Garvan Woodland Gardens Offers Ouachita Residents & Visitors a Welcome Reprieve and You Can Even Take a Little Home With You

by Judea Robinett

photography & tips by Judea Robinett

The foothills of the Ouachita Mountains of central Arkansas can seem like an inhospitable place for the refined and subtle art of horticulture, but the green thumbs at Garvan Woodland Gardens in Hot Springs prove  that  the  wild and woodsy beauty of the Ouachita’s marries well with a variety of botanical gardening efforts.  The  end  result  is  a sight to behold, full of wonderful inspiration and information that the home gardener can use to tackle their own lawns and properties.

Garvan Woodland Gardens was started as a labor of love by Verna Cook Garvan, who bequeathed the property to the Department of Landscape Architecture through the University of Arkansas Foundation. University of Arkansas’ Fay Jones School of Architecture now maintains guardianship of the Gardens and receives support through the Arkansas Legislature, the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, other governmental and nonprofit entities and over 3000 members.

According to the Garden’s website, Mrs. Garvan wanted to share the wonders and joys of the Gardens with the people and visitors of Arkansas. “It was Mrs. Garvan’s wish that the Gardens be used to educate and serve the people of Arkansas, providing them the joy and repose it had offered her. She noted the devastation of the environment that had taken place in her lifetime and wished to preserve a remnant of the twentieth century’s natural grandeur for generations to come.”

After the break of winter, visiting the 210- acre garden nestled in the woods along Lake Hamilton, one will see and hear the early harbingers of spring: Bees buzz dutifully in search of tulip pollen and an early breeze slightly rustles the branches of Dogwoods, Oaks, Cypress and Pine. Children laugh as they release the butterflies they have been ardently fostering from larvae into maturity. The property is alive with color and activity. Just behind the welcome center, a model train track is being updated and extended. A Thomas The Train engine chugs along the course, attracting little ones eagerly pulling their parents behind them like kites on strings.

There is plenty for the adults to do as well:  There are several art and  music exhibits and concerts throughout the year, special guest speakers and horticulture  experts,  classes   and DIY demonstrations. There are even classes on beer brewing and cooking with herbs from your home garden. Garvan Gardens strives to provide quality education and experiences to help visitors and members incorporate the natural world into their daily lives. And with almost 50 distinct sections of the gardens, there is no shortage in take-home inspiration for those who wish to find it.

Whether the home-gardener is wanting to incorporate traditional English Garden aesthetics or is seeking new sources of inspiration, Garvan Gardens has  something for everyone. Minnie Shelor, the head of horticulture at the Gardens, draws inspiration from a diverse list of ideas. For early spring, there are tulip beds planted in sharp bold lines of colors that reflect tattoo art. Some flower beds are planted to bloom in sweeping gradients of  colors  akin to a night sky full of wispy clouds and patterns of orange to mimic the texture of fish scales.

There is a fairy garden built from the abundance of tree stumps and fallen twigs and branches. The adorned and adapted stumps are carefully laid out in the manner of a miniature town with tiny shrubs lining the dainty pebble pathways. Even the tooth fairy has a hovel complete with a display of tiny white rocks chosen carefully to look like baby teeth.

One area in which the staff is focused on currently is the Perry Wildflower Overlook. Nestled on the westernmost point of the gardens, where one can find daffodils in spring and wildflowers in summer popping up in happy little bunches around a falling stone water feature that runs downhill toward an idyllic scene overlooking the waters of Lake Hamilton. Shelor plans to plant native and naturalized perennials after the tulip season is over, including Rivina Grass, Maiden Grass, Bunny Grass, Echinacea, Liatris, & Delphiniums among others and to use Sumacs to create understory sheltered effect.

Pro-Tip: plant Daffodils of single varieties in clumps together then fertilize with a 3-month time-release fertilizer as soon as foliage is coming out of the ground. The trick for fertilizing perennials is to focus on setting the plants up for the next year. And, if you want huge blooms, wait until they start to brown before you cut them.

