Growing a community

by Jan Spann

Cleburne County can be a challenge for a county-based organization like Master Gardeners. With small communities dotted around the lake, it’s important to schedule activities when traveling to the county seat of Heber Springs when you live in towns like Higden and Greers Ferry on the lake’s north side.

But regardless of where they live, the small but lively team of Cleburne County MGs spreads its experience and hard work throughout the area. The county provides funding for landscaping around the county courthouse, the center of downtown. The new courts building as well as the Cleburne County Historical Society at the corner of Spring Park include areas maintained by the MGs.

On the way out to the Dam Site Marina and Park, the MGs have planted crape myrtles on Tulaka Boulevard, a road that loops behind the Community Center off Highway 25B, a main highway throughout the county.

Like many other small MG groups in Arkansas, the Cleburne County MGs have developed a partnership with city and county officials. When it’s time to work on a project like Tulaka Boulevard, the city brings the appropriate equipment to prepare the site, and the MGs take over planting, mulching and pruning. A soon-to-be completed new library will include irrigation, making maintenance much easier for the MGs!

A project that elicits high marks for the community and the MGs is the Greers Ferry Westside School’s “Good Food” garden. For a community with fewer than 1,000 residents, this school earned top prize in a 2009 Reader’s Digest essay contest on gardens. The grand prize was a screen-enclosed garden area and garden tools and hoses.

According to MG Darlene O’Connor, the secret weapon the community used was its broad base of transplants. “This area has plenty of folks who chose to live here after retiring from the rat race elsewhere,” Darlene said. “When our school was named to the top five, we started reaching out to our large network of connections all over the world, and we asked them to contact others. The result is a lovely school garden that connects the students, administration, local businesses and the MGs!”

After construction was complete, the MGs worked with students, who chose the vegetable and flower seeds. The MGs also coordinated with the fifth- and sixth-grade teachers for curriculum to teach students when, what and how to plant for success. Some students take plants home during the summer and bring them back in the fall for the rest of the students’ help in preparing entries for the county fair.

Once a month during the school year, the MG team spends a couple of hours with two classes each of fifth- and sixth-graders, working and learning in the garden. Additions to the garden include a shed through an Arkansas Game and Fish Commission grant. With the Junior MGs, the Cleburne County MGs have used a walking trail in the woods behind the school as a tree identification project.

The garden has been the seed to sprout the county’s Junior Master Gardener program. It has great support from County Cooperative Agent Michelle Mobley and elementary principal John Long. The school marquee will frequently acknowledge: “Thanks Master Gardeners for all you do!”

One significant component of the CCMG program is the annual plant sale that serves as the group’s fundraiser to support its projects in Heber Springs, Quitman and Greers Ferry. This year’s sale will be held on Saturday, May 3, at 725 Fourth St. at their greenhouse located on the grounds of the Heber Springs Sanitation Department. The CCMGs will also participate in Springfest on Saturday, April 26, at Spring Park in Downtown Heber Springs.

The MGs start in late winter propagating seeds for flowers and vegetables. In addition to partnerships with the county judge and city government, the city’s Public Works Department provides access to and utilities for a converted Quonset hut that serves as the MGs greenhouse. The greenhouse also serves as the learning classroom as well as a raised bed demonstration garden for community outreach. In addition to the plants they grow, the MGs also hold workshops on papercrete and hypertufa.

The CCMGs were also recognized as Volunteers of the Year for 2013 by the Quitman mayor for their involvement in projects in the City of Quitman. The MGs maintain beds at city hall and the community center as well as sidewalk planters in the town.

Darlene O’Connor and her husband, Ron, have traveled the world through his military career (and she grew up in that life as well). The two chose the lake location as their retirement home, remembering the area from a tour at Little Rock Air Force Base when their sons were teenagers. The lakeside home they built 20 years ago near the town of Greers Ferry has plenty of room for their sons (one in Houston and another in California) and grandsons to visit. Darlene keeps her festive Christmas decorations up all year long so the kids can celebrate regardless of when they visit!

In addition to other family members who have moved to the area, the couple encouraged a pal from their years in Hawaii to relocate here as well. Dave Kuh has known the couple for 25 years and visited them for 15 years before he retired and decided to call the area his home as well. The three pals share a love of gardening, travel and enthusiasm for the place they now call home. Dave is the single parent of two daughters and two granddaughters still in Hawaii, and he returns to his home in Hawaii for regular visits.

Friendships are one of the reasons Master Gardeners will cite for their continued involvement in the county program, finding folks with a shared interest in gardening. For Dave and Darlene and Ron, the friendship they started years ago has blossomed into the work they enjoy in the communities around Greers Ferry Lake.


A Conway resident, Jan Spann has been gardening for 20-plus years and has been involved with the Faulkner County Master Gardeners for 11 years. She and her husband, Randy, have five children and eight grandchildren.