plants, it also helps you transition into the season of dormancy.

Finding Beauty In the Familiar

Posted Posted in SHR-News

hu·man be·ing noun 1. a man, woman, or child of the species Homo sapien, distinguished from other animals by superior mental development, power of articulate speech, and upright stance.” [1] In the strictest sense, we are homo sapiens, but this simple fact leaves out the core for most of us—that we distinguish ourselves from other animals by our superior mental development. By extension, we pride ourselves on being a unique species based on having a sense of aesthetics. But does that really separate us as much as we imagine?

We experience and recognize beauty through the senses, especially vision. Qualities that brings us pleasure are individually subjective to some degree, but many patterns and tendencies exist across cultures. This is because at the root, beauty has a biological function. The adaptive choices our ancestors made around food, procreation and home that led to their survival and success are ingrained in us and often reveal themselves as a predilection for one thing over another. For example, in the animal world, “wood thrushes (Hylocichla mustelina) should find dense woods attractive and savannah sparrows (Passerculus sandwichensis) open fields.” [2] Based on studies by Edward O. Wilson, father of the term biophilia, the human biological function of aesthetics is thought to have evolved on the savanna with its open grassland hospitable to large herds of grazing animals interspersed with stands of trees that provided refuge from predators. This is evident in the fact that today we most often favor images of these landscapes over others, and we even tend to construct our outdoor recreational spaces based on them. [3] The landscape and ecology that were most suitable for early human life have become the foundation for our modern-day sense of design.

So, while we value our aesthetic sensibilities, they are ultimately tied to our survival, just as are the choices of other animal species. Katy Payne, acoustic biologist, states that “when animals make sounds, we consider them functional and when people make sounds we consider them aesthetic (songs), but they are really the same, so we don’t need a separate language for them.” [4] This idea, of course, translates into the visual realm as well.

We also evolved, like animals, to favor the new. This is because no environment is ever completely stable. Change being inevitable, an inclination to try new things as possible food sources when the old favorites diminish or vanish allows for survival. This same characteristic is what makes us tend toward newness in situations unrelated to subsistence. We are caught and captured by the sight of a new pattern, arrangement or design. We fancy the latest fashions in all forms, turning over our wardrobes, changing our hair and updating our homes.

The field of residential landscape design prioritizes aesthetics above almost all else, and in the world of horticulture, this craving for difference translates into fascination with exotic flora. Ornamental plants, those grown specifically for display with no concern for function, create a gap in ecosystems. Native plants, however, can be equally as showy while they simultaneously provide the ecosystem services of supporting the food web, often while they help clean our air and water. Among the native plants of the Southern Appalachians that we consider to be most ornamental are fly poison, bear grass, little bluestem grass, mountain myrtle, hydrangea radiata, turk’s cap lily, buttonbush, mountain laurel, pink profusion bowman’s root and cinnamon fern.

The choices we make in landscaping have an impact beyond just our own homes and businesses. The majority of land in the US is privately owned, so decisions that property holders make carry the greatest weight. Not only that, but every selection in terms of species of, course, ripples outward through the entire interconnected natural world. Our desire to be surrounded by beauty lies deep within our genes and need not be disregarded, but we do need to consider the effects of what we introduce into nature. It only serves us for our own survival to return our gaze to the exquisite flora native to our region that provide wildlife food and habitat, conserve water and store carbon dioxide with little maintenance (including pesticide and fertilizer)—all while they present abundant color and variety in form.



[2] The Biological Roots of Aesthetics and Art

[3] The Artful Species: Aesthetics, Art, and Evolution


SHR Receives Commendation from The Garden Club of America

Posted Posted in SHR-News

The Garden Club of America recently presented Southern Highlands Reserve the Zone VIII Horticulture Commendation. The commendation was awarded with appreciation for SHR’s dedication to horticulture, preservation, conservation and education in the uniquely beautiful native plant gardens of the Southern Appalachian Mountains and beyond.

Lifelong outdoor enthusiasts, Reserve founders 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 based on conservation of the rare ecology of the Southern Appalachian Mountains.

