Gardening is an ancient craft but Mary Reynolds, a “reformed” internationally acclaimed landscape designer, hopes to propel a paradigm shift in how we approach the care and tending of our plots. Reynolds’ new book, We Are the ARK, Returning Our Gardens to Their True Nature Through Acts of Restorative Kindness, (Timber Press, 2022) is informative, inspirational, and above all a challenging read.
As a lifelong gardener who has spent her days in retail horticulture and garden writing, I initially chafed at the author’s call to say goodbye to the way we’ve gardened for generations. “We need to start considering that gardens are part of an old world and to adopt a new vision for our future,” Reynolds writes in the book’s preface. “Looking at gardens as artistic endeavors or feasts for our senses is outmoded.”
Ouch! Still, I pressed on to see where the author was going with this horticultural apostasy. Afterall, everyone deserves the opportunity to be heard.
Coming from an elevated position within the world of design, Reynolds was the youngest woman in history to win a gold medal for garden design at the Chelsea flower show in 2002, the author turned from building gardens to restoring the land. This profound shift from “gardener to guardian” is the foundation of an international grassroots movement Reynolds began called We Are the ARK.
ARK = Act of Restorative Kindness to the earth.
The rooted & the unrooted
We Are the ARK is grounded in raising awareness about the collapse of the planet’s biodiversity, the biological diversity of all living things and the natural systems that connect them. Drawing on science, Reynolds correlates the rapidly increasing decline of the planet’s plants, animals, and microorganisms, “the rooted and the unrooted,” with the rise of industrial farming, forestry, and fishing — damaging human initiatives that call for human intervention and remediation. “Our relationship with nature must change,” she writes.
“Our relationship with nature must change” — Mary Reynolds
We Are the ARK is both an inspirational song of praise for the natural world and an informative guide with actionable steps each of us can take to return our plots to what Reynolds calls “habitat and pantry” in support of pollinators and wildlife. Chapter by chapter Reynolds outlines ways to think like an “ARKivist” and foster landscapes that support life in all its forms. “You can still design pathways, dining areas, nighttime spaces, lawns and patios, and food-growing areas,” she assures. “It just means you approach it all differently, embracing nature as a partner in the process.”
In the landscape, an ARK is intentional. It isn’t a neglected space but one that’s cultivated from a different perspective. It’s a space where nature is nurtured and supported, an environment that invites birds and butterflies and wildlife. This may look like including more native plantings, creating a log pile to provide insect habitat, leaving leaves beneath your trees and shrubs, or introducing a pond.
There will be weeds
“Weeds are the foundation of an ecosystem reboot,” Reynolds writes. She ascribes an environmental intelligence and purpose to their (seeming) omnipresence and persistence, an asset for pollinators and critical to protecting soil. There’s more: homegrown meadows, periodically working the soil in a way that mimics the disturbance of large mammals, and how changing the bulbs in your outdoor lighting lessens the effect on nighttime insects.
Like I said previously, We Are the ARK is a challenging read, as I believe the author intended, but it’s written with heart and filled with hope. Whimsical illustrations by Ruth Evans provide a spoonful of sugar to the book’s strong medicine. When I finally put aside my garden defenses and read with curiosity and imagination I begin to open to the possibilities and opportunities of tending in new ways. It felt like a homecoming.
(an earlier version of this book review appeared in The Seattle Times GROW column)
Lorene, it seems like most gardeners at some time in their lives have an epiphany and “discover” that working with nature instead of subduing it actually works. For me, it was in the early 70’s. As a graduate of UC Davis I was pretty much indoctrinated into the mind set of commercial agriculture. But while living on the east coast I discovered the Rodale Press and the rest is history as they say. 50 years later I still prefer organic approaches to gardening but I am not a fanatic. I like to think i use common sense in how I approach my garden. As a former retail garden center owner I can see myself also putting up my defenses. I will have to give this a good read and get back to you!
Rodale Press was very influential for me as well — OG editor, Mike I think? was both entertaining and engaging.
For the past twenty years I’ve been obsessed with building a large ornamental garden simply as an artistic endeavor. From an ecological standpoint, my rural property was somewhat lifeless when I began compared to what it is now. There is no necessary conflict between aesthetics and ecology. Haven Kiers, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of California, Davis, recently told Pacific Horticulture this: “I want people to love spending time in their gardens because they’re chic and sexy, or full of interesting stories they can share with their friends, not because they’ve been sustainably designed or labeled as ‘good for them.’ While my gardens promote biodiversity and utilize primarily native drought-tolerant plants, they are not didactic. Instead, I try to focus on creating aesthetically captivating and engaging spaces that just happen to be good for the people that inhabit them.”
