This master gardener’s Arkansas roots run deep

Story by Dwain Hebda

Memphis-born Joellen Beard, president of Pulaski County Master Gardeners, can trace her love for the beauty of growing things all way back to her childhood. “My grandparents lived in St. Charles (Arkansas County),” she said. “I always loved Arkansas. We came in the summers and we would just have the best time.” 

Beard’s grandmothers shared a love of gardening that left an impression – Bertha Maddox Stephenson had a renowned vegetable garden and paternal grandmother Estelle Dean (known as “Misstelle”) raised flowers. “Let me tell you about my grandmother Stephenson, let me tell you about her garden,” Beard said. “It was gigantic. That soil, I wish I had that soil. She could stick a stick in the ground and it would sprout and grow.”  

Rows of lettuce in one of the pioneer gardens under Beard’s care at the Historic Arkansas Museum. Photo courtesy of Joellen Beard.

People of that generation didn’t garden just for show but depended on homegrown vegetables to feed farm hands in season and the family during winter. Even the flowers had a job to do. Beard had a front-row seat to this folk wisdom. “The back row was always gigantic sunflowers and in front of that was zinnias,” she said. “I always thought they just wanted to cut those zinnias and bring them in. Now that I have been a master gardener, I see everything they planted was for a reason. They planted all those marigolds because bugs don’t like it. They planted zinnias and sunflowers to attract bugs so they’ll eat them instead of their vegetables. It was trap cropping.” 

Joellen earned an undergraduate degree in education from the University of Central Arkansas and settled down with her husband, attorney Rick Beard, in Pine Bluff. They moved to Little Rock 30 years ago, 17 of which she spent teaching at the now-closed Cathedral School. One day, the principal had an idea. 

“They sent me to master gardener [classes], so I’d come back and teach the kids,” she said. “My principal said, ‘You know what, here’s something you oughta be doing because you’re doing it anyway.’”  

Gardening became one element of Beard’s teaching repertoire and included a plat right there on the school grounds. “In a garden you can teach everything,” she said. “You can teach math, you can teach reading. Think about that. You can teach proportions, you can teach measurement, you can teach all kind of social studies out there.” 

Even though the school is now gone, she still gets to teach through her work at the Historic Arkansas Museum, a preserved pre-Civil War neighborhood in the heart of Little Rock. There, she and her fellow master gardeners grow vegetables and flowers that her grandmothers and their grandmothers would have grown in days gone by. She’s also an avid supporter of gardening-based educational efforts popping up around the city and through her master gardener group.  

As for her own yard, Beard, a Central Arkansas Master Naturalist, is a champion of native plants. She’s particularly taken with ferns, which are prominent in her native plantings, some of which are heirlooms from her grandmothers’ beds.  

Beard says of native plants, “Number one, (native plants) don’t need as much water and they support what we need in our environment. They support the butterflies, they support pollinators. They just belong here,” she said.  

Beard said while more nurseries are carrying native plants, gardeners still need the education and persistence to ask for the plants they want. As for design ideas, she said go to the source. “There are a lot of places where you can just walk in the woods some and see what things look like,” she said. “Then, recreate it in your yard the way Mother Nature did it.”

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