Here's my Thursday column for this week -
Gardening: Nursery business grew out of love
Mary Ann King, owner of Pine Ridge Gardens in London Ark., always loved to grow things. And she has always wanted to try everything.
For example, when she decided to grow vegetables for her family she grew 12 kinds of tomatoes and ten kinds of beans.
That love of gardening grew into a nursery business that is now well known across the country for its wide selection of native plants that King grows mostly from seed.
“I was a founding member of the Russellville Farmer’s Market,” King said. “When the family grew up and I did not need so much from the vegetable garden, I turned to growing every kind of jonquil and the other minor bulbs. Then, I started growing all the kinds of iris. And after that I started growing perennials from seed.”
In 1992 King ordered her first greenhouse and took horticulture classes at the local college.
“My focus is on plants for birds and butterflies now,” King said. “I grow what you can't find other places.”
More than half of the customers who buy from Pine Ridge Gardens come in from Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, Missouri and Oklahoma to make the drive down gravel and dirt roads to King’s 65-acre site.
Many opt to order from the online or print catalog and have plants shipped to their homes.
“More people are interested in native plants now,” King said. “With the proper selection, you can have a garden that takes less care and is more drought tolerant.”
The next open house will be March 29 and 30. You have to call or check the Web site for additional dates.
“I’m open on Saturday and Sunday almost every other weekend until mid-June and then I re-open for September and October,” King said. “People come every week by appointment, too. They schedule a visit here along with other driving destinations.”
In addition to a dozen areas of trees and plants, Pine Ridge Garden has an arboretum that King put in place when she gave up raising cattle. Most of the trees and shrubs are natives that are thriving on a natural setting and only the rain they receive from nature.
You can take a self-guided tour to walk among unique specimens such as Zanthoxylum (toothache tree), Gooseberry bush, American Yellow-wood (Cladrastis kentukea), Mexican Buckeye, Sloe Plum shrub, Carolina Silverbell (Halesia tetraptera), etc. Most of these plants are native to the Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas area.
Around the pond, visitors can walk along dozens of plants growing in their natural setting which provides an opportunity to observe their growing habits and what they will look like at their mature size.
King shares her knowledge as she walks.
“Paw Paw trees want protection from the afternoon sun,” King said. “They are vulnerable in especially in their first few years until they get established.”
King buys seeds for the over 350 plants she grows from many sources. Over the years, she has made friends with other plant lovers who send her seed from their travels around the country. And, she has the talent to grow them into mature plants.
“I also like to grow all kinds of grasses, rushes and sedges,” King said. “I think they are underused in most people’s gardens. These are the plants that birds use for nesting cover and some butterfly caterpillars use for food.”
Elymus Churchii or Church’s Wild Rye grass has recently been identified in Arkansas and King is starting it from seed. She grows other Wild Rye Grass varieties that are available for sale.
King also goes out onto her land and collects seeds.
“Baptesia, thistle, wild azalea, sumac, hydrangea, goat’s rue and milkweed are all seeds that I collected to grow into mature plants for customers,” King said. “Customer requests have led to my growing a lot of the plants I sell.”
King has a personal collection of plants, too, including pineapples she grew by cutting the tops off from grocery store pineapples and planting them.
“We do not collect native plants from the wild and sell them,” King said. “Native plants should be left where they are growing unless they need to be rescued from upcoming construction.”
When King started in 1992, she grew wonderful perennials, loaded them into her truck and tried to sell them to garden centers. At that time garden center owners did not recognize the unique plants in her stock. She joined plant associations and gave talks wherever she could to get the word out.
“By 1997, people started hearing about me, my perennials and native flowers," King said. "People started asking for wax myrtle, other bird habitat and the things I grow. My focus changed to birds and butterflies.”
Other unusual habitat plants available at the nursery include: Umbrella Magnolia, Corkwood, Black Chokeberry, Texas Hibiscus, Saltbush, Swamp dogwood, Buckeye, Hickory, Hornbeam, Wood Vamp, Tree Huckleberry, Devil’s Walking Stick and Wahoo.
“If I have any regrets about the business, it’s that I didn’t start it sooner,” King said. “I hope I never have to retire.”
The Pine Ridge Gardens catalog is online at http://www.pineridgegardens.com and print catalogs are available by subscription three years for $5. The online catalog has a link called, “Selections,” where customers can search for suggested plants by category - butterflies, nectar sources, attracting birds, wetlands and xeriscape.
If you have a chance to walk through King’s extensive garden center, you will realize that the catalog represents only a fraction of the possibilities for your yard.
If you go Pine Ridge Gardens in rural London, Ark., it’s a two and one-half-hour drive from Muskogee. To make an appointment: (479) 293-4359, email@example.com or send a fax to 479 293 4659. A map with driving directions is on the Web site.