Those of us who control a patch of land can’t count on there being someplace else for wildlife to find a home. There are too few wild spaces left, so it’s up to each of us to steward our properties in a way that fosters biodiversity. That’s the message shared by my guest this week, gardener, landscape designer and activist Mary Reynolds, the founder of We Are the ARK (Acts of Restorative Kindness).
Mary urges us to be not just gardeners, but guardians at the forefront of the restoration of the natural, magical world. She says setting land free to be its true nature restores our own true natures and reminds us who we truly are. Mary is the author of “The Garden Awakening: Designs to Nurture Our Land and Ourselves” and “We Are the ARK: Returning Our Gardens to Their True Nature with Acts of Restorative Kindness” and she’s the subject of the 2016 movie “Dare to Be Wild,” a dramatization of how she went from being an outsider to winning a gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show.
Mary grew up in the southeast of Ireland and says as is typical for an Irish family, there was a clatter of children. She was the youngest of six, and her parents were farmers who also worked full-time. Given that her parents were just so busy, she had a lot of unsupervised time. “You had complete freedom, really, because nobody ever knew where you were,” she recalls. She says that as a result, she made her connections with the natural world, as opposed to people.
Mary says one of her most formative experiences came when she was around 6 years old and walked to the top of the farm. She knows it happened in May because she remembers the smell of the hawthorn flowers. She went through a gap in the field that her father would drive through on his tractor, but when she turned back around, the gap had closed behind her. The plants and shrubs had closed in on her, with no way out.
“I remember being frightened and I was confused, and I walked around the field and tried to find my way out, and I couldn’t,” she says. “And I was crying and nobody could hear me because, you know, nobody was around. And eventually, I got distracted by the sunshine and the butterflies and the bees, and then sat down in the meadow and just kind of spaced off, which seems how I spent most of my life.”
Though she couldn’t see anyone, she felt like she was being watched. She looked around and realized that it was the plants themselves that she felt were watching her.
“I understood that these plants had spirits and personalities, and just the same way as humans, they were all sentient and individual,” she says. “And they were all looking for my attention, which is the bit that stuck with me because nobody ever took any notice of me.”
She eventually heard a neighbor shouting across the field and all of a sudden the gap was back, and she walked back out of the field. She didn’t tell anyone what had happened until years later when she mentioned it to her father — who told her that the same thing had happened to his grandfather in that field.
Locally, it was known as a fairy field.
“Those places of magic existed a lot in Ireland, but as the wildness disappears, the magic disappears too,” Mary says. “So we’ve lost a lot of that magic here.”
Mary’s experience as a young child not only left an impression, it blazed a path for her future. That path has led her to great things, including becoming the youngest woman to earn a gold medal at the 2002 Chelsea Flower Show in London on the eve of turning 28.
Before going further with Mary’s story, I want to pause a moment to remind you that I have a new book out, “The Vegetable Gardening Book: Your complete guide to growing an edible organic garden from seed to harvest.” It’s chock full of insider tips and new-to-you information that will help you step up your gardening game and tackle challenges.
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Finding Her Way
Mary had dropped out of college in short order, but her parents encouraged her to go back the next year. However, she didn’t know what she wanted to do. “I fancied this boy studying landscape design, and so I thought, ‘I’ll do that. That’ll do,’” she says. “So it wasn’t like I had a great calling, but I went and did a degree in landscape design, and then I set up my business straight away.”
She is a gifted designer, so it was easy for her to find work. She notes that she didn’t “bully” clients. “I don’t assert my vision upon what I think should be done,” she says. “Every time I’d come back to a client, they’d have seen a different television program the night before, and they’d have changed their minds. And it was driving me demented.”
Then Mary had a dream that delivered a message: Gardens are poor reflections of true nature.
She listened to that message, which set her on a path to finding a different relationship with how we interact with our own patches of the planet.
“I tried to get my clients to do gardens that were wild, and nobody would let me,” she says. “So I thought, well, how am I gonna do this?”
The only flower show she had ever heard of was the Chelsea Flower Show, so she gave the show organizers a call and asked for an application form. She was told by a man there that she sounded young and naive and that there was no point in sending her a form.
“You know, you don’t say that to me,” she says with a laugh.
Mary was persistent and kept calling back until she got through to a secretary who agreed to fax her the application form. Mary created her garden design and completed the form on a tight deadline, including forged sponsorship documents from a company in Beirut, Lebanon.
The design was a simple idea that built on a similar idea she previously used for a television program. And before mailing her design drawings, she collected wild mint, dried it in the oven, and rolled bunches of it inside the drawings.
“Mint has an intention of its own, and the intention is to remove people’s negative connotations,” she explains.
Her design was accepted but she had another problem: raising the necessary funds without the Royal Horticultural Society realizing she didn’t actually have a sponsor. Ultimately, she pulled it off.
