Mary Reynolds says gardeners should take a walk on the wild side

by

Special To The Japan Times

Both horticulturalists and casual gardeners will be enthralled by “Dare to be Wild” (“Flower Show!” in Japan), a film based on the life of landscape designer Mary Reynolds.

In 2002, at age 28, Reynolds became the first Irish and then-youngest-ever contestant to win gold at the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show in London. Directed by Vivienne De Courcy, the movie traces Reynold’s personal journey from a maverick unknown to a world-famous landscape designer whose creations continue to influence the way people look at gardens and gardening.

Gardens, whether private or public, stresses Reynolds, “need to evolve.” As do those who interact with them. During her visit to Tokyo this month to promote the film, Reynolds took some time to explain her philosophy and why she was also in Japan to get inspiration from Japanese gardens.

“Gardens are not about status and wealth anymore. It’s even less about controlling nature to match your own views,” says Reynolds. “The mission of the landscape designer is to serve nature, not the other way around.”

Gardening, in its placement of and controlled growth of plants, can be seen as humankind bending nature to its will, but Reynolds insists that “the land will always have its own intentions,” even if “almost all of modern garden maintenance is about preventing the land from becoming what it wants to be.”

“It’s crucial to change that,” she says. “We’ve come to a point where climate change, pollution and industrial farming have suffocated and destroyed the land.”

Reynolds’ ideas first gained major public acclaim when she won the Chelsea Flower Show at a time when mainstream gardening focused on how far designers could shape and manipulate nature to reflect their ideas. As seen in the movie, many of the other competitors’ creations were extraordinarily structured — plants grown into mansion-like displays grown though feats best described as horticultural acrobatics. Out-doing one another with extravagance, luxuriously rich colors and floral resplendency seemed the norm.

Reynolds, on the other hand, presented a wondrous mini-ecosystem of bee orchids, hawthorns, elder and other native Irish plants. Complete with traditional stone-dry walls and a moon gate archway, it was filled with Celtic themes redolent of Ireland’s mystic heritage and yet was still “wild.” Unruly but disciplined, her “Celtic Sanctuary” expressed freedom despite being exquisitely crafted.

“Since the Chelsea Flower Show, my own ideas about gardens and landscaping have changed,” says Reynolds. “I’ve learned to look at land like a parent looks at a child. When you raise a child to be something, the child will do their best to be that way since they want to be loved. So they will let you dress them up in pink tutus and if told to stay there and smile, they’ll do that. But such a relationship only goes so far. The child becomes a teenager and then an adult — they’re not going to bend to your will anymore. Gardens are very much like children that way.”

Most gardeners and designers, she says, make the same mistake “over and over again. They punish the garden by preventing it from growing the way it wants to.”

She adds that letting the wilderness take over completely, however, is not the answer. “Children don’t do well in the wild, they need boundaries and routines — just like the land,” she says. “How do we do reach a compromise and a balance? That’s something that needs to be explored, thought out and worked on. It’s an ongoing process that never ends.”

When asked about Japan, she enthuses, “Japanese gardens are so cool. I think it’s because the Japanese have a different way of looking at nature.”

Intrigued by the way gardens in Japan are closely linked to Zen Buddhism and Shintoism, Reynolds is also fascinated by the fact that so many Japanese appear to be natural gardeners. “There’s a lot garden-consciousness in this city,” she says, talking about Tokyo. “That’s very rare in a big city.”

But it is sustainability that impresses the most. When talking about micro-farming in Tokyo and micro-dairies and family-run vegetable patches in Chofu, her eyes light up.

“I’ve come to think that the only solution to sustainable gardening and landscaping is for everyone to grow their own food, especially in urban areas,” she says. “It’s the most reasonable and healthy way of working with land.”

To cultivate a garden that can feed a family of four, Reynolds explains, takes about 10 years of work.

“That’s a daunting number of years, but to repair the damage between people and the earth, we need to interact with soil on an individual basis. That means going back to growing food sustainably and creating a sustainable flow of natural energy,” she says. “If we are to take back the land from industrial farming and agribusiness, that’s what we need to do.

“I try to design gardens that will reflect such an awareness. They’re like a postbox bringing messages from the earth.”

“Dare to Be Wild” opens in cinemas nationwide on July 2.