Go Native

September 1, 2012 | By More

Many residents of the Arkansas River Valley pride themselves in having a green thumb. The skills to grow plants for either beauty or food are the mark of rural know-how.

In addition to providing aesthetic qualities and excellent table fare, planting a tree, a shrub, or a flower is the “green” thing to do. It helps the environment by cleaning the air, the water, and providing food for all kinds of animals. But, what if we could do even more for the environment? What if we could not just sustain it, but make it even better.

“People just don’t understand that the plants, the insects, the birds, they all evolved together. They need each other.” This statement from Mary Ann King sums up what Pine Ridge Gardens is all about. Mary Ann started Pine Ridge Gardens in 1992.

“I had a job in town that I just despised,” said Mary Ann. “I wanted to find another way and that’s what started this.” Pine Ridge Gardens specializes in plants that are native to Arkansas and surrounding states. These plants were designed by the passage of millions of years to thrive in Arkansas.

Mary Ann’s thoughts on what constitutes a proper plant to place in the ground can be summed up in the word — native. Sound ecological science is the foundation for those thoughts.

“A while back I was asked to give a presentation at a gardening club and I decided to talk about responsibility. What is your responsibility when putting a tree or other plant in the ground? Is this a good plant? Is it a bad plant? What effect will it have on other organisms? Why should I care?”

A good plant or a bad plant can be defined by many different criteria and Mary Ann states that attractiveness is not one of the top reasons.

“Everybody wants a pretty plant, but pretty isn’t everything. The greenhouse industry did a great job of selling everybody on Bradford pear trees. Everybody thinks they’re pretty, but the problem is that they have reverted back to their wild state.”

The goal of all living things is survival and reproduction. All organisms will find the best way to do this.

“What you see now is Bradford pears all along the highways from Fort Smith to Little Rock and everybody still says ‘they’re so pretty’, but they don’t realize at what cost. How many native plants have been replaced by this invasive species?”

Why plant native? Mary Ann offers several reasons.

“To sustain the environment, you reduce your use of water, fertilizer, lime, and pesticides. People don’t like bugs on their plants, that’s why so many plants from other parts of the world are popular. Arkansas bugs don’t bother them, but that causes problems in the environment. Some plants and some insects are very specialized. If an invasive species crowds out a particular plant, the pollinator that has evolved to pollinate it may die out.”

Mary Ann says that flowers and bugs aren’t the only things that suffer “The local birds eat the bugs. I know that they sell birdseed everywhere, but all young birds must have protein and that protein comes in the form of insects. Fewer native plants mean fewer bugs and that means fewer birds. It’s just a big cycle.”

Many things considered important for gardening just don’t matter when it comes to native plants according to Mary Ann.

“Don’t bother with a soil test, that’s for agriculture and don’t use lime or fertilizer. Plants found in Arkansas are adapted to the acidic soil, they don’t need lime. It’s the same with fertilizer. These plants get all the nutrition they need from the soil, they been doing it forever. They can actually be over-fed. One customer complained that her bluestem grass was falling over, bluestem is supposed to stand straight up. I knew exactly what the problem was, she had fertilized it.”

The potted plants along with the trees and shrubs found on the ridges surrounding Pine Ridge Gardens bear the scars of a record setting summer. The heat and drought has caused leaves to drop here just like other places in the River Valley. The advantage of the local vegetation is that most will survive. Mary Ann says that putting a plant in the right location is key.

“If you put it in the right place, as far as soil and shade, they will most likely be just fine with minimal care. Of course you’ll need to water them as they get established, but after that they can make it. Even through a summer like this one.”

Many residents are concerned about the mid-summer leaf drop this year, but Mary Ann thinks the trees will be fine.

“They can rebound; some are already growing new foliage with the recent rains. No, this fall won’t be so pretty, but the trees will survive.”

Mary Ann does note that consecutive years of extreme heat and drought can kill a tree, even one accustomed to Arkansas summers.

“I’d say three, maybe four summers like this year and the last one can start to kill some of our trees. We need a good wet year. Some people complain when it rains all the time but all that water is a good thing. It builds up the aquifers (underground water tables). We need a lot more right now, that’s for sure.”

Native plants offer everything that a thoughtful landscaper should consider important; low maintenance, positive environmental impact, and beauty. But Mary Ann cautions against being hung up on beauty.

“My mother always said beauty is as beauty does. Don’t worry so much about a plant being pretty. You need to know that it is good for the environment.”

Pine Ridge Gardens is a small specialty nursery, located 4 1/2 miles from Exit 74 on Interstate 40 – about halfway between Fort Smith and Little Rock. Please phone 479-293-4359 or e-mail office@ pineridgegardens.com for a confirmed appointment. Fall Open House dates are Sept. 8, 22; Oct. 6, 22, and Nov. 17 from 9 to 4. For additional information and a map, visit www.pineridgegardens.com. 

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