Gardening with Good Intentions

The Garden Awakening

The essence of what Mary Reynolds has to say in The Garden Awakening is not only good and worthwhile but essential for our health and the health of our planet. We must take care of this earth and garden in a manner which respects the land rather than do harm to it. However, as I read the book I felt that Mary and I are not on the same wavelength in many ways and that the manner in which she expresses this message imbues it with such a baggage of mumble jumble that people may well disregard it as a result. The message is clouded by its presentation.

Mary Reynold’s show garden at the Chelsea Flower Show, 2002, for which she was awarded a gold medal.

Mary came to prominence after she won a gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2002 with a garden which presented an essence of natural, semi-wild rural Ireland, an Ireland of myths and symbols, an Ireland of simpler times, of simpler farming methods, of times past. A successful career in garden design followed but she reached a stage when she felt unhappy about  the gardens she was designing – this realisation and the way forward was revealed to her by crows in a dream – and she has now returned to an earlier approach.

A medium garden landscaped
A medium garden planted

She sees garden design as a process which “invites nature to express her true self” but comments that “people garden to be in touch with nature but gardens and nature have little in common” and involve “a lot of hard work and vast quantities of chemicals.” I felt this was an unfortunate statement. It was inaccurate, did not reflect my gardening nor that of many others, I imagine, and undermines the central message of the book. There is certainly work in my garden while nature is accommodated and encouraged and there are certainly not vast quantities of chemicals used. A statement early in a book which belittles and derides the efforts and good intentions of others is alienating. Design is a matter of intention, she states, and, while she is against designed gardens, she designs gardens herself but, it seems, sees her intentions as justifying her actions and one must presume that she believes the good intentions of others do not give such justification to their work though it is of a similar nature. She decries the damage done to the earth by ploughing and by machinery; advocates no-dig methods in gardening and farming yet suggests swales, berms and fire pits for her designed gardens which struck me as contradictory. All of her gardens which are illustrated in the book show that each involved considerable earth moving, reshaping and landscaping. I felt there were several such contradictory stances through the book – my intentions are pure and justify what I do while yours are not and what you do is bad for the earth. There seems to be a touch of “do what I say but not what I do”.

A medium garden landscaped
A medium garden planted

The pre-design stage for the gardener involves exercises in connecting with the energetic, emotional and physical body of the land, communicating with it as the land is alive, also conscious and capable of feeling. While I look at and consider my garden space I cannot ever see myself engaging in the exercises she suggests not see any great value in them. Various processes are suggested to heal the land before proceeding. We are encouraged to seek the core truth of the land, its distinctive personality – the genius loci as traditionally called – and each location must be treated separately and allowed to express its own truth so that garden design is a co-creation in partnership with nature – no training is necessary; one should follow no style nor fashion but one’s own intuition.

Perspective detail of a large garden

Each design begins by deciding one’s intentions for the area – “a place alive with the energy of nature”, “a protected place where you and the land can heal and grow”, “a magical place filled with child-like energy and fun” or “a strong flow of creative energy”. Areas of special intentions are selected, patterns and natural shapes are incorporated, symbols and imagery are included and the design is put on paper. Several designs are illustrated by line drawings and I was disappointed that there are no photographs of any of the gardens; in fact, there are no photographs in the book at all which is unusual for a book on gardening.

The second half of the book is concerned with developing a forest garden and alternative management practices. The forest garden is a method of producing food by replicating a woodland system through the seven layers from canopy to ground cover. It is probably not the most practical but would make an interesting gardening area if space allowed. It surprised and disappointed me that many of the trees suggested were non-native species given her comments elsewhere in the book that native plants were best suited to a natural garden. The alternative management approach suggests a more natural approach, less desire for the manicured lawn perhaps, less chemicals and a more natural approach to pest and disease control. The development of a forest garden is probably not practical, because of space constraints, for most people while all could learn and adopt something from the comments on management. However, suggesting that the rooting of pigs to clear the ground is in anyway less damaging than digging the same ground does not make much sense nor the recommendation of a particular breed of goats, especially suited to Californian conditions, to clear unwanted undergrowth.

Planning the layers for the forest garden
A Hugelhultur Raised Bed – tree trunks, branches, twigs, leaves etc covered with soil.

Overall, I found the book awkward to read and have read it three times to fully come to grips with it. So often I was distracted by sections about the spirit of the land, connecting with mother earth, listening and talking to the land, meditating in the garden, of spirituality and old beliefs, allowing my intuition to guide me etc.  Science, horticulture, biology and the needs of the common gardener were, I feel, neglected in this book.

“The land was very different when I was young. The methods of farming were gentler then as industrial farming hadn’t yet been completely embraced and the earth was still teeming with life.” Mary Reynold’s outlook seems to continue to be inspired by the sadness of William Butler Yeat’s poem, The Stolen Child, a favourite in her youth but, truly, the earth is not more full of weeping than we can understand.

The earth still teems with life, all is not lost, all is not doom and gloom, and the vast majority of gardeners work in tandem with nature, enjoy their gardens and care for the land.

[The Garden Awakening, Mary Reynolds, Green Books, Dublin, 2016, Hardback, 272 pages, ISBN 9780857843135, £19.99]



4 thoughts on “Gardening with Good Intentions

  1. As always we have to rely on Mr, Tobin for a considered, balanced and honest response to a new and thought-provoking book, We are extremely grateful to him for taking the time and trouble to read it THREE times, a task that few reviewers undertake!
    He has agreed with a number of basic tenets and has not been afraid to question where he feels the author has exaggerated or leaned a little too heavily into the more mystic realms. It is good to have dreamers and visionaries ‘Our young men shall have visions and our old men shall dream dreams’ but it is also good to benefit from the curb of experience and practical practice. I for one am grateful for such an honest response.


    1. Many thanks for your comments, Peter. I am always anxious to promote Irish authors and I am certain that Mary Reynolds’ book will meet a very warm reception among Irish gardeners. However, I believe very very few will follow her advice and practices – though I would enjoy seeing you do so!


  2. At the risk of hogging this page I add in my considered response as I have recently had the opportunity to read the book for myself. Unfortunately I only managed to get through about a third of it before I gave up close reading, I did however glance through most of the remaining chapters.. I am quite partial to a bit of mysticism now and again and I have hugged trees and stroked foliage BUT I had to draw the line here.
    Everyone is entitled to their view but I was in all honesty unable to share this one. What is said is often true-poorly tended or damaged land will not produce but Mary surrounds everything with such an amount of hocus pocus, mystical musings and additional implications that the truth kernel is cracked by the weight of the surrounding verbiage. Also Mary sometimes claims to have researched a number of areas in history and folklore, and has I am sure done so, but there is no academic backing reference to her claims and some of them are sweeping. She says for example that when we look at a patch to be cleared we immediately look for a sack of poison! I dont-does any gardener worth the name?
    Also to use your dreams as reasons for actions and to expect everyone else to agree is asking a lot. Too much I think.. For example here’s one of mine. Last night I dreamt of friends being transformed into a leopard and a cougar and swimming across a lake back to their car! Now I had that dream but I think it tells more about the vagaries of my imagination than being a stimulus for action in the future. I do not question Mary’s belief in the validity of her dreams but I also believe that I don’t have to share that belief.
    I am grateful for the chance to learn about this insight into a very different world and garden viewpoint but its far removed from any Id like to adopt for my own use!— a world more full of weirdom than I can understand-if Mr Yeats and Mary will both forgive me.


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