As sudden as spring's arrival, the Master Gardener's Learning Fields at Chaffee Crossing has burst into life with strong green shoots reaching for the sun and even early flowers unfurling their petaled heads.
But as any gardener knows, this outdoor classroom of horticulture did not grow overnight. It has taken three years of hard work by Master Gardener class volunteers to transform a donated military building and almost 5 acres of tough, naturalized pasture grass. That would be the kind of hard work that happens on the business end of a shovel.
Many hands (and some heavy machinery) made the work a little lighter. More than 50 of some 140 local Master Gardeners helped with or are working on different demonstration projects and are ready to learn more themselves and teach others good gardening practices.Now that growing season is here, the Learning Fields will be an outdoor classroom with monthly programs open to the public.
Education is the mission
The River Valley Master Gardeners operate under the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service. With the motto "Arkansas Is Our Classroom," the extension service has offices in all 75 counties in order to share educational programs and research-based information with the state's citizens.
Volunteers become Master Gardeners by taking 40 hours of training in botany, soil science and food and ornamental plant gardening. In turn, the Master Gardeners volunteer in their own communities, giving back 40 hours of work their first year and 20 hours each year thereafter. The River Valley gardeners are responsible for many urban garden spaces in area parks, traffic islands and public buildings.
The Learning Fields is their own garden for demonstration, research and experimentation. But because they are all gardeners, it's also becoming very beautiful.
Hard row to hoe ... literally
Thrilled to take possession of the gift of the building and land from the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority, the gardeners then had a setback. Much of the patch of land beside the building was actually soil and grass over a former gravel parking lot. A barter arrangement, something gardeners learn at home, saved the day. They found a heavy machinery owner who wanted the gravel. He scooped out the SB-2 gravel and hauled it away in trade for his labor.
New garden soil had to be trucked into the holes, amended and tilled to create the different demonstration plots. The remaining unseen gravel left the rest of the grounds on firm standing for garden paths and helps to provide good drainage.
The volunteers have taken advantage of another abundant available resource on the former military base's grounds: rocks and stone. There are natural rocks aplenty, plus many foundations, steps, culverts and even walls were built of cut stone, some by the German prisoners of war held there during World War II.
Authorized to salvage stone from their own plot and several other areas, the gardeners have taken full advantage, lining flowerbeds, building a labyrinth garden outlined in stone and a stone floor for a shaded pavilion.
They're always plotting something
Gardeners and extension agent Dustin Blakey got down to the nitty-gritty right away in the first year – planting stuff! The garden's various plots each "belong" to a different volunteer or group and have a particular purpose. The plots are like chapters in a gardening textbook. There are vegetable gardens for warm and cool weather, a spiral herb garden, a cutting garden, a vertical garden, a rose garden and more.
Isaac Witt is devoted to a berry patch where he has planted thornless and thorny blackberries. A method of supporting the berries on wire trellises is demonstrated - it is quite superior to a tangled, wild mess of a berry thicket and yields more pickable berries, too. Witt is passionate about berries, as other volunteers are inspired about their own plots of flowers or vegetables.
"Strawberries and blackberries are nature's gifts to Arkansas," Witt said. He's eager to teach anyone how to succeed at growing berries.
Sharing and trading are a gardener's way
The Learning Fields has attracted volunteers and donors beyond its members. The late Gelene McDowell, a Master Gardener, is memorialized with a wildflower meadow. An Eagle Scout volunteered time to establish a walking trail for the meadow and added a bench. A lathe house for shade also was a Scout project. The gardeners donate surplus vegetables locally to organizations that feed the hungry. Examples of sharing and beneficial cooperation abound and the gardeners work together to agree on new ideas for the Learning Fields. So far, ideas grow like weeds! An arboretum project, greenhouse, irrigation systems, a children's area and more are done, being done or planned.
Classes and tours at the Learning Fields
"First Saturday" classes are planned from May through the fall, usually from 9 a.m. to noon, on a wide variety of gardening subjects. Saturdays are a good time to encounter Master Gardeners who will enjoy answering questions after class. Class topics are announced online at both www.learningfields.net and on Facebook.
An annual Plant Sale will be held April 28 at the First Christian Church, 3501 Rogers Avenue, in the parking lot from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Proceeds support the Master Gardener projects.
Tours may be arranged by contacting the Extension Service at (479) 484-7737.
The Learning Fields does not have daily public hours, but volunteers are often present and welcoming. "That's gardeners," said member Paula Patterson. "We'll talk about anything!"