Mary is quite contrary

Mary Reynolds caused a stir when she became Ireland’s first gold medal winner at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2002 in a category which included Britain’s Prince Charles.

Mary is quite contrary

The Royal Horticultural Society, the august body that has been staging the contest since 1862, was sceptical when she applied for an entry. She was only 28 years of age at the time, so young she “sounded like a child on the phone”.

“At the time,” she says, “I was incredibly naïve, and I didn’t realise what was involved. That was a blessing. It was a mixture of two things — luck and, I don’t know what the polite term for it is — balls.

“The garden we created had a huge impact on people – people queued for hours to look at it. I was standing outside the gate handing out leaflets the whole time.

”Anybody Irish who came up to the gate was saying, ‘Ah, sure isn’t this lovely? It’s just like a piece of Ireland.’ We still have that magic in the land. We don’t realise how lucky we are in Ireland.

“Anybody English or American was coming up to me crying — at the time I didn’t even understand it myself — saying they remembered places like it when they were young, and that they’re all gone.

“They all had a story about a patch at the bottom of their granny’s garden or a field near where they lived. But they were all desperately upset because it reminded people we’ve lost all of this diversity, this magic. Everything has been farmed out of existence.”

Reynolds raised eyebrows for her Celtic Sanctuary garden’s lack of convention, which harboured common weeds, a fairy mound and wild rabbit droppings, among other idiosyncrasies.

The wonder was that the garden came off at all. She had to raise £150,000 to fund it. She ended up with a roster of 14 sponsors. Normally a competitor has one.

Bits of the jigsaw were given to her for free. John Breslin, a local man in Co Wicklow, where Reynolds was living at the time, gave her the use of his fleet of articulated lorries to lug everything across to London.

Her cousins in Wexford, who have a bakery called Ryan’s Bread, gave her a series of bakers’ trays to carry sheep-field sods from West Cork to London.

“A group of about 16 of us stayed in a tiny, three-bedroomed flat in London’s Marble Arch,” she says. “We all slept on top of each other in sleeping bags. And built the garden during the day. It was a bit hectic and great craic.”

A gardening client of Reynolds, Vivienne DeCourcy, was so taken with the story of Reynolds’ unlikely win that she turned it into a film, which will be released next year. It will star American-born actress Ella Greenwell, best known for her role in the US version of Shameless, as Reynolds.

A romance Reynolds had at the time with Christy Collard, the artist-turned-builder who created Electric Picnic’s Body & Soul stage at Stradbally Hall, Co Laois, provides the love interest for the movie. was building a community recreation park in Ethiopia when Reynolds cajoled him into helping out with the Celtic Sanctuary project.

“A few weeks before I was due at the Chelsea Flower Show, when I still didn’t have the sponsorship money in place, I went over to Ethiopia, up into the mountains to a little place called Lalibela, to drag this man home because I was convinced I wouldn’t be able to build it without him.

“Himself and other guys from Future Forests in West Cork built the garden for me. He’s really talented, a natural architect, and has great energy.”

The win at the Chelsea Flower Show opened doors for Reynolds. The British government commissioned her to design a garden at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew. She has done garden makeovers on RTÉ and BBC television shows. She has, however, been wrestling with a contradiction at the heart of her discipline as a garden designer, a philosophical puzzle that she has fleshed out in a manuscript for a book that she will hope to publish next year.

“I actually don’t have a love of gardening at all,” she explains. “It’s more a love of nature. Gardening and nature are two synonymous words but they have little in common anymore. They’re the opposite of each other. Gardening is all about controlling the land. I spent my working years’ trying to mend that rift.

“I realised that even though all of my gardens so far were beautiful there was something wrong. We had to keep fighting to keep them the way I had envisaged them.

“The land itself didn’t want to stay like that. It wanted to develop into something else. That’s the distinction between gardening and nature.

“Gardening is trying to keep it a certain way, to keep it static. Gardening is a really weird craft because it is so unnatural.

“When I went to Chelsea, I knew that there was something amiss, that something was wrong with the gardens I was doing.

“I thought perhaps I needed to make wild gardens and put my own intentions into the land, and create spaces that were alive with the energy of nature. What happened was that I couldn’t convince any clients of mine to do a garden like I did in Chelsea because nobody wanted to put a bunch of weeds into a garden!

“I always describe the land like a child. When you get a bare piece of land, it’s like a vulnerable child.

“What it is always trying to do is to grow to maturity. Maturity is a stable ecosystem. The most stable, balanced ecosystem, which land has evolved over millions of years, is woodland.

“Once it gets to mature woodland, it’s happy. It keeps re-seeding itself, but to let the land do its own thing doesn’t make any sense for most people.

“We need to create an abundant system of gardens like woodland. The reason I figured it out – what slotted it into place for me – was that I’m really aware of food, and the food we’re growing, and buying in supermarkets, and the whole [food production] process, which is a very new process.

“Gardens, for example, weren’t a part of our lives until, maybe, the 1930s. A garden was a status symbol. People had a lawn to show they had some land that they didn’t need for a building or to grow food. It was like, ‘Look at us. We’re posh.’

“We’ve always grown our own food, and we’ve always been very connected to the land. It’s only since we stopped that, that we finally cut ourselves off completely from the earth. We’re very disconnected from it, and very unhealthy as a result.

“People are going to start realising that we are going to have to start growing our own food again in order to be healthy.

“We need to become part of the land again. Things like genetically modified organisms are basically a crime against nature.”

Mary Reynolds will conduct a workshop, Designing Abundance in Harmony with Nature, as part of the Kinsale Arts Festival, 3pm, Friday, September 26 at KFEC Amphitheatre, Bandon Rd, Kinsale. For more information, visit:

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