When Michele steps into her backyard, she is blanketed by an edible oasis. To her left are peach and apple trees, blueberry bushes and yellow-flowering yarrows; to her right, an array of vegetable gardens that coil toward the back patio, where one can find crawling grape vines and watermelon plants.
Bentonville resident Michele Stamps Pritchett, 41, created a garden-forest retreat in historic Downtown Bentonville, beginning in 2009 with the renovation of her home and a year later with the initial seeding of her gardens. From fruits and vegetables to herbs and flowering shrubs, all of the greenery surrounding her home is edible and sprawled in rows across in-ground and raised beds.
When she is not homeschooling her two children or entertaining friends and family members, she rents out part of her property, named 2nd Street Retreat, to travelers on Airbnb.
But Pritchett’s planting prowess goes far beyond the homestead.
In addition to tending to her own gardens, Pritchett oversees eight of 56 beds at a food pantry garden in Bentonville. There she leads an educational program for children called “Growing Up Green,” teaching them about composting, crop rotation and different types of soil.
Resolute in her passion for educating children, both her own and those in her community, Pritchett has adapted the program to the constraints of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Before, she was teaching up to 50 kids a week; now, her classes have shrunk to around 10 children of close family friends.
Her grounding optimism and hope are present in her voice when she talks about her work, fitting right in with her colleagues at the Master Gardeners of Benton County, of which she has been a member for two years. It was Pritchett, before achieving Master Gardener status herself, who commissioned the nonprofit’s efforts in establishing the growing food pantry garden.
The Helping Hands Food Pantry Garden, a project of the Bentonville Seventh-day Adventist Church, started in 2012, Pritchett said. The Master Gardeners joined the project in 2016.
The food pantry, associated with the Helping Hands Inc. thrift store in Bentonville, offers its services to anyone living in Benton County, said Assistant Director Angela Ayres, 45. Families can pick up food once a month to take home and prepare, as the pantry does not serve hot meals.
“(Before the) pandemic, we fed probably 50 families a day on average,” Ayres said. “Now we’re doing about 40, because it’s a drive-up food pantry.”
Helping Hands was founded by four Arkansas housewives in a church basement in 1976, Ayres said. The founders offered daycare services to women in the area. Within two years, the organization grew large enough to commission the move to a storefront.
Presently, the nonprofit caters to a variety of needs, including helping families pay their bills.
A certified master gardener, Pritchett has a vast breadth of gardening knowledge, but that’s not the only reason her Benton County colleagues find her inspiring.
“I have always been impressed with not only how much she knows about gardening, but how willing she is to share her knowledge with others and to learn more herself,” said Master Gardeners President Andrea Klokow.
It wasn’t until she became a stay-at-home mother and homeschool teacher that Pritchett found gardening in her adult life, after practicing law for several years in both Mississippi and Arkansas. Her childhood passion was reignited when she attended the Spring Planting Festival at the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company in Mansfield, Missouri.
It was there that Pritchett was introduced to the curative and holistic benefits to various edible plants, including some she had never heard of, like the jujube, which can help you sleep better, and the chokeberry, which can help improve your immune system. She learned about the yarrow, with its ancient skin-healing properties and digestive health benefits, and the comfrey bush, which can relieve inflammation.
Klokow, 51, from Rogers, has worked at the food pantry garden for the past three years and has known Michele for the past two. Although she has never visited Pritchett’s home gardens, she says it’s on her wishlist.
“Her passions seem to be growing food and feeding people,” Klokow said.
Pritchett would agree –– she remembers spending hours in her parents’ garden during her childhood, and she curated her 2nd Street Retreat with her own children in mind.
“I told my husband, I want to have a yard where my kids can go outside and graze if they want to,” Pritchett said.
Pritchett moved to Fayetteville from Jackson, Mississippi in 2002 to study law at the UofA, where she met her now-husband of 16 years. For their 10th anniversary, her husband was planning on taking her to Hawaii, but a beach vacation wasn’t quite the celebration Pritchett was envisioning.
“Hawaii never really interested me, because I’m not much of a swimmer,” Pritchett said. Instead, she asked for the money and assistance needed to build their home and its surrounding landscape.
Before practicing law and later finding her true vocation in gardening, Pritchett wrote for The State in Columbia, South Carolina and The News & Observer in Raleigh.
Pritchett said her time in journalism school as an undergraduate college student in Mississippi, compounded with her experience as a copy editor, helped equip her with the communication skills she has needed in each stage of her career — especially when it comes to running a business and being an active member of her community.
“And, of course, I think it helps with my Instagram page a little,” Pritchett joked.
A full decade after her work began on her home garden, in the midst of her busy schedule and the green world she has created for her community to enjoy, she finds time to add a little to her garden each year, she said.