The Balentines received the award on behalf of the organization at an awards banquet in March in Palm Beach, Florida, presented by The Garden Club of Palm Beach. Robert Balentine said, “Through two generations of our family’s involvement, I have long admired the work of the Garden Club of America. Receiving the Zone Horticulture award on behalf of Southern Highlands Reserve was a very special honor for Betty and me.”

The purpose of The Garden Club of America is “to stimulate the knowledge and love of gardening; to share the advantage of association by means of educational meetings, conferences, correspondence and publications; and to restore, improve and protect the quality of the environment through educational programs and action in the fields of conservation and civic improvement.” Among the other Zone VIII award recipients were the Garden Club of Palm Beach, the Late Bloomers Garden Club, the Reed Mountain Garden Club, and also The King Library.

Seed Collecting: A Shared Experience

Posted Posted in SHR-News

The world of botanists, horticulturists and landscape architects is a tight knit community, one in which conversations often result in tracing back crossed paths and common friends while sharing favorite plants and gardens with one another. One of the greatest benefits of such intersections are the opportunities that spring forth.

The majority of plants at SHR are grown from seed collected onsite. However, by continually using the same plants for seed collection, we limit the genetic diversity and representation of flora across the Southern Appalachians. Therefore, seed collecting trips in our own backyard are important not only to grow the number of plant species we hold in our collections, but also for the genetic diversity of these plants. Recently we were invited by the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University in Boston, MA to join them for two days of their three-week long plant collecting trip to the region. This partnership opened the opportunity for SHR staff to join in the adventure and gather seed for our own collections.

This time of year, tucked back from the main thoroughfare in the Nantahala National Forest, native plants are bursting with seeds. During this most recent excursion, staff scaled up the steep slopes of Jake Ridge, crossing rock scrambles and avoiding the prick of smilax stretched across the path. The climb was worth it, as gems such as doll’s eye, blue cohosh and towering buckeye were found at every turn, bearing seed ready to be harvested. The group passed through a variety of ecosystems while descending into the valley at Buck Creek Serpentine Barrens where both rare and unique plants were growing. The Serpentine Barrens are a uniquely complex mixture of mesic and xeric plantings interspersed together, thanks to a perched water table in combination with clay soils. Twenty-two state-listed rare plant species and four state-listed butterfly species occur at the site. While special permits are necessary to secure seed from listed rare plants, seed was collected from plants such as the Canadian burnet and hearts-a-bustin’. Over the fall, we will enter records into our plant database and the collected seeds will be prepared and stored, ready for planting or sharing with other partners.

While the collected seeds were a welcomed prize after a great deal of bushwacking, not to mention the mental challenge of plant identification, the biggest rewards were the new professional partnership and many personal friendships that were created. Other faces in the group included those from Arnold Arboretum, the Beijing Botanical Gardens (Beijing, China), the Chengdu Institute of Biology (Chengdu, China), the Kunming Institute of Botany (Kunming, China), the US National Arboretum (Washington D.C.) and the US National Forest Service Nantahala Office (Franklin, NC). As the world shifts due to climate change, sprawling cities and growing populations, it becomes all the more important for botanical partnerships to lay the groundwork to collect and preserve our native plant species. You can help by planting natives in your own garden, visiting the Center for Plant Conservation website and joining us at our next Native Plant Sale, where the proceeds go toward making trips like this one possible.

frogs, nature, gardens, conservation

Springing into New Life

Posted Posted in SHR-News

As spring advances, signs of renewed life are appearing at the Reserve in each of the four elements. Amphibians have laid their eggs in the water, insects are hatching and beginning to fill the air, buds are swelling along with new growth appearing from the earth and we recently performed the annual prescribed burn of the Wildflower Labyrinth! All of these components of life’s cycles are occurring in line with the vernal equinox.


Of these manifestations of awakening, we focus here on amphibians. The Southeast, recognized as the center of amphibian biodiversity in the United States, supports over 140 species of frogs, toads and salamanders [1]. North Carolina alone is home to more than 60 salamander species (more than anywhere else in the world) with some of those being found only in our state [2]. Two in particular, the northern pigmy salamander (Plethodon organi) and Weller’s salamander (P. welleri), are species of conservation concern dependent upon this ecosystem as habitat. The Reserve is home to several known species (as well as likely many not yet seen and identified): the wood frog (Lithobates sylvaticus), spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum), three-lined salamander (Eurycea guttolineata) and red spotted newt (Notophthalmus viridescens). Newts, the subfamily Pleurodelinae of the family Salamandridae, are semi- or fully-aquatic as adults as opposed to other salamanders that follow the reverse life cycle.