A Gold Medal Garden
“I told everybody building the garden that they were to build it with the intention to remind people of the importance of wild places and how we need to protect them before they’re all gone,” Mary says. “And so that came out of it — the intention poured out of that space.”
Those who came up to the garden for a look would cry and say they remembered places just like it from when they were young but now those places are gone, she recalls.
“They all wanted to tell me stories of this tree at the bottom of their granny’s garden, where there was all this magical energy around it, and wild places that were near the village that they lived,” she says.
But Irish people would say the garden was just like home, as Ireland still had that bit of magic back then, she says.
For the making of “Dare to Be Wild,” the filmmakers recreated Mary’s gold medal-winning garden, so viewers of the movie will have a real sense of what it was like.
“I realized that I was building these relationships with all these little pieces of land, and then I was handing them back to somebody who hadn’t built the relationship themselves,” Mary says. “It wasn’t working for the land, it wasn’t working for me, and the land itself did not want to remain as I had envisaged it to be. It had intentions of its own, and I was suppressing those intentions and forcing them to stay as I had designed them.”
Mary thought there was something wrong with that way of working, so she shifted her focus to writing. She wrote “Garden Awakening” to share a mixture of old ways of working the land, and magic and intention. It includes natural ways of approaching gardening, such as forest gardening.
“It was kind of the book that I had always wanted myself, and it wasn’t out there, so I wrote it,” Mary says.
“We Are the ARK”
Mary followed up “Garden Awakening” with “We Are the Ark,” published last year. She was inspired to write the new book after witnessing wildlife flee from a lot being cleared in winter for development.
While looking down over her garden, Mary saw a fox run by, which was odd to see in the daytime, and chasing the fox were two hares, followed by a hedgehog — which is nocturnal and should have been hibernating anyway.
The animals were being displaced as a thicket of native plants and trees was being cleared to build a house.
“They’d gone in with a digger, and they’d cleared it out within minutes, really, and without any thought for all the creatures that called it home,” Mary says. “And I stood there and realized, ‘Oh man, I’ve done this myself so many times — and that’s enough of that.’”
She reflected on the land she had disturbed to build gardens and on the animals that had resided there.
“I presumed that they all lived somewhere else, and when I stood outside and saw them running away, I realized that the ‘somewhere else’ was disappearing,” Mary says.
She was heartbroken thinking of what she had done herself, and she started to research the collapse of biodiversity and the fact that displaced creatures have no place to go when their habitats are removed.
“The forests over here are not forests, they’re plantations. They’re monocultures,” she says. “There is nowhere safe because there’s no life in those places, and they can’t go into our gardens because we’ve tidied them and filled them with non-native plants, which don’t support the web of life to be abundant and healthy. And so all these creatures that we’re completely and hopelessly dependent upon are clinging on at the edges.”
Mary decided to change everything she was doing and founded a movement called We Are the ARK, with “ARK” standing for “acts of restorative kindness to the earth.” The movement asks people to give half of any land they have under their care back to nature.
(Video by Delvin and Grace)
Giving Land Back to Nature
Mary says the blame for environmental degradation is often placed on individuals but it’s hard for individuals to be powerful enough to do something effective. We Are the ARK empowers individuals because they can see with their own eyes how nature can recover when they create their own “ARKs” on their properties — like Noah’s Ark.
Then when they walk past their neighbors’ yards and the parks that are kept cut down to nothing for no other reason than a historical class system, they will wonder why they don’t just give back unused spaces to wildlife, Mary says.
“Why can’t we give those places back?” she wonders. “If we don’t need them, let’s just give them back. And we have to step into our role as guardians of this planet, and step out of this idea of being a gardener.”
In addition to giving half of their property back to nature, We Are the ARK encourages landowners to use the other half of their land to grow food in a regenerative, organic way.
It’s growing our own food and supporting local, regenerative, organic farmers that will get us away from industrial farming, forestry, fishing systems that are killing everything on the planet, Mary says.
How to Build an ARK
Even a balcony planter box can be an ARK. Just plant some milkweed and wait for monarch butterflies to lay their eggs.
“A small space like that allows people to form a relationship with whatever creatures come to live there,” Mary says.
The visitors may also be birds coming to use a birdbath or feeder you’ve provided for them.
“Anything you can do to bring nature into your world is going to empower you because you know that reconnection is very important,” Mary says.
Mary and We Are the ARK present simple steps for anyone to create an ARK on their piece of earth.
“Even if you can’t give half, just give some — as much as you can manage — and I promise you, you’ll be so enamored by the amount of life in that little patch, you will expand it.”
The first step is to do nothing at all.
“Get to know your land and actually watch it and find out which parts are wet or which parts are shady, which parts are trying to do certain things,” Mary says. “And then, you have to understand the concept that if you wanted to do proper, what people call ‘rewilding,’ you’d need at least 1,500 acres because you’d have to have the full cycle of life, including the apex predators and everything in place in order to maintain the balance. So without them, you have to step in and become all those creatures in your tiny little patch of the earth, and that sounds complicated, but it actually isn’t. All it means is that when all those creatures are in place, they create niche ecosystems throughout their territory. So you can do this in your garden by looking at the different layers that there should be in order to support all the different creatures.”