The  Great   Lawn   Flowering   Border  is a marriage of English Gardening inspirations adapted for the Arkansas climate and is full of ideas for the home gardener wanting to draw inspiration from the classical styles, while being successful with  the  unique  terrain  and weather conditions of the region. There are typically two types of English Gardens: The Formal type is noted for attention to symmetry, distinct layers of bold color and textures, defined pathways and hedges and sometimes a centralized water feature. The Cottage-style, in contrast, relies more on asymmetric drifts and bunches, with a softer more romantic approach to textures and colors.

Shelor’s goal was to create a more formal garden effect while using the kinds of plants more akin to those typically found in cottage gardens to create a truly unique homage to English gardens. She cautions against being too strict with plant choices though, “If you stick with those traditional English plants, you aren’t going to have a lot of success in Arkansas.”

Pro-Tip: if you live in the South, avoid traditional English lavenders because they don’t do very well outside a mild/cool climate.

Horticulture of any kind is not without its challenges, even the carefully maintained beauty of Garvan Gardens is an ever-changing world of problem solving and creative thinking.

The Great Lawn Flowering Border started as a formal style English perennial garden before transitioning to annuals for years, but that transition eventually lead to an issue with disease. So, before taking on her new approach to the English gardens, Shelor had to deal with the issues in the soil. “We found that year after year after year of planting the same species of annuals, we actually had a disease problem,” says Shelor. “This site lent itself to a passive process called solarization. We sun-heated the soil using clear plastic which is counterintuitive.”

To solarize the beds, first Shelor and her team mixed healthy compost into the soil then covered the beds  with  a clear plastic, which traps heat in. “It kills the harmful pathogens… and weed seeds as well, but leaves those beneficial microorganisms…We’ve had so many fewer problems this year.”

Another issue with perennial gardening in this area, Shelor points out,  is  dealing with being in a  mountain range and how the various elevations in the Ouachita High Country Region affect the temperatures of the ground and atmosphere. Shelor suggests the home gardener buy perennial and other permanent plants like shrubs from a local nursery or grower instead of from big box stores who sometimes stock plants grown and hardened for climates thousands of miles away. Though the big box stores usually have a significantly lower price- point, the extra effort put into caring for and possibly replacing plants year after year negates those savings in many cases. Local vendors usually breed and choose plants that are adapted to the area they sell in. The extremes of a central Arkansas climate can make a huge impact on the health and even bloom production of plants, so it would be wise to find suppliers familiar to your area.

As for the soil, much of which is rocky and can be intimidating to homeowners in the Ouachitas, Shelor says it just needs a little love. Removing the rocks and aerating the soil will do wonders. “The soil in most of the region is actually very nutrient rich and has a great loam/silt horizon,” says Shelor.

Pro-Tip: Don’t be worried about slightly acidic soil which is typical for the region, the ideal soil pH for most plants is 6.5.

Whatever horticulture goals one has, plenty of inspiration can be gained by a visit to Garvan Woodland Gardens. Whether touring the botanical gardens or taking a class, there are a myriad   of ways to be inspired by this natural wonderland.

Pro-Tip: if you can, use warm water to jump-start your solarization by hooking your hose up to the hot water nozzle for your washing machine. Make sure you irrigate your beds to at least a 12 inch depth before covering with one sheet of thick clear plastic and anchoring with dirt along the edges to keep the moisture and heat in the soil. Leave the site alone for 4 to 6 weeks or until the soil reaches about 140 degrees Fahrenheit, then uncover and resume gardening.

DIY: Log Fairy House & Garden

Plan it: Look for inspiration online and in magazines, decide how elaborate you want to go and where you will place your fairies. You can use an old wheelbarrow, a birdbath, a flower pot, or just a blank space in your yard.

Go for a nature walk to gather your natural materials, starting with your tree stump, twigs, small round or flat stones and lots of tree bark pieces (look for tree bark on the ground or on fallen trees, never pull it directly off a live tree).

The materials you will need: 

  • A large container like a metal bucket, a birdbath, or other receptacle big enough to leave

3-4 inches around your fairy house

  • a tree stump of whatever size (smaller is easier)
  • Measuring tape
  • Permanent marker
  • Scissors
  • a few large pieces of cardboard
  • several pieces of tree bark
  • several small/medium twigs of varying straightness
  • wood glue
  • a few handfuls of pebbles or stones
  • salt
  • a large bag of dirt
  • several flat pieces of tree bark
  • Irish moss, boxwood seedlings, juniper, creeping sedum or any plant of your
  • Brightly colored craft paint in a few
  • small and medium paint brushes

Do It: Decide where you will place the front door of your fairy’s home on the stump you chose. Mark it with a small “x” with a permanent marker.

