Story Plants: The McElroy House Garden

A version of this column first appeared in ABOUT the River Valley Magazine. 

13528609_1139200962810424_6506698281333317111_oWe started our McElroy House pollinator garden during a workday back in the fall of last year. We put down cardboard across a square of the front yard bordering Second and Green Streets. It wasn’t much, but kept down the weeds and served as a marker throughout the winter, reminding us of the spring commitment we’d made.

In March of this year we started removing strips of the cardboard slowly, digging into the loamy soil and planting as we went. For a while it was just a small little row of yarrow and day lilies. But as time went on we pulled back more and more cardboard and dug new patches, being careful to work slowly enough for the plants to take root. Then in April we hosted our flower planting skill share. We pulled back the last layers of cardboard and dug up the entire square. We’d purchased native plants from Pine Ridge Gardens in London and New South Nursery in Roland. We’d brought more yarrow and Black-eyed Susan and Echinacea And we’d put out a call to the community to come bring seedling versions of their favorite flowers to add to the beds. Most importantly, we asked that people bring story plants and share their stories as we put them in the ground.

What exactly is a story plant, you might ask. Well, it can mean any number of things. For starters, plants have their own stories about how they replicate. Plants can live very long lives — especially in the multi-generational sense —  and they replicate in a myriad of ways. Take for instance the yarrow, our plant mascot for lack of a better term. It produces by rhizomes, a kind of stem that actually grows underground.  Basically, yarrow grows from it’s offshoots. And it’s tenacious and drought-hearty. Cornflower, the delicate blue flowers that covered our garden in the spring, are self seeding. They’ll return on their own next year without our having to do much of anything. Others, like Echinacea, are perennial. They die back in the winter to return in the spring. The day lilies  grow by bulbs. They stay dormant in cold weather and shoot forth new growth when it warms up.  So first there is the story of how a plant keeps going.



But beyond that, plant stories are about how plants become connected within our own lives. There is the ancient story of people and food—a story we too often take for granted—but there is also the very recent narrative wherein old plants weave their way into our short lives. You may think you don’t know any story plants. Or maybe it’s just you don’t know the plant names. But you still know the stories.  Maybe you see an iris and think of a grandmother or grandfather. Maybe a patch of wild daisies reminds you of your mother. In many instances we can write new stories with plants. A sunflower can become a new beginning; a hyssop can mean building community; a yarrow is knitted into a story about persistence. Plants help us learn about solidarity, about who came before, and about what we can do now right where we are. Plants remind us that the world is so much bigger than we can ever imagine and that our interconnectedness is more vast than our language could ever convey.

Everything we planted at the McElroy House garden is there for the butterflies and bees. We worked with native plant and pollinator specialists to make sure that our garden is quite the buffet for them. And these days the garden is crowded. There are little yellow sulphur butterflies and buckeyes and monarchs. The bees are everywhere, too thick upon the bee balm to even begin to count. We’ve got some tall milkweed growing, the only plant where the Monarch will lay its eggs.

But the garden is also for us. It’s there for us to remember people we’ve lost—the ways we’ve lost ourselves, even—and to sit with our grief in a way that gives honor to these struggles and these memories. It’s there to remind us that no matter how many times someone uses the metaphor, it’s fundamentally true that everything in the garden starts as a small, fragile seedling. It’s there to help us have an ever-growing visual image of what happens when hard work meets solidarity. And it’s there to liven up the place, to fill the space with color and wings. Building an intentional place of beauty is never a frivolous undertaking.

Beyond that, the garden is there to help us build up collective stories that are both new and generations old. We are an organization that stands for justice and solidarity–across class, across race, across region. We believe in centering the diversity experiences of our community as the foundation for our work. This doesn’t always lend itself to tightly wound mission statements or bullet pointed lists so readily employed by the majority of the non-profit world. We are an action organization but we are also an idea organization. And we move at the speed of caregiving. We care for babies; aging relatives, and our own bodies with all their struggles and beauty. Most of us live paycheck to paycheck, and there are no paid positions at the McElroy House.

Some people might call our work slow. We’d probably agree. But when we look at the garden we see time differently. And we can begin to see that what we do is root work. Not everything is visible above ground—at least not all the time.

We remember that our work is in everything we do in and outside of the McElroy House: Caregiving, working low paying jobs that seldom make the bills, struggling with mental illness, fighting the destructive world of poverty, teaching in our public schools, teaching in universities, getting PhDs in history, single parenting, struggling with family members who don’t understand us, studying the effects of racism on our population, building rain barrels, speaking up for ourselves or our trans friends in a community that fears us/them, breaking down ideas of race, class, and gender in our communities, sharing stories of how we learned to fight self-hate, forging paths for women in engineering, growing a little patch of food, letting our kids see us wrestle with injustice, writing music, standing up for justice even when we don’t know all the terms our urban friends so readily spout, wrestling with the role of white people in #blacklivesmatter, working to understand immigration and stand with our neighbors facing fear of deportation, fiercely loving our homes—pain and all, refusing to take part in fear of our neighbor, and a rejection of the so-often told stories, that it’s “normal” for all of us to be fearful and divided.

