On her website, Mary Reynolds refers to herself as a “reformed landscape designer”. The Irish gardener, whose first Chelsea Show Garden won a gold medal in 2002 and introduced the general public to wilderness gardens, incorporates lots of dry-stacked stone, wildflower plantings, and spiral walls into designs that wouldn’t look out of place in The Shire. Her gardens have a distinctively Celtic flair. They involve a bit of whimsy and witchcraft — and are frequented by old gods and faerie folk.
The Garden Awakening: Designs to Nurture Our Land and Ourselves, was not what I expected. Coming fresh off of Penelope Lively’s book of essays, Life In the Garden, I was looking for more of the same… but perhaps with a little more practical information thrown in. And I suppose, in a sense, that is exactly what I got. But Reynolds employs a holistic approach to gardening, often using spiritual language when writing about nature. I had a hard time connecting with statements like the following —
… we are losing what few wild places we have left; those patches where the spirits of the earth are flowing freely, where harmony and balance still exist, and we feel accepted for the truth of who we are. We have strayed off course and need to find our way again.
Reynolds goes on to explain we need to invite Nature (always with a capital N) back into the garden, and “allow her to express her true self in these spaces and then work to heal the land”. And though I’ve taken some of her quotes out of their original context to give a sense of the overall romantic flavor of the prose, let’s be clear, Reynolds isn’t writing this way for poetic effect. She insists her clients sit in their garden and connect with the “life force in nature” prior to planning. She is adamant a gardener’s first responsibility is to heal our land and that, in order to do this, we need to form a bond with it.
Land creates a bond with people who work with it. If this bond is formed and then the land is ignored, damage is sure to follow — the same as it would for a child. Today, much of the land feels forgotten. It has retreated into itself because we don’t believe in it or don’t notice it anymore. We only seem to take notice of uncultivated places, which have no bond with us and no need for us. These are what I call lost opportunities. Your land is like a member of your family. It can form a bond with you but it won’t unless you develop the relationship together. The quality of the relationship will determine the strength and quality of the bond.
It all sounds a little hippie-dippy, I know. But here’s the thing: as I delved deeper into the book I found myself agreeing more and more with what Reynolds says. And now I count myself among the converted.
More than just philosophy, The Garden Awakening contains a wealth of practical information on topics like cultivating a forest garden, an idea/version of gardening which was entirely new to me. This is an old form of agriculture which incorporates tree canopies into the garden design. It’s a garden built in layers, — the tall-tree layer, low-tree layer, shrub layer, herb layer, etc. This type of system allows you to build and control the climate of your little ecosystem to a certain extent, as well as encouraging fertility in the soil. And if you have a small garden, like me, and are wondering if it will work for you — I can attest from my own small experiments that it’s surprisingly scalable.
Reynolds has other surprises. There are, of course, the obligatory charts of plants and where best to use them. But she also gives advice on reintroducing microorganisms into your soil, creating swales for drainage and water conservation, using seed balls to plant, and — my personal favorite — building Hugelkultur raised beds. Hugelkultur is another agricultural system that, like most of the ideas Reynold’s advocates, is centuries old. And surprisingly simple. It involves mounding woody branches, twigs, and logs, then covering the mound with soil. The slow decomposition of the wood underneath keeps the soil layer fertile for years. It’s a reportedly excellent method for growing vegetables. I’m thinking of attempting it next year.
And that’s the beauty of this book. It is filled with ideas that are easy and interesting — as well as a wonderful recommendations. Reynolds mentions books by the gardeners who influenced her – like the Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka’s The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Gardening. It’s a name I was already vaguely familiar with: Fukuoka’s seedballs have inspired a generation of Gorilla Gardeners.
In the end, and despite a rocky start, The Garden Awakening has genuinely transformed my relationship with my own front and back yards. Mary Reynolds knows her stuff. There’s also a film – Dare To Be Wild – about the Chelsea show garden I mentioned at the beginning of this review. It looks like a silly romance rather than a documentary… but based on my experience with The Garden Awakening, it too might just be filled with surprises.
Title: The Garden Awakening - Designs to Nurture Our Land & Ourselves
Author: Mary Reynolds
Publisher: Green Books/UIT Cambridge Ltd. (Cambridge, 2016)