Visiting Pine Ridge Gardens

Mary Ann King of Pine Ridge Gardens recording an interview for the McElroy House.

Mary Ann King of Pine Ridge Gardens recording an interview for the McElroy House. All images by Saira Khan for McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources and Community Action.

Pine Ridge Gardens is located down a dirt road outside of London, Arkansas. Owned and operated by Mary Ann King, this native plant nursery has been in operation for over twenty-two years and specializes in tree, plant, shrub and grass species native to Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and Missouri.

The nursery hosts a few open house events each year, allowing visitors and regular customers the opportunity to tour the extensive nursery and purchase plants on site. Much of King’s business, however, comes via mail order. The nursery’s forty-seven page catalog is filled with selections such as “jacob’s ladder,” “Ozark chinquapin,” and “cypress swamp sedge.” Coded illustrations next to each entry help customers select plants suitable for their region while also identifying varieties that will produce habitat for butterflies, birds, and bees. If you’re interested in creating a butterfly garden, for example, a tiny drawing of a caterpillar next to the plant name indicates the species will provide food for butterfly reproduction.

In our effort to collect garden stories for the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources and Community Action, we visited with Mary Ann King last summer to learn more about the nursery’s history and take a tour of the grounds. Photographer Saira Khan came along to take photos for our upcoming Garden Book.

A friendly yellow lab met us at the car as we headed to check out the plants. Mary Ann took us on a walk through the rows pointing out various coneflowers, asters, milkweeds, and golden rod. Bees and butterflies bounced from one flower to the next, making it clear these species love the native varieties. A bit later we followed Mary Ann down to the tree and shrub area where she showed us their selection of soap berry shrubs, serviceberry trees, dogwoods, and dwarf river birch.

DSC_0037 “I didn’t know anything about native plants until I was about fifty,” Mary Ann explains. She knew she wanted to work with plants but hadn’t yet developed her passion for regional varieties. “When I started the nursery I joined the Arkansas Native Plant Society, and I took some classes at Tech,” she adds, noting the influence of a dendrology teacher who made sure his students spent a great deal of time outside with the plants.

Eventually she decided to operate a wholesale nursery but soon found that most regional nurseries weren’t interested in her hard-to-find local varieties. So she started a mail order catalog. “The first mail order catalog in 1993,” she explains. “People started hearing about me and coming out,” she explains noting that many people came looking for specific regional plants. “The first one I remember,” she says, “was southern wax myrtle.”  An evergreen shrub, the leaves are fragrant and come in both male and female. The female, she explains, produces waxy berries that cedar waxwing birds love to eat.

Her selection grew over the years, often in response to incoming requests from customers. If people asked about a certain plant, she says, “I’d start looking for seed and see if I can grow it.” Friends and customers even began collecting seed for her and sending it in the mail. Soon she had the most diverse plant selection in the region.

DSC_0004Focusing on growing plants that provide habitat for the insects and wildlife that keep our ecosystem healthy, Mary Ann doesn’t rely on systemic pesticides to keep her plants healthy. “We don’t really know how far it goes,” she says. If it’s going to kill the bug or the caterpillar that’s eating the leaves how come it’s not going to kill the bird that eats the fruit?” she asks, hinting at larger questions of how pesticide use affect our own health and the health of our soil.

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The Seed and the Story is a partnership with theCourier newspaper in Pope and Yell County, Arkansas. This weekly column explores folklife, oral history, and community in central Arkansas, particularly the Yell County area where the column originates. Columns are often written in partnership with the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources and Community Action and humbly attempt to bridge intergenerational themes in the region.