Q&A: Joe Hollis, founder of Mountain Gardens

PLANT MAN: Joe Hollis has run Mountain Gardens, a botanical garden in Burnsville, for 50 years. Photo courtesy of Hollis

Joe Hollis’ whole life is Mountain Gardens, a botanical garden in Western North Carolina that he has cultivated over 50 years. Hollis focuses on growing useful plants, especially medicinal herbs and perennial vegetables, and passing along his plant wisdom to students and apprentices. Workshops, seeds and bare root plant sales support Hollis and his garden.

After moving from Detroit in 1972, Hollis settled on almost 3 acres of land in Burnsville. His personal philosophy mingled with the location to create what he calls paradise gardening. “Paradise gardening is trying to figure out a way to live that’s good for the Earth, society and me,” he says. His gardens contain “plants grown ecologically and arranged ornamentally.”

But earlier this year, Mountain Gardens suffered a devastating loss. In March, the central pavilion — the heart of human activity in the garden — burned down. The fire of unknown origin was discovered too late to avoid the complete loss of his extensive library, seed collection and herbal apothecary. Yet Hollis remains dedicated to his vision and is overseeing a rebuild. “I would like to see this rebuilding be a community effort as much as possible,” he says. “That would get people that much more invested in it, because they’re going to end up owning it one way or another. It’ll be accessible to whoever wants to come and use it.”

Xpress spoke with Hollis about the fire, the community support he’s receiving and the future of Mountain Gardens might hold.

Has the fire affected what’s happening this year at Mountain Gardens?

Totally. It’s springtime, so of course there’s all this planting to do and seed starting. Meanwhile, we’re still in the phase of cleanup. I’ve just got piles and piles of charcoal mixed with broken glass. We managed to find somebody to come and haul off all the gnarled roofing tin and so on, and they hauled off all the lead from the solar system batteries. But cleanup’s still going on, and then the reconstruction will start.

What support will you need to get Mountain Gardens back on its feet?

I’m being offered a fair amount of building materials, which is very nice. I’ve got helpers, apprentices who are good with gardening, but they know nothing about construction. Older people with a lot of construction experience, just merely with advice, would be good. But construction help is even better. We’ve been given lots of tools. I lost all my hand tools, but those are pretty much replaced. Mainly it’s human assistance that I need more than stuff at this point.

It sounds like the community has really come to your aid. How does that make you feel?

It keeps me afloat. To put it simply, I would just be curled up in a little ball, probably from being utterly overwhelmed by everything. This very large outpouring of support that I’m getting really keeps me feeling positive about everything at this point.

What would you like to see happen with Mountain Gardens in the future?

I’d like to put it back. I had a whole herb shop. I had a whole apothecary. I had a whole wall of tinctures. All that’s gone. So it’s going to take a long time to reconstruct that. The whole seed bank has gone; I’m getting donations in that regard.

It was a fabulous library, a lifetime collection of books. This was a library about how to live on Earth, everything from eco-psychology and eco-philosophy down to the nitty-gritty of plant identification, seed germination — just everything. I had the whole shot. And that was, I thought, my legacy to the community. So we’ll see.

I’m 80 years old this year. We’ll see how far I can get with reconstruction. I’ll never get it back the way it was; a lot of those books are irreplaceable. Ten thousand books in there! But I’m going to try and put back together whatever I can, and it will all be available to my community.

As far as I was concerned, what I had was just about perfect. So I want to just get back to it as far as I can, in this lifetime.

Who will take over ownership?

I’ve been making efforts to figure out how to legally make it a community property. …. I have a small committee, and for the past two years, we’ve been working on trying to figure out how to donate the whole library, herb shop, the land, everything to my community. So we’re looking at different options and also thinking about possibly donating to the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians.

So it’s really two issues. One is where do I park the title to the land? And then the second is how do I set up a little community of the people who are going to run the place? The issue with gardens is that they have to be maintained. It’s not just giving something away. If nobody looks after it for a couple of years, that whole plant collection is going to get lost. Nobody will know what’s what.

Learn more about the GoFundMe campaign for the restoration of the Mountain Gardens’ pavilion here avl.mx/bgf.

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