31 May 2022 The Garden at the Vines teaches children all things green
Story and photos by Judy Riley
The Garden at the Vines is a gem of the 501, safely tucked away on the grounds of the Arkansas 4-H Center. The center is named for C.A. Vines, former director of the Cooperative Extension Service and visionary for the complex. It is located just west of Little Rock and has been serving Arkansas’s youth for over 40 years. As the center’s complex grew, the dream of a demonstration garden where kids could see and learn began with Pulaski County Master Gardeners (MG). The groundbreaking was in November of 2017, but the planning began years before.
Dubbed the “Mayor of the Garden,” Kathy Ratcliffe, along with a team of other master gardeners, made the project a reality. Ratcliffe grew up on a farm in rural Pulaski County and was no stranger to hard work, so she willingly took on chairing the project and spearheading raising necessary funds. Kathy spent her pre-retirement years in the corporate world and was ready to take on such a major project. It has since taken on a life of its own. When asked why this place and this particular project, she said, “Because it had not been done before,” with determination and pride glowing all over her face.
The purposes of the garden are to educate the visitors of the center, mostly youth, about the importance of gardening not only to produce food, but to do so in a sustainable way. Her team is often found teaching beekeeping, vegetable growing, insect identification and importance of planting pollinators in any landscape. Additionally, the produce is used in the food service at the center. Tom Lyons, food service director, particularly loves the fresh herbs and leafy greens in his menu planning. According to Center Director J.J. Pitman, knowing that some of the produce prepared in the kitchen is actually grown on site is a selling point for visitors using the center.
All volunteers in this garden as well as for other MG projects have to complete a 40-hour training to be certified. Then they must return 20 hours per year volunteering at one or more of the officially sanctioned MG projects. The Garden at the Vines has been a recruiter for some very special volunteers. According to Ginger Fleming, a retired physical therapist, “It’s a privilege to be a part of learning and sharing such great information. I love the people, the location, and the friendships grown out of our work in this garden. And I really love to see the wonder in their eyes as children learn about growing tomatoes or the life cycle of a butterfly.”
Marcy Bujarski, retired director of a church preschool, is a favorite among visitors because of her knowledge of apiary science. She is affectionately known as “Queen Bee,” since she is in charge of the bees that live in peaceful coexistence with the center, the kids, and the plants. She said that touring this garden with all its varieties of vegetables, fruits, ornamentals, and insects is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for those who come here.
Local pediatrician Honor Canon took the MG course with her then 14-year-old son. Both were interested in gardening and she saw it as a learning opportunity for him with his interest in science. With her first visit to the garden at the center, she was hooked. She said involvement in the demonstration garden is a learning opportunity not only for the volunteers, but it also gives others exposure to life and nature in a friendly and beautiful way.
Vines Center Operations Manager Tony Baker summed up the value of the garden, “This is a project that goes back to Mr. Vines. He was all about educating young people. Having another level of hands-on learning here is part of the circle of his vision. It’s the spirit of giving back, which was his hallmark.”