Information Possibly Outdated
The information presented on this page was originally released on September 24, 2009. It may not be outdated, but please search our site for more current information. If you plan to quote or reference this information in a publication, please check with the Extension specialist or author before proceeding.
Master Gardeners' vision turns old lot into new park
By Patti Drapala
MSU Ag Communications
HOUSTON -- Small communities that are courting industry often turn to the county Extension office for help, and for Houston, that help has led to a beautiful new park.
Across the street from the historic Chickasaw County Courthouse stood a vacant, grassy lot. The Chickasaw Development Foundation owned the property but had been turned down on attempts to obtain grant money for refurbishing.
Many civic leaders were concerned that the empty space detracted from the majesty of the courthouse and the new city hall in the square. They also felt the lot created a negative impression on prospective employers looking to relocate to smaller communities such as Houston.
The problem attracted the attention of the Chickasaw County Master Gardeners, which are part of a statewide volunteer association. Master Gardeners work to improve community appeal by landscaping public areas around government buildings, schools, hospitals and other venues.
The Mississippi State University Extension Service adopted the Master Gardener Volunteer Program as a way to extend educational outreach to the public by providing horticultural information and research-based training to all 82 counties in Mississippi.
“Master Gardeners are community leaders, and they wanted to get started on a project that would benefit the whole community,” said Chickasaw County Extension director Scott Cagle. “We all wanted to get something done about the vacant lot, which had become somewhat overgrown with weeds and was an eyesore.”
The Master Gardeners decided they were ready for the challenging project.
The group suggested to the development foundation that the lot be converted into the Houston Garden Park, a resource that would not only enhance the square but also serve as an educational tool and as a site for receptions and other events. Foundation members were thrilled with the Master Gardeners’ proposal and gave them the green light to proceed.
The volunteers and Cagle recruited Extension area horticulture agent Jeff Wilson, who is based in Lowndes County, to help with the landscape design.
Wilson’s plan, which highlighted the community’s affection for its beloved crape myrtles, was a hit with the group. The new park would feature these shrubs along with other popular plants, a brick walkway, picnic tables and benches centered by a water fountain.
“Many people wanted this beautification project to succeed,” Wilson said. “We used the strength of Extension’s vast network of contacts and resources to spur them along. The Master Gardeners were a key force in getting the project started, and they weren’t shy about sharing what they thought would be feasible.”
To raise money for the project, the Master Gardeners sold engraved bricks to people wanting to recognize others for a “Walk of Honor and Memories” in the park. Sales went well, and the Master Gardeners began construction in 2007.
As the project took shape, an amazing thing happened in Houston. Volunteers throughout the community came out of the woodwork. From raising additional funds to offering expertise on laying concrete and drainage systems, the townspeople of Houston took ownership of the project. Employees at the local hospital raised money to buy the fountain.
Trustees from the jail assisted with the construction. Local businesses contributed tools and supplies. Other civic groups obtained grants from state, regional and federal agencies to complete the effort. A communitywide push allowed the park to open on schedule in 2009.
“We had our own vision for the project, but we were overwhelmed by the community support and the willingness of everyone to share our vision as we got things going,” said Chickasaw County Master Gardener president John Walden. “I think this volunteer support reflects the community spirit and pride that we have for our town, and we hope other people will notice that when they come to visit.”
The new park has spurred community activists to begin additional renewal projects, including the installation of lights on a walking path in another city park and landscaping in many areas of the town. Houston schoolchildren have learned about horticulture after taking field trips to the park, and one bride has booked the park for her wedding.
“It’s amazing how the Master Gardeners, who are a small but dedicated group of people, can have that great of an impact on a whole community,” Cagle said. “I can’t wait to see what they have planned next.”