The radical gardener: ‘Everything you’re doing is wrong’

Award-winning gardener Mary Reynolds says let go of control and work with nature

Mary Reynolds: “I’ve been doing gardens that are very beautiful and they’re natural and they’re in harmony with the patterns and shapes of nature, but the land itself did not want to remain as I designed it. Therefore, I failed.”

Mary Reynolds: “I’ve been doing gardens that are very beautiful and they’re natural and they’re in harmony with the patterns and shapes of nature, but the land itself did not want to remain as I designed it. Therefore, I failed.”

 

Winning a gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show is the best possible launchpad for a young gardener’s career. That’s what happened to Mary Reynolds in 2002, but the work that followed did not satisfy her.

“I woke up one day and realised, this is all a load of crap really, what am I doing? It’s rubbish,” she recalls frankly. The realisation led to a complete rethink of how she considers we should garden.

Already, back then, Mary’s problem was that the gardens she was making were, to her mind, not wild enough - even though her medal-winning garden Celtic Sanctuary had featured rough stone thrones, weeds, rabbit droppings and flowering hawthorne.

And it was a huge hit with the public. Many visitors told her it reminded them of the lost wild places of their childhoods. Among the throngs of enthusiastic visitors to Celtic Sanctuary was Prince Charles, whose own garden at the 2002 show only managed a silver medal.

“I said listen, do you want to have a go on one of my thrones, because it doesn’t look like you’re going to get to sit on one of your own for a while?” says Mary, almost disbelieving the memory.

Podcast

Aiming wilder

Dissatisfied with her work, she aimed wilder: “Gardens that actually allowed nature in, as opposed to our imposition on it”. But the task of writing her new book The Garden Awakening made her realise that even that did not go far enough.

“I’ve been doing gardens that are very beautiful and they’re natural and they’re in harmony with the patterns and shapes of nature, but the land itself did not want to remain as I designed it. Therefore, I failed.”

Working with, rather than controlling, nature, is a major theme. It comes up when talking about the loss of undeveloped land for kids to roam in (“our kids don’t have that experience. They don’t have that freedom. They don’t touch nature any more”) and the use of pesticides.

But what is gardening if not controlling nature? Pieces of ground, says Mary, are like children. They need guidance, but don’t want our control. In The Garden Awakening, Mary suggests the technique of “forest gardening”, a multi-tiered system of growing food (“the oldest form of gardening, it goes back thousands of years”).

“I’ve turned gardening completely on its head, and reminded people that everything that we’re doing is wrong. Everything that we’re doing is wrong.”

It’s an approach many amateur gardeners, cultivating a small piece of order and beauty in their lives, will need time getting used to.

Mary Reynolds was in conversation with Róisín Ingle on the Róisín Meets podcast.

The Garden Awakening: Designs to Nurture Our Land & Ourselves is available now.

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