Welcome to Little Rock, Part I: SoMa, Sculptures, and Sustainability.

Welcome, welcome, friends, to your personal tour of Little Rock, Arkansas, and its gardens! Our first day of P. Allen Smith's Garden2Blog event opened with a gorgeous sky and excitement in the air. I'm going to Moss Mountain and meeting P.Allen Smith, my organic gardening and heritage poultry breeding hero! I felt as giddy as a pre-teen Fan Girl about to meet One Direction! First, though, our lovely hosts shuttled us to breakfast at The Bernice Garden.

Obviously, I was anxious to head straight to Moss Mountain, but as a first time visitor to Arkansas, I appreciated the introduction to the SoMa (South Main) area by our tourism guides, who shared a bit the area's history on the way to breakfast. Once a virtual food desert, today's SoMa celebrates local food and sustainability. Restaurants like The Root Café specialize in locally grown and sourced ingredients.

You know my passion for local food, and a map at The Root Café showcases the origins of their offerings. I love their commitment to supporting local farmers.

Our bus stopped at The Bernice Garden, our breakfast destination...and there, waiting to greet each blogger as we disembarked was The Man...P. Allen Smith!

I stuck my hand out to shake his, while he went for a hug—and it turned into an incredibly awkward hug/handshake/back-patting embrace. I felt like when we visit European family, and I never remember—three cheek kisses or two? Lean right first, or left? Inevitably, I get it wrong and wind up in an embarrassing nose-to-nose encounter. Yes, my friends, that was the first impression I made on our host. I truly win the award for most uncool blogger on the trip.

Fortunately, food helps alleviate embarrassment.

Particularly pastries.

Representative SoMa restaurants treated us to a sampling of their scrumptious fare. (It quickly became apparent that I'd need to pace myself over the two-day event if I expected to zip my mother-of-the-groom dress for Saturday's wedding!)

The Bernice Garden is a pocket of creativity and sustainability in the urban SoMa neighborhood. The site, where once the famous Augustus Garland-Mitchell House stood, followed by an inn, a motel, and finally a fast-food restaurant, drew the vision of Anita Davis, who purchased the property in 2007. She hoped to design a space celebrating community, art, and sustainability, while adding to the revitalization of SoMa.

She succeeded. In 2009, The Bernice Garden joined the SoMa community.

The 100 ft. x 150 ft. garden celebrates the “Nature of Arkansas,” tough and vigorous but filled with creative spirit. Key to the design of the garden is sustainability. From the repurposed foundation of a fast-food restaurant that now serves as the patio to the sculptures and art created from recycled, sustainable materials, the small space provides enormous impact in the community.

Plantings consist of native grasses, wildflowers, and herbs, which attract and feed pollinators...

...while the space showcases the talents of Arkansas artists. Weddings, graduations, blogger breakfasts...private events at the garden offer the chance to enjoy the artwork and ambiance of a revitalized district, while the community can also enjoy the public garden daily.

After a tour through several shops in the SoMa district (including Esse, a handbag museum with fascinating displays), our guides shuttled us to the Riverfront Park.

Peter and I often talk about our community's revitalization efforts. Spartanburg leaders make enormous efforts to enhance our town—new restaurants, new businesses, new events...but that one, vital link that seems to be missing? Water. A lake. A river. A water feature to serve as a focal point, something to draw visitors and build upon. Greenville did it beautifully, building the stunning [Falls Park](Falls Park on the Reedy) and business district around the Reedy River. (Let me assure you—when I moved here more than 19 years ago, that area was not an attractive place to spend time. Now, it's a hub of activity and a gorgeous destination.)

Little Rock planners also understand the lure of water. The 33-acre urban park hugs the south bank of the Arkansas River, providing a lovely backdrop for events, art, and community building.

Located in the park is the Vogel Schwartz Sculpture Garden.

Founded as a memorial for his teenage daughter who died in a tragic accident in Egypt, Dr. Dean Kumpuris spearheaded the project, with his friend, Robert Vogel, providing a generous donation through the Vogel Schwartz Foundation to launch the project. Working with a team comprised of the City of Little Rock’s Mark Webre, landscape designer Leland Couch, and John Kinkade, founder of the National Sculptors’ Guild, the Vogel Schwartz Sculpture Garden opened in 1999.

An annual competition entices artists, with the winner receiving a sizable commission to design a sculpture for the garden.

My only complaint: we didn't have enough time to spend in the sculpture garden. So much beautiful art, so little time.

We quickly moved through the Riverfront Park, because our next destination awaited us: lunch and a keynote address at the Ron Robinson Theater at the River Market District.

After lunch, we headed to one of my favorite gardens of the day: the private rooftop garden of the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum.

Did I mention that in honor of the Library's 10th anniversary, our visit coincided with a Chihuly exhibit? (Stay tuned for a separate post on Chihuly. I don't want to crash your computer with too many photos in one post!)

To say that entering the rooftop gardens through the Clintons' private residence was pretty fabulous would be a bit of an understatement. As we exited the elevator into the residence, we were greeted by a Lego sculpture of a razorback. Of course, my natural instinct was to snap a photo for Mikey, lover of all things Lego—but no photography is allowed in the Clintons' residence. Once we hit the gardens, however, the lens focused on the spectacular view.

The 153,779 square foot, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified Library, designed by architect James Polshek, is the first Federal building to receive a platinum rating. Only 29 other buildings in the world achieved platinum certification, making the Clinton Library one of the most energy efficient and environmentally friendly facilities in the world. All aspects of sustainability surround the Library: energy efficiency, purchasing, waste management, indoor environmental quality, green cleaning, waste reduction, and even Integrated Pest Management in its gardens and grounds. The Library serves as an ideal of green living design.

But the roof...oh my. After quickly scanning the bookshelves to see what the Clintons read in their free time, we exited the living area onto the rooftop garden.

Some day, after I've served my terms as President, I hope my team designs a rooftop paradise like this for my family to enjoy.

The 14,000 square foot garden is an engineering masterpiece. With paths designed to mimic the flowing waters of the Arkansas River, the gracefully meandering garden contains more than 150 native perennial species, such as Arkansas blue star, as well as edibles, like tomatoes, herbs, and 90 blueberry bushes. A putting green went through a few iterations of sod before settling on one that required less watering and maintenance. At the request of the President, yellow roses—a favorite of his mother, Virginia Kelley—grace the gardens. The President can even plug in a keyboard and play along with the custom made wind chimes, which play in the key of “G.”

A vine covered pergola provides a shady area for his audience or to reflect while enjoying the view.

While the beauty of the green roof is evident, it was designed to introduce additional environmental benefits to the Library. The garden contains storm water runoff and insulates the building, reducing the heating and cooling needs.

Integral to the design of the green roof, though, is a leak detection system. After all, the National Archives reside below the garden.

Regardless of your political affiliations, the Clinton Library and garden are testaments to environmental stewardship at its finest.

The most amazing part of the story? Our host, Debbie Shock, told us that the entire garden was installed in 27 days.

Wow. No pressure.

Our next stop on day one?

Moss Mountain!

To be continued...