And when we forget this—as we so often do— we can look at the garden and remember.

The world is full of injustice. There is so much work to be done. Plants can help us forge new ways of fighting this—in our own communities with the tools and resources we have right in front and inside of us. It can remind us of the skills that live inside of us. It can remind us that the fight for racial justice, indigenous solidarity, eradicating poverty at the roots, is important no matter where we are. It can help us develop new models for ancient struggles. It can collapse time and connect us to something so very far beyond ourselves.

13606505_1142793365784517_6649053907878097659_nThis fall we’ll put down more cardboard to prepare for the coming spring. Our goal is to slowly add onto the garden each year, filling the yard with flowers (and stories), leaving only a walking path large enough for wheel chairs and feet to pass thru. It’ll take years to get there, but there is no better place to learn patience—and perseverance— than a garden.

We’d love to have you come join us. Bring a plant in honor of a loved one or as a nod to a new story you’re writing. Or perhaps both. We believe in people coming together across differences; we believe in equality and equity, and we are certain that our plants — and our stories — are stronger together.

Keep up to date with all our work on facebook by clicking here. 

Want to work with us? Learn more and fill out our volunteer form here:

May Skill Share: Building Basic Rain Barrel Systems

May Skill Share photoWhat: Community Skill Share on Building Basic Rain Barrel Systems

When: Saturday May 21st 12:00-2:00

Where: McElroy House 420 S. 2nd Dardanelle, Arkansas

Contact: 479-957-0551 or

Click here for fb event. 


The McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources invites you to join us for a workshop on building basic rain barrel systems for your home or business!

Sergio Picado of Dover will lead this interactive skill share on building and installing simple rain barrel systems in your home or business! He will build and install our system at the McElroy House while explaining the process and walking participants through each step. You’ll leave with tools needed to implement similar systems at your home.

The McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources offers one skill share a month led by community members and visitors. All events are free and open to the public!  Keep up to date with us on facebook by clicking here. 

For more information call 479-957-0551

April Skill Share: Butterfly and Bee Gardening for Grief and Healing

first bloomWhat: Community Skill Share on planting butterfly and bee loving story gardens

When: Saturday April 30th 12:00-2:00

Where: McElroy House 420 S. 2nd Dardanelle, Arkansas

Contact: 479-957-0551 or


The McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources invites you to join us for a workshop on creating butterfly and bee loving gardens.

During this event we will be planting heirloom flowers and native varieties known for attracting pollinators. We’ll learn more about what kind of varieties we need to support butterfly populations and keep our crops healthy, and we’ll also be putting in some drip hoses for watering. Gardens are places for both grief and healing. Let’s share stories and grow a garden together!

McElroy House volunteers getting our raised beds ready.

McElroy House volunteers getting our raised beds ready.

All of our workshops are interactive, and for this workshop we are asking community members to consider bringing “story” plants to the gathering—the kind passed down among generations and communities and/or any varieties that are especially meaningful to you. Together we will add these plants to our butterfly story garden. If you are willing to share, we would love to document the story behind your plant and keep it with our garden so we can share it with the wider community. Your plant could be something in honor of a lost loved one, a past home, or even a plant in honor of an idea.

Of course, no need to bring a plant to attend! Just bring yourself! You’ll leave with information and resources for creating a butterfly garden at your own home or business.


McElroy House members and volunteers getting city compost for the garden.

McElroy House members and volunteers getting city compost for the garden.

Follow McElroy House on fb at www/

February Skill Share: Home Weatherization with Interfaith Power and Light


interfaith power and lightWhat: Home Weatherization Skill Share with Arkansas Interfaith Power and Light

When: February 27th 9:00-3:00 p.m

Where: McElroy House, 420 S. 2nd Street Dardanelle, Arkansas 72834

Contact: Meredith at 479-957-0551 or

Join us for a free hands-on skill share in partnership with the faith-based group Interfaith Power and Light. We’ll be working together to to weatherize our building while also offering a working example of how to translate these techniques for your own home or rental property.

Matt Poe of the United States Green Building Council will be leading the workshop and will lead participants in simple, DIY techniques for ensuring that your older home stays warm and saves energy. You’ll leave the workshop with the tools and skills needed to make changes in your own property as well as a free goody bag filled with LED lightbulbs.

Interfaith Power and Light will also be providing all participants with a free lunch at Tarascos in downtown Dardanelle.

The Arkansas Affiliate of Interfaith Power and Light is established by individuals and participating congregations who share a concern for the earth’s environment from a unique, nonpartisan, theological perspective. In addition to leading this workshop they are also working with the McElroy House to raise money for our weatherization work, enabling our center to be a working example of affordable and sustainable green retrofitting.

Once complete our building will serve as a working example for home owners, renters, and landlords seeking to make similar changes to their own properties. The McElroy House is working alongside Interfaith Power and Light to seek donations earmarked for this work. Donations of 100.00 or more will have their names engraved on bricks for our walkway. If you’re interested in making a donation to our green building fund, please don’t hesitate to contact us!

Please call 479-957-0551 for more information!