Why Are Amphibians in Decline?

Amphibians as a whole have been in decline for over 20 years, leading all taxonomic groups, with approximately one third of the species listed as threatened on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List. This is due in part to their biphasic life stages, meaning they rely on both aquatic and terrestrial systems. As most alternate between life in the water while juveniles, to adult life on land (some species exhibit the reverse progression) with a return to the water to mate and lay eggs, they are susceptible to adverse conditions of both ecosystems. Their moist, permeable skin not only absorbs most of the water needed for survival, it is also a sensitive respiratory organ, therefore taking in both water and air pollutants. Centrally located in the food web, these consumers of aquatic vegetation, invertebrates and other vertebrates are also prey for fish, snakes, birds and others. Strongly influencing biodiversity and acting as early indicators of ecosystem change, amphibians are considered to be proverbial canaries in the coalmine regarding climate change [3]. Increasingly erratic rainfall patterns with greater deluges and longer periods of drought present impossible obstacles for these creatures that are simultaneously being threatened by habitat loss, disease, invasive species and overexploitation.

What Helps?

USGS scientists found that restoration of degraded, damaged or destroyed wetland hydrology provides the most immediate benefit to frogs and toads [1], and presumably salamanders. This process involves reestablishing water flow conditions to historic natural states, as we have been doing at the Reserve, and benefits not only amphibians, but all native plant and animal species. Our recent modifications include adding hydra humps with rock outlets, adding turf and rock swales and altering existing swales to better direct the water. We are also constructing step pools and rock check damns within the swales to control water velocity. Finally, we are experimenting with large woody debris (LWD) in a subwatershed to slow sheet-flow across the landscape and prevent valuable soil and nutrient loss.

What You Can Do

If you want to help protect amphibians and their habitat because you value biodiversity, for ethical reasons or perhaps because you have warm memories of sitting on a back porch being gently eased into the evening hours by a chorus of frogs, we have some additional suggested places to begin.

  • Leave ground cover such as dead wood, leaf litter and rocks in your yard to provide moist shelter
  • Avoid pesticide and fertilizer use
    • Plant native species that are more resilient against disease and pests
    • Fertilize with manure and compost
    • Buy organic food
  • Build a pond with gently sloping sides and vegetation along the edges
    • Choose native plants that help support amphibian life
    • Do not stock with fish

If you have wetlands on your property, you can even participate in the USDA Wetland Reserve Program offering landowners the opportunity to protect, restore and enhance wetlands voluntarily. These sites have been found to host more species and more individuals of those species of amphibians than neighboring land, so the efforts work [1]. So, as always with conservation, protection and the overall health of our planet, it is in the hands of us all.

1. Science Daily
2. Charlotte Observer

native plants, azaleas, gregory bald, gardens, gardening

Gardener’s Corner with Eric Kimbrel

Posted Posted in SHR-News

I always eagerly await this time of year when leaves emerge and plants begin to flaunt their flowers. A truly magical transformation happens all around us. This is also the perfect time to dig into gardening and get plants in the ground and established for several reasons. First, the ground has thawed after the harsh winter months. Also, the rainfall is typically plentiful, lightening the workload of irrigation required during dry spells. Finally, early planting allows ample time for roots to ground down before cooler weather sets in, leading to better survival rates through the first winter. This is what we have been doing in the Core Park as well as in preparation for the annual Native Plant Sale, which will be August 23 this year.

We have been fortunate to have volunteer Robb Turner joining us frequently in the nursery to help pot up two-month-old native azalea seedlings (Rhododendron vaseyi, calendulaceum and Gregory Bald) into larger pots where they will remain and grow for one year. They will then be moved up once more for the final stage of growth that will bring them to an adequate size to be sold (and planted in your yard) the following fall. Red spruce are also being moved up from 2” to one-gallon Rootmaker pots and will be ready for sale and planting (some at the Reserve and some in your yard) in two years. This does not mean, though, that we won’t have any for sale until then; this is simply one stage of the ongoing cycle of propagation, and we always have another batch of young trees mature enough to begin their journey in their new homes.