The layers are bare earth; mown grassy areas where large herbivores graze; ARK meadows (wild areas free of non-native plants); scrubby, shrubby areas; and woodland. In between all that are habitats such as ponds, stone walls and deadwood.
Transitional areas are called ecotones. There are some creatures that are unique to those crossover areas, Mary points out.
“The difference between an ARK and a garden is that in a garden your intention is about creating something which you feel is beautiful or controlled … and in an ARK, the intention is about supporting as much life as possible and bringing true nature, bringing the earth’s true nature back to life,” she says.
One of the greatest obstacles is shame, according to Mary. People are ashamed to have a bunch of “weeds” growing on their land. She encourages putting up a sign that explains to curious neighbors what an ARK is. “It instantly makes sense of what they’re seeing,” she says.
Another important step is removing non-native, invasive plants.
In a healthy system, the seed bank in the soil contains about 5,000 “weed” seeds, which are activated when the earth is exposed to light. The seeds will grow into plants that reduce soil compaction and bring minerals back to the surface. The problem in many North American gardens is that plants that were brought to the continent from elsewhere have taken over.
“They have no relationship with the local food web, so they don’t really support any life and they suppress the native plant communities because they go rampant,” Mary says.
Aggressive non-native plants that outcompete native plants are called invasive plants, and until they are removed, an ARK can’t take hold. It can take years of repetitive weeding to get invasives under control and to allow native plants to take over again.
One more step is to create holes in a property to resolve the “island-ization” problem, which refers to the solid walls and fences that stop wildlife from traveling freely. Create corridors in conjunction with neighbors who are sympathetic to the cause. Use living walls of hedges rather than fences so animals can pass through.
Because artificial light is a contributor to the collapse of biodiversity, reducing or eliminating artificial lighting is another step. Artificial light blinds nighttime pollinators, it leads to there being no insects around for bats to eat, it causes hormone disruption in nocturnal creatures, etc.
When I go on vacation on the coast in the summertime when sea turtles are hatching, I am very aware of the local alerts letting people know to turn off their outdoor lights overnight so the sea turtles head toward the ocean where they belong and not toward the artificial light.
When you have an ARK that your neighbors can see, you spread knowledge and compassion for nature. Even notoriously difficult to deal with homeowners associations can come around on ARKs.
“Everybody has a heart and everybody has the capacity to change,” Mary says.
If you haven’t already listened to my conversation with Mary Reynolds on We Are the ARK, you can do so now by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title.
Have you created a sanctuary for wildlife on your property? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
Episode 076: How to Create a Bird-friendly Yard
Episode 077: The Beauty and Importance of Native Plants: The Ethos of Mt. Cuba Center
Episode 133: Native Plant Design in a Post-Wild World, with Thomas Rainer
Episode 134: Bird Population Decline and What Gardeners Can Do to Help
Episode 142: Why Our Plant Choices Matter: Nature’s Best Hope, with Doug Tallamy
Episode 152: The Native Plant Trust: Why Plant Choices Matter
Episode 197: The Many Benefits of Building a Naturalistic Garden, with Kelly Norris
Episode 206: Our Most Essential Trees: The Nature of Oaks, with Doug Tallamy
Episode 229: Food Forest Basics: Creating Abundance Even in Small Spaces
Episode 234: Converting Lawn into Meadow
Episode 237: Ecological Gardening: Creating Beauty & Biodiversity
Episode 242: Grow Now: Change the World, One Garden at a Time, with Emily Murphy
Episode 262: Garden for Wildlife: Accessing the Right Native Plants, with the NWF
Episode 264: Kiss the Ground: Thinking Regeneratively, with Finian Makepeace
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.
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joegardener Online Gardening Academy Organic Vegetable Gardening: My new premium online course membership opens in 2023. Sign up for the waitlist here.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Learn how to grow epic tomatoes with Joe Lamp’l and Craig LeHoullier.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Pests, Diseases & Weeds: Learn the proactive steps to take to manage pests, diseases and weeds for a more successful garden with a lot less frustration. Just $47 for lifetime access!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.
Earthbound Expeditions: Great Gardens of Italy & France with Joe Lamp’l
“The Garden Awakening: Designs to Nurture Our Land and Ourselves” by Mary Reynolds
“We Are the ARK: Returning Our Gardens to Their True Nature with Acts of Restorative Kindness” by Mary Reynolds
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Earth’s Ally – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com
Territorial Seed Company – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com
Greenhouse Megastore – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com – Enter code JOEGARDENER for 15% off your order
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Greenhouse Megastore, Territorial Seed Company, Earth’s Ally, Proven Winners ColorChoice and Dramm. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.