View and share the facebook invite here 

Upcoming: February Conversation: Reducing Incarceration in Arkansas


Image from Seeds of Liberation director, Omavi Shukur’s article , ““Prisons, Profit, and Politics: How Arkansas Politicians “Fixed” a System That Wasn’t Broken.”

What: Reducing Incarceration in Arkansas, a Community Conversation with Seeds of Liberation director, Omavi Shukur

When: February 6th 6:30 p.m.–8:30 p.m.

Where: The Cavern, 316 West B Street, Russellville, Arkansas

Contact: Meredith at 479-957-0551 or

Please join the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources for our February Community Conversation in partnership with Seeds of Liberation, an organization working alongside Arkansas’ marginalized communities to create a just, equitable and empowering means for addressing crime through policy research, community education and amplifying the voices of the formerly incarcerated.

Arkansas has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation. Once incarcerated, former felons—urban and rural, men and women—find it hard to gain employment and build back their lives.

Seeds of Liberation Director Omavi Shukur will provide some context on Arkansas’s incarceration rates and then open up the room for discussion. Formerly incarcerated people and their families and friends are especially welcome. Please come share your stories, learn more about Seeds of Liberation, and come together to build just systems for all.

Shukur is the author of the recent article, Prisons, Profit, and Politics: How Arkansas Politicians “Fixed” a System That Wasn’t Broken.” Before founding Seeds, Shukur was a Staff Attorney at the Orleans Public Defender’s Office in New Orleans.

Learn more here:

About Our Living Room Conversations: This event is part of our Living Room conversations, a series of monthly gatherings hosted by the McElroy House. The goal of these events is to bring community members together to discuss human rights, economies, and building what Martin Luther King called “beloved community.” These conversations serve as a catalyst for community action that brings people together across division. Some of these events take place in our center in Dardanelle; others are hosted at community buildings around the area.

For more information call 479-957-0551

View and Share the facebook invite here. 


Upcoming: Open House and Healing Herbs Skill Share


Open House Version 34566What: Open House and Herbal Medicine Workshop at the McElroy House

When: Saturday January 30th 10:00-2:00 p.m. (Herbal workshops at 10:30 and 1:00)

Where: McElroy House, 420 S. 2nd Street Dardanelle, Arkansas 72834

Contact: Meredith at 479-957-0551 or

Please join us for our first Open House! We recently hosted our second annual Harvest Run and now we’re getting ready to kick off a year’s worth of skill shares and workshops created by and for the community. Come see our space, share your ideas, and learn more about what we do.

We will be hosting a skill share during the open house entitled, Plants Heal Too! From workshop leader, Kristin Simmons, RN, BSN: An insightful look into easily grown and maintainable herbs with medicinal properties. We will also hold a workshop on how to make an old family herbal recipe to tackle the common cold and fever.” Simmons and her family live in Dover and raise chickens and plants.

This is a come and go event and children are *always* welcome! We’ll be hosting raffles and giving away gift certificates and a few of our t-shirts as well!

We’d love to meet you and hear your ideas for our space.

View and Share fb invite here. 


[All our programs are volunteer driven and we exist through personal donations and money raised through our yearly Harvest Run. If you would like to make a tax deductible donation to our organization and/or any of our specific programs, please don’t hesitate to contact our director at or 479-957-0551].

Donation Boxes for the Diaper Bank!

Donation boxes created by Anola Franks!

Donation boxes created by Anola Franks!

Last year our most well attended skill share was the cloth diaper workshop. We were able to pass on over fifty cloth diapers to new caregivers in the region.

Anola Randles Frank has taken the lead on this amazing initiative, and has help to grow the diaper bank idea in recent months. She created donation boxes, a form to keep track of the diaper donations and placement (and to ensure everyone is covered legally) and has set up donation spots around the community.

As Anola pointed out in her presentation and worksheets (which you can download for free here!), so many families have to choose between diapers and food. Cloth diapers can save families hundreds of dollars and are better for the environment. But they come with a great deal of upfront costs. Our diaper bank mitigates those costs and ensures that diapers are passed down in our community to people who need them.

Our diaper bank will be free and accessible to caregivers in the region and after filling out the application to keep track of our donations, caregivers will be allowed to keep the diapers as long as needed. Once returned we’ll disinfect them and mend them if needed! As we beginning offering office hours at our center, caregivers can come borrow diapers and we’ll offer regular skill sharing workshops on using cloth diapers a few times a year.

Meeting at the ARVAC foodbank for a cloth diaper skill share

Meeting at the ARVAC foodbank for a cloth diaper skill share

There are currently donation boxes located at Health Food Garden, Mulberry BushCrisis Pregnancy Center,  and Southern Gypsy store.  We’ll also be working to get some donation boxes set up in other communities. If you’d like to donate diapers or money toward diapers, please let us know! We could also use people who would be willing to help mend diapers.


You can contact Anola Frank at 479-926-6946, or send us an email to:


Our caregiver cabinet with baby carriers, cloth diapers, maternity clothes and more!

Our caregiver cabinet with baby carriers, cloth diapers, maternity clothes and more!