For the past 25 years, one local group of people has invested thousands upon thousands of hours into dozens of community projects that have served to bring agriculture-related learning opportunities to the public and make Fort Smith an even more beautiful place to live and visit. Even more, they’ve become instrumental in bringing hundreds of horticulture enthusiasts to the city for large events and meetings. For that reason, we at the Fort Smith Convention & Visitors Bureau are proud to announce our newest Hometown Hospitality Heroes, the Arkansas River Valley Master Gardeners.
Beginning in 1991, two training classes – one in the Spring and one in the Fall – made up of 17 participants began working on community projects in Crawford and Sebastian Counties. Offered through the University of Arkansas’ Cooperative Extension Service, Division of the Department of Agriculture, these projects included (or have grown to include) creating events like the River Valley Lawn & Garden Show and maintaining the gardens and landscaping of the Fort Smith Convention Center, Cisterna Plaza, Clayton House Herb Garden in Creekmore Park, the Nancy Orr Healing Garden at Sparks Hospital, the Learning Fields at Chaffee Crossing, Miss Laura’s Visitors Center and more. In fact, the organization has taking care of the convention center grounds since it opened in 2001. That same year, they hosted the Arkansas Master Gardener State Conference, which drew record attendance in Fort Smith. Currently, there are more than 35 gardens that receive weekly maintenance from the Master Gardeners; this excludes Winter months.
Today, the River Valley Master Gardeners has grown to include 175 participants. They include one of the original 17 participants, Sheila Deal, and 29 that have been with the organization for at least 15 years. Going forward, they hope to see their local chapter continue to blossom. What’s even more impressive is that each of these participants are expected to volunteer a minimum of 20 hours on community projects and an additional 20 hours on education. So, people do not join the organization to say they’re part of a club, they join fully intending to actively participate and give back to the community. Perhaps this is why many of these participants exceed these required hours.
A very popular event in Fort Smith is the River Valley Lawn & Garden Show that was first held by the organization in 1994. Each year, the three-day show features indoor gardens and exhibits, educational seminars on things like expert gardening and beekeeping, hands-on activities for children, vendors offering a wide variety of gardening equipment, a photography competition and much more. A portion of the proceeds go towards the funding of community projects and has had an enormous impact on the region through renewing interests in landscaping and residential gardening, which is one of the top hobbies in the United States. Over the past 22 years, around 100,000 people have attended the event.
This year, the River Valley Master Gardeners are celebrating 25 years in the River Valley with several activities throughout 2016. One activity will include a lecture from renowned gardening writer, Felder Rushing, on April 28, 2016, at the Fort Smith Convention Center. A popular speaker, Rushing has written 18 books that include best-sellers, “Passalong Plants,” and, “Slow Gardening.” He will arrive in Fort Smith driving his dad’s 1988 Ford pickup that has a garden growing in the bed of the truck; it even has garden art! Following the lecture, an Advanced Master Gardener Training Program will take place at the Fort Smith Public Library. Together, the events will attract a great deal of horticulture enthusiasts and Master Gardeners from all over Arkansas and the surrounding areas. In two years, the Rivery Valley Master Gardeners will host the 2018 Arkansas State Master Gardeners Conference, and we expect attendance to be just as impressive – or more impressive – than ever.
Our thanks to the River Valley Master Gardeners for all that they have done, are currently doing, and will do in the future. The organization is a valued partner of the area’s growing tourism and hospitality industry and we are happy to honor their commitment to the Fort Smith community during the year of their 25th Anniversary!