Seventy-eight-year-old Betty Reaves moves among the flower beds on the 100-acre campus of Lifeway Ridgecrest Conference Center with the energy of a gardener half her age and the knowledge of a master gardener, a title she earned. She touches plants as she moves among them with a familiar touch of a friend.
Reaves has been on the garden staff for the past eight years and was a volunteer along with her late husband from 1999 to 2006, the year he died.
“My husband George died after only a four-day illness, and I was simply lost,” she said. “We were best friends and did everything together. I volunteered in the gardens every year, while he made the wooden signs on campus.”
A phone call from Mellie Bryant, a center employee who oversaw the gardens at the conference center, redirected Reaves’ feelings of loss toward what she loved to do — gardening on the conference center grounds. Bryant left and started her own business in Black Mountain, Mellie Mac’s Garden Shack, and remembers Reaves with respect and awe.
“Betty has such a passion for gardening,” Bryant said. “I needed her, and she needed to be back at the conference center, a place she loved. She has a true servant’s heart. With Betty’s help, we started propagating most everything and started the flowers on campus from seed. She is one of the most creative people that I’ve ever known and is never afraid to implement her ideas. She is an amazing woman who is thriving where she is.”
Randy Bagamay, guest spaces manager, said Reaves is a blessing not only to the conference center, but the guests as well. The conference center is open throughout the year.
“She has always done an amazing job adding color and beauty to our main campus,” he said. “Betty lives out our core values, a few in particular (being) responsible stewardship, service with excellence and grace and intentional settings. She has helped us to be very intentional about where we add beauty and how we do it.
“For us this is so important in adding to the guests’ experience while they are here. She is a valued team member, always going above and beyond expectations keeping our campus colorful throughout the different seasons.”
Reaves arrives on campus from her Statesboro, Georgia home by April 1 and stays until Nov. 1 or the first snow.
“I have three children and six grandchildren in Georgia, and they understand that I am where I am supposed to be,” she said. “They are proud of my accomplishments here and encourage me to do what makes me happy. I spend the winter months enjoying my family.”
Reaves designs, plants and helps maintain the dozens of flower garden on campus, supervises a volunteer staff that often numbers as many as 50 a season and works closely with a part-time master gardener, Beth Anderson.
“Beth and I depend on the men in the grounds crew to help with the heavy objects that we need moved,” Reaves said. “Everything else, Beth and I do.”
Reaves helped design, plant and hang 50 baskets in a breezeway joining two buildings on campus. She chose the locations of the flowers that add coloring along the walking paths. Reaves’ work connects visitors and nature in an effortless manner. The dozens of flower beds accessorize the 100 acres that hold the chapel, auditorium, dorms, and administrative offices. A recreation center and more than 1,000 acres of forest surrounds the main campus.
Reaves designed and helped plant the sea of azaleas in all colors that erupt in spring, as she did the perennial flower beds accented by plants in hand-crafted pots. Her work is evident in the limelight hydrangeas in soft chartreuse that bring an embankment to life and in the giant elephant ears that accent another embankment. The shade garden made up of various hosta plants and edged with vibrant colors of New Guinea Impatiens is her work, as are the daylilies in varying colors in many of the gardens.
Reaves enjoys the volunteers that come yearly to help in the gardens. She doesn’t just supervise them. She works with them, weeding, planting and encouraging the plants.
“I remember two 82-year-old ladies that volunteered to work in the gardens,” she said. “They weren’t sure what they could do and neither was I. We started by pulling out the dead daylily stems. By the end of the week they were weeding along with everyone else. They were looking forward to signing up again to volunteer in the gardens. It was a good experience for them and for me.
“Sometimes we have a break between the 2,000 guests that Lifeway Ridgecrest Conference Center hosts weekly from June-August. That’s when we do projects like making the hypertufa flower pots that line one wall of a building and hold beautiful gernaniums. I designed tall planters for another project, and the carpenters here on campus made them for one of the gardens. I love the garden accessories’ projects. I don’t have a budget for gardening. I tell them what I need, and if they have the money, I can do it.”
Reaves requested a greenhouse, and one was included to the budget, and the maintenance department built it. It is where seeds are started and containers are winterized. It also holds the 50 hanging baskets. Now the flower gardens have grown so much that another greenhouse is needed.
She doesn’t have a favorite flower. But she thinks the prayer garden with its covered walkway over the creek is one of her favorite places on the campus.
One of her long-time Ridgecrest friends thinks what Reaves has done with the conference center flowers is remarkable.
“To meet Betty is make a new friend,” Betty May said. “She has turned the property into a riot of color and beauty for all to enjoy. Her personality and love for the natural beauty around us is contagious.”
“I feel blessed to be a gardener at Lifeway Ridgecrest Conference Center,” Reaves said. “It is such a gift to work where I can tend and touch flowers in a Christian environment. I get to see lives changed here in the gardens.”