Hi Chris, Yes yes yes to all this. I strongly believe in charismatic gardens that compelled people – everyone, not just gardeners, to pay attention and support the natural world. I’ve met Haven and love the work that PHS is doing to promote the power of gardens and mindful gardeners. I also love the continuous education and challenges my garden provides.
Our learning curve has been steep since moving six years ago to a new property that is half riparian forest and wetland in the foothills of the Oregon Cascades. It has been a small scale restoration project which has included removing truck loads of blackberries and ivy. We’ve been acquiring a variety of native trees, shrubs and flowers as many of the hidden natives have sprung up. Once you inspired us with joining Pacific Horticulture, I feel we are better informed about next steps. So I listen to We Are The Ark for inspiration as I play away and am comforted that I believe she asks us as a start to try it on half our property. Admittedly. our immediate backyard is organic and all, but certainly not a little National Park. Just can’t give up that woodland cottage garden vibe with daffodils, salvia, foxgloves etc. Hopefully we are contributing a tiny bit to our planet for our grandchildren.
Hi Lani, I don’t think we have to give anything up other than our willingness to listen to new ideas and follow through my adapting them to our personal garden practice — your woodland cottage vibe, my imaginary coastal garden. And yes, anything we do to engage others and grow new gardeners is a win.
i look forward to reading the ARK book. I consider ‘weed” to be a perjorative word based on a vision of monoculture where lawn grass is worshipped for reasons I have never understood. Pollinators do not discriminate and many more insects are pollinators than the beloved honey bee. Put aside the conquer and kill mentality and see how much more enjoyable gardening becomes.
Hi Sally, well put! Weeds are purposeful and have a dynamic role in the environment. And, they’re not going anywhere any time soon~
I love the concept of this book! Will be ordering it immediately.
Many if not most of the weeds in my garden are introduced species of varying degrees of invasiveness. And this country has no large native mammals, so that kind of soil disturbance isn’t natural here.
I must confess I find myself frustrated by the frequent equating of “natural” with perennial meadow/prairie plantings. The ground I garden on used to be dense ferny podocarp forest. Perennial meadows would be about the least natural thing I could do, yet every book I read about gardening in a more nature-friendly way seems fixated on telling me how to Piet Oudolf my garden. Where are the books telling me how I can maximise tree cover while still getting my laundry dry, or manage plantings under non-deciduous native trees?
While the movement may be “grassroots,” the author explores a wide range of ecosystems, including forest and ocean. Recognizing the largely domestic scale of our gardens and the unlikely presence of large mammals, Reynolds writes about how gardeners can take on the ecosystem services missing in our small plots. “we must become the wolf, the deer…”
Always frustrates me too, Deborah. I live in a state that early settlers said a squirrel could cross without ever touching the ground. Predominantly deciduous trees. Prairies aren’t a natural feature.
I’ve always wondered how a “natural” garden came to mean a prairie. Every time I see it on “Gardener’s World” (UK) or indeed anywhere other than the Midwest I wonder why. If someone did it because they liked echinaceas that would be one thing, but it’s always being touted as somehow more “natural”.
Hello Sheena, I think something about UK meadows that is never mentioned is that what people are trying to mimic are the meadows of pre-industrialized farming (cut once a year for fodder over the winter) rather than the “true” grasslands we do have which are, well, grass!
Bison, which are quite large, used to dominate the prairies of North America. While they were nearly wiped out, it’s inaccurate to say this country has no native large mammals. Moose, elk, antelope, and deer (I feel an old song coming on!) aren’t exactly petite, either. Neither are bears.
Maybe I’ve been looking the other way, but I’ve never gotten the impression that natural gardening, native gardening, wildlife gardening or whatever you want to call it, has been limited to prairies. I suspect the emphasis on prairie gardening is due to the over abundance of monoculture lawns. Promoting prairies is one, way, but not the only way, to try to encourage lawn-loving people to aim for more biodiversity.
Prairies used to make up a huge portion of North America. Sadly, they are mostly gone now. The same is true for our native forests, woods, and other biomes that used to be North America. (And the rest of the world, for that matter!) They all need our help.
Sally, Thank you for your 30K foot perspective. Rather than fighting one niche or another, we would all do well to explore how we can strengthen and support the place where we live and garden.
I enjoyed this article and will look into getting hold of the book.
I moved into a new build house in 2017 and I am still amazed/saddened by the lack of wildlife I see, although it is starting to come back but very slowly. To misquote Calgacus we “created a desert and called it peace”
This is a bit late in the game but FYI I recently listened to the podcast ‘Cultivating Place’ and Jennifer Jewell interviewed Mary Reynolds. I recommend it.
I love that podcast! I’ll be sure to listen in. Thanks Rebecca.
Lorene after I read your response the light bulb went on. I listened to the program when Jennifer introduced me to your work! I simply love your way with color. Nature might create the colors but you have the eyes that see.