In the landscape, we are planting in all garden rooms to enhance color for our visitors and pollinators alike, provide screening and replace dead or dying plants. We also continue our water mitigation efforts by installing 37 new LWDs (large woody debris) as well as more river rock and wood chips to slow the pace of water runoff and prevent erosion in various areas. We turn our attention to detail on beds, edging adjacent turf for greater definition and distinct boundaries prior to mulching. Locust logs are also being installed along Azalea Walk trail edges to retain bed integrity and define trail material from bed mulch.

Pesky azalea bud gall persists, so our annual ritual of removal from flame and Gregory Bald azaleas is at its peak. This diminishes the spread of the fungus and prevents energy from being wasted on gall tissue rather than flower growth. Our location adjacent to Panthertown Valley’s native rosebay rhododendrons covered in gall makes it almost impossible to prevent spread to the Reserve without spraying fungicide on buds. Dedicated to conservation, we choose to manually remove the disease rather than risking the larger detriment from harmful chemicals. While a slower process, it is worth the benefit to the ecosystem–and it’s free!

In late spring and early summer, we prune evergreen trees and shrubs, such as rhododendrons, after they have completely finished flowering. Late bloomers, rosebay rhododendrons flower later than all other species, so they are the last to be pruned. This not only allows time for the plants to grow back and fill in, but also to form flower buds prompted by the detection of shorter days later in the year. So, the sooner after flowering that you prune, the better chances you have for abundant flowers next year!

landscape design, water mitigation, landscaping

Change: A Perspective on Aesthetics and Climate in the Garden

Posted Posted in SHR-News

Written by Matt Sprouse, PLA, Sitework Studios – Principal and Amy Fahmy, PLA, Sitework Studios – Landscape Architect

This past year brought us to Southern Highlands Reserve to talk about water. We were eager to once again revel in this wonderful garden, designed to inspire appreciation for the diversity of native plants of the highlands. No better example exists of a man-made landscape that blurs the lines seamlessly with the surrounding ecosystem. Yet change is always present, and as with gardens everywhere, a constant effort is required to maintain the displays amid the forces of nature. SHR works tirelessly to maintain the vision and beauty of the gardens and for the past few years this has included a mighty struggle with water.

Six months into 2019, SHR has already experienced two 100-year storm events. These storms overwhelm the existing drainage infrastructure, cutting new channels on the steep slopes and eroding plantings. Kelly and her staff hold their breath with each storm, waiting to see what losses they’ve sustained. After each storm, SHR staff work to quickly bring the garden back to a presentable state. Washed out paths, fallen trees, and uprooted plants are a weekly challenge. A garden is one of the few places where we traditionally appreciate and expect change – the change of seasons, the evolving sequence of blooms, the transition from seedling to mature specimen. SHR is now working to bring a new aesthetic component to the changes wrought by stormwater. If excessive rainfall is the new normal, can that 100-year event occur within a designed erosion management system that has both efficiency and beauty for visitors to appreciate?

Let’s consider what SHR is up against this summer. Southern Highlands Reserve rests at 4,500 feet above sea level in one of the few temperate rainforests in the Eastern U.S. The highland area of Transylvania and Jackson Counties, including Toxaway Mountain, sees some of the highest recorded rainfall in the region. Temperate rain forest classification is a minimum of 60 inches of rainfall in a year. Last year’s rain fall measurement at Southern Highlands Reserve was 130 inches.  Precipitation is a constant at the Reserve. Low cloud cover, rising fog, and the constant movement of ground water up through the trees and out the leaves (transpiration) fills the air with moisture. As the sun warms the moist summer air, cumulonimbus clouds rapidly form over the mountain and blue skies change to ominous dark gray in a matter of minutes.