With the “x” facing directly in front of you, measure the diameter of the stump, add 2 inches to that number and write it down.

Cut two square pieces of sturdy cardboard using the number you wrote down as your length & width.

Using a hot glue gun, attach the pieces of bark to the first piece of cardboard. Start gluing and placing the bark at the bottom of the cardboard and going upward in horizontal rows. Glue each concentric row with the edges of the bark laying slightly over the one below it to create a thatched roof of bark. Repeat the process on the other piece of cardboard until you have two separate square pieces of cardboard covered in bark.

Draw a line on a piece of paper the length of your measurement from step

  1. Bring the two side edges of the pieces of cardboard to meet at a pitch like an “A.” The corners of each piece should lay at the corresponding ends of the line you drew. Use your hot glue gun to glue the two pieces together where the edges meet at the top of the pitch. Adding one more line of glue at the pitch, attach a twig long enough to run the full length of the pitch line. Use clippers to cut off excess twig. Set roof aside and let dry.

On your stump, draw a door and if you want,  windows,  with  your  marker  in the area you chose. Paint the door and windows using bright happy colors. Take a few small twigs and glue them, using wood glue to outline your painted door and any windows.

While your stump house and bark roof are drying, set up your fairy’s yard. Place the stand or bucket that will house your fairy garden space where you want it, then pour enough dirt into your receptacle (wheelbarrow, bird bath, bucket, etc.) to fill it.

Move and pat the dirt to create a hill toward one of the back corners of the receptacle, then with your finger draw a circle in the dirt where the stump will go. Flatten the area on the hill that lays inside the circle until it’s pretty firm and carefully cover the circle area with salt. Once the salt is down, place the fairy house stump directly on top of it with the door facing down the hill of dirt toward you. Place the roof on top with the open face of the pitch facing forward. Stuff a bunch of dried Spanish moss into the “A” shaped opening under the roof, letting some of it hang down on the stump.

Take two fingers and trace a winding path down the “hill” through the dirt. Fill the trench made by your fingers with salt, being careful not to pour it anywhere else.

Now take the pebbles you gathered and place them in a path along the salt trail. Place moss, mondo grass, juniper or even boxwood seedlings around the fairies dirt “yard” and the stone pathway. A stone toadstool or two is a cute addition and don’t forget to find a fairy to make it home.
DIY: Fix your pH naturally

 If you find yourself with alkaline-laden soil due to overworking or runoff, there are some natural home remedies you can use to sustainably lower or raise the pH in your soil without having to use chemicals or expensive fertilizers.

Most plants thrive in a soil that has a pH of 6.5 but if your soil has too much alkaline (higher than 6.5-7.0 pH) you can use pine bark and pine straw or even used coffee grounds to acidify the soil slowly. This is a great fix if you want to acidify an area that is already inhabited. The slower process is both natural and less shocking to the plant life already growing, thereby minimizing chances for damage to your plants. This is also a good way to keep potted plants both warm and properly acidified in the winter. If you don’t have a composting bin set up, you can make a temporary one using just a few tools and a little time.

In the spring/summer, dig a shallow and wide hole in the ground in a sunny spot where there are few rocks. Gather dry pine straw and leaves from around your yard and fill the hole. Set dirt from the hole aside in a bag or bucket.

Wet the plant matter and cover with thick clear plastic. Anchor the plastic with stones or dirt. Let the mixture sit out until it has gotten about 14 days of sun. After 14 days of sun exposure, remove the plastic and add in your used coffee grounds and the dirt you set aside from digging the hole. Till thoroughly.

Use this dirt/compost mix as topsoil/ fertilizer by sprinkling generously into alkaline beds or pots once every three months, measuring the pH regularly until the desired level of acidity is reached consistently.

Hopefully, you have been inspired to create your own garden this season. Find more DIY ideas at! Send us pictures of your finished products and you might get your botanical creation published on our website. Happy gardening!