Fellows Focus: Robert M. Balentine

Excerpted from our Society of Fellows e-newsletter, May 2017

Throughout their lifetime, passionate gardeners keep deepening their understanding of the important role gardens play in our lives. That is certainly the case for Garden Conservancy board member and Fellow Robert M. Balentine.

Robert grew up exploring the mountains of north Georgia and western North Carolina. He learned conservation as an Eagle Scout and was inspired by his parents’ passion for gardening; his mother was a Garden Club of America horticulture judge and his father a rosarian. The backyard of his childhood family home had a vegetable garden on one side and a rose garden on the other. Robert adds, “by the time I headed off to college, [the gardens] practically met in the middle, and I had dug most of the holes.”

From that backyard garden of his childhood, Robert has grown into what he describes as a “dirt under the fingernails” gardener, relishing in the hands-on, practical work of gardening. Though he’s quick to tell us that he never met a garden he didn’t like, he’s particularly inspired by woodland gardens. In the mountains of western North Carolina, he and his wife, Betty, grow plants native to the Southern Appalachians. Robert and Betty’s love for native plants and the surrounding woodland reaches far beyond their own property.

In 2002, the couple saw an opportunity to protect the land across the road from their home in North Carolina from development by placing a conservation easement on it. To manage the land for public use, they established the Southern Highlands Reserve (SHR), a 501(c)(3) organization whose mission is “sustaining the natural ecosystems of the Blue Ridge mountains through the preservation, cultivation, and display of plants native to the region, and advocating for their value through education, restoration, and research.”

Left: Southern Highlands Reserve's Azalea Walk in spring. Right: Vaseyi Pond

Today, SHR protects 120 acres of high-elevation forests along the Blue Ridge escarpment, providing unique opportunities for education and research. It has collected fifteen years of data on weather patterns, phenology, and plant records, and a recent grant from the Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust will allow the reserve to digitize its plant database to share this wealth of information with institutions around the world. Another grant from the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area is supporting the Balentines’ and SHR’s work to restore red spruce forests, under significant threat from climate change and the second most endangered ecosystem in the United States.

In April, the Library of American Landscape History recognized the Balentines with the Preservation Heroes Award for their founding of SHR and their many achievements in landscape stewardship, design, and horticultural research.

Being a faithful steward of the land is essential to all of Robert’s endeavors. Robert says of his role as a Garden Conservancy board member and Fellow, “working with a community of like-minded people to preserve and share America’s most outstanding gardens has been a real joy… the experience of learning from [this community] and seeing each person’s individual labor of love provides an opportunity for us to grow together and learn best practices.”