Excessive rain events are with us for the foreseeable future. Through design, exciting possibilities exist to bring the wild forces of weather and the cultivated beauty of the garden together. The design of beautiful stormwater systems sounds like an oxymoron but progress is underway. It is now conventional wisdom that man-made drainage systems should recharge groundwater locally rather than dumping concentrated flow downhill. To achieve this with recurring 100-year storm events, we must fully understand the natural drainage system within the soils, rocks, and plants that hold a garden together. We can then evaluate which plants have the potential to be introduced into this local ecosystem as partners in erosion control, and from this we can move towards plant choices with nice flowers, contrasting textures, and form – classic garden design techniques. Swales, level spreaders, and catchment basins are examples of effective functional systems that disperse water near the point of origin. Filling a catchment basin with masses of plants that can thrive in wildly fluctuating water levels is an example of the new landscape aesthetic. Another is germination blankets or coir logs with planting holes that support gorgeous wildflowers on highly erodible slopes. Live stakes from shrubs with stoloniferous roots can create both fibrous root mats on stream banks and fabulous blooms for visitors.

The design of these hybrid storm water solutions requires the same artistic, creative, and inventive principles as those developed over the centuries for beautiful gardens. If “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder” the more we understand about the ecology underpinning our existence the more we find it beautiful. Take Lurie Gardens in Chicago or the High Line Park in New York City, both are “wild” meadows in the center of urban places. Both gardens would once have been visually unacceptable, but the new landscape aesthetic is clearly evident in these gardens. Each garden’s function is as beautiful to their communities as is the flowering season. As a haven for pollinators, the rough and unkempt phases of the gardens are appreciated for seed heads, nesting sites, and insect overwintering.

Southern Highlands Reserve is working to understand stormwater as an asset in the garden. Their solutions can tap man-made structures that function in harmony with natural systems. No one said it would be easy, but Southern Highlands Reserve is on the right track.

trillium, native plants, flowers, gardening

Ephemeral Magic

Posted Posted in SHR-News

Written and Photographed by Caleb Melchior


Southern gardens are known for their big charismatic flowers: sugar-pink rhododendrons, peppermint domed mountain laurels, wedding cake layers of American dogwood, giant lemon-scented magnolias. These flowers are exciting, but don’t forget to look down at what’s growing closer to ground level.

When I was a kid in the Ozarks, I learned that the first signs of spring weren’t to be found up in the branches of the forest or out in the sunny meadows. Spring came first to the forest floor.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) was the earliest to appear. Its tiny daisy-like flowers, with yellow centers and white rays, only lasted for a day or two. Next, we’d get a wave of violets – both the common purple (Viola odora) and downy yellow (Viola pubescens). A week or two later, the woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata) would bring drumettes of powder blue to hilltops – we’d gather the flowers in fistfuls and shove them into mason jars, filling the house with sweet scent. While the phlox was bright on the hilltops, sessile trillium (Trillium sessile) would carpet the ground in lower areas, mottled foliage topped with flecks of burgundy flower. Once spring had really arrived, the shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia) and puttyroot orchid (Aplectrum hyemale) would send up flowers in the flickering shade of a new season’s foliage. Every week, something fresh fluttered into bloom – to be overcome the next week by a new glory.

wild geranium, wildflowers, flowers, gardening

When I visited the Reserve last spring, I kept moving slowly – camera snapping, barely inching my way along – because I was fascinated by the wonderful tapestry of ephemerals covering the ground. Old favorites from my childhood, like Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum) and herb robert (Geranium maculatum) achieved fairy-tale sizes in the soft weather and abundant rain of the mountaintop. Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) lifted happy umbrellas above the forest floor. I’d never seen some of these plants thriving at lower elevations – rosy wake-robin (Trillium catesbaei) and lady’s slippers – both the pink (Cypripedium acaule) and yellow (Cypripedium parviflorum).

The garden team at the Reserve is doing a phenomenal job of fostering existing woodland plant populations while also enhancing them with strategic new plantings. One genius strategy that Kelly’s using is to plant intermingled drifts of differently-colored selections of the same species (such as woodland phlox, Phlox stolonifera) to create beautiful color variations within mass plantings. I’m excited to see how these ephemeral plant communities continue to evolve.

woodlands, forests, gardening

Even if you don’t have the existing root and seed bank of the Reserve, you can make a dynamic woodland garden of your own. Find an area with with light shade – beneath the canopy of deep-rooted trees or in bright building shadow is great. Keep the soil stabilized with a groundcover that leafs out late – ferns or sedges are great options. Then, choose a handful of different woodland ephemeral species and try them throughout your chosen location. I’d just plant a few to begin with – maybe a dozen of each – and spread them across the site to see how they do. After 2-3 years, you’ll see how they’re settling in. Make some mass plantings of the ones that do well. In just a few years, you too will be doing a spring shuffle as you gaze down at your ever-changing carpet of woodland delights.

Gardener’s Corner with Director of Horticulture Eric Kimbrel

Posted Posted in SHR-News

Much of this season at the Reserve has been spent inside enhancing our digital plant database in preparation for it to be shared with the public, as well as making plans for the coming growing season. On warmer days, we have been able to get outside for some much-needed landscape maintenance including cleanup after winter storm Diego swept through. Several top-heavy rhododendrons were uprooted and toppled over from harsh winds and the added weight of ice and snow during the storm. We have replanted, staked and covered them with horse manure for extra protection while they become reestablished. We also top-dressed beds, shrubs and small trees that had been recently planted. The Wildflower Labyrinth is one exception with regards to manure because excess nitrogen will cause these plants to become leggy and fall over.

In preparation for the completion of our new Nursery Complex trail, we transplanted several cinnamon ferns from the path to nearby locations a few feet away. Our water mitigation efforts continue as we have added oak and maple logs—LWDs (large woody debris)—to woodland areas along topographic lines where elevation changes. This is the first stage of a multi-step process to create bio-swales that will help prevent erosion. Later we will revisit those logs to partially bury them in the soil, and then dig out an adjacent area uphill and refill it with small woody debris like wood chips. This will hold the water in the basin and allow it to slowly seep into the ground rather than quickly run off. The woody debris will also gradually break down into a rich organic matter and provide added nutrients to the surrounding plants and soil.

Inside, we have been laying the groundwork for additions to the gardens. Seed stratification is a naturally occurring process of long periods of cold temperatures breaking seed dormancy and beginning germination. Natural forces throughout the seasons deteriorate the seed’s external coating, allowing water and light to reach the embryo. Horticulturalists mimic those natural forces indoors for propagation. We place the seeds in moist mediums like sand, peat moss or a paper towel in airtight containers inside the seed storage refrigerator for 1 – 12 months depending on the requirements of each species. Some seeds require double dormancy; one cold period is not enough for these slowly germinating species. After the first few months in the refrigerator, they need to warm up for a couple more months and then go through a second cold cycle. The seeds are then ready to be planted in warm soil after the last frost date in spring. It is possible to follow nature’s process more directly and sow seeds outside either in-ground or in containers during the fall, but be aware that they are not as protected from being eaten by animals or killed by a late freeze.

At the Reserve, we start the process in our seed chamber with a system that can be easily set up at home for horticultural enthusiasts using a baker’s rack, UV lights and heat mats. Right now, we are stratifying milkweed, hibiscus, lobelia, Turk’s cap lily, magnolia and strawberry bush among others. We are also germinating native azalea seeds (pinkshell and Gregory Bald hybrids), red spruce as well as other native plants for our annual Plant Sale in the fall. This early start will provide a longer growing season than naturally occurs at our high elevation.

For those of you eager to stay connected with your garden throughout the year, we offer some timely tips for chilly days:

  • It has been said that some of the best gardens are built in the winter by a fire. We suggest you spend some time simply walking through and around your garden during this bare-bones season to observe at the deeper level, and then warm up inside while you sow your plans for the coming growing season.
  • Make note of what worked and what didn’t during the last season so that you can have a more fruitful garden in the coming year.
  • Meet with an arborist to learn more about how to best care for your trees and consider winter pruning of crossing branches, damaged limbs or canopy release.
  • It’s a great time for grading projects should you want to transform the lay of the land for improved water flow (away from your foundation), erosion control or simply for an enhanced design.
  • Winter is also a fine time to remove invasive species, especially English ivy. No mosquitos will bother you and the robust workout you get from tugging at those tough roots will keep you warm.
  • Finally, when you’ve had all you can take of the cold, it’s nice to warm up back inside and peruse catalogues for seeds, bulbs, tubers and anything else you plan to add this spring.