Earth mover

MARY REYNOLDS IS modest about her garden and landscape designs – which is refreshing, as well as charming

MARY REYNOLDS IS modest about her garden and landscape designs – which is refreshing, as well as charming. Her restraint hides a busy mind and a well thought out view of the world. Her approach is largely benign, as she is acutely aware of her place as one of many organisms sharing this planet.

She has been described as a sustainable designer, but she balks at this. “The words don’t really go together, because I shape the earth and do things that shouldn’t really be done.” She realises that, when she brings in earth-moving machinery to make her characteristic gentle curves and mounds on the land, she is causing huge disruption to the existing plants and creatures on that particular patch. “The initial work has an impact, but I’m trying then to make an ecosystem that sustains itself.”

Reynolds came into the public eye eight years ago with her large show garden at Chelsea Flower Show, entitled “Tearmann Sí – A Celtic Sanctuary”. The judges approved of it and awarded it a gold medal – a rarity for a first-timer at the world’s most prestigious garden event.

The public loved it, too, with its beautifully crafted stonework and wild plants, its ancient symbolism, and its untamed, poetic, Irish mood. Aged only 28 at the time, the Wexford-born designer had managed to make a garden that had a more distinct personality than the creations of many of her more seasoned Chelsea rivals.


Since then, Reynolds has not deviated from her unique neo-Celtic style, and all of her gardens are instantly recognisable for their sensual flowing lines, native planting, vernacular stonework and agreeable feeling of other-worldliness. Brigit’s Garden in Galway and the garden at Monart Spa in Co Wexford are among her designs.

In recent years, because she has two small children, Reynolds has been “trying to do as little work as possible, maybe five projects a year. I want to spend as much time as possible with my kids while they are little.”

Nonetheless, she has accepted an invitation from the Royal Horticultural Society to return to the Chelsea Flower Show next year with a show garden. Her reappearance there in May 2011 will greatly change her semi-quiet life at home in Ventry, Co Kerry, as interest levels will be high after her first, impressive outing in 2002 at the London show.

Reynolds believes all artists’ creativity stems from one event in their lives. In her case, that occasion was an experience she had when she was five years old, living on the family farm in Larkinstown, and wandered into what was known as the “fairy field”. Although she has told the story before, she is embarrassed to recount it again, afraid of sounding fey.

Inside the field, she became lost, even trapped – for a day, perhaps. It was terrifying at first, but then magical. “I kind of came across an atmosphere,” she says, shyly. This ethereal, mystical ambience, encountered by her one-time child self – unspoilt by adult cynicism or doubt – has stayed with her since. It is that spiritual, into-another-dimension resonance that she seeks in her work now, while also keeping it in touch with the physical character and needs of the earth.

Her good design sense, her appealing personality and her empathetic nature have also opened the door into television. Her latest venture is as the mentor in the new series of Super Garden, which started on Wednesday on RTÉ One.

In the six-part show, five amateur designers create five real domestic gardens to incorporate the needs and dreams of the homeowners. The projects have a budget of €6,000 each, and include a sun garden in Mullingar, a duck-friendly garden in Clontarf and a children’s garden in Limerick.

The judges are landscape architect Tim Austen, plantsman Paddy Gleeson and Bord Bia’s Gary Graham – project manager of Bloom, Ireland’s garden show in the Phoenix Park.

The winning contestant will recreate their garden at Bloom, where it will be seen by thousands of visitors (including possible prospective clients).

Reynolds is hoping to gently guide the five designers into making “atmospheric living spaces” rather than hard-paved “outdoor rooms”. On this series, and in the world outside the television screen, she would like to see people growing more native species, more food crops and more plants that are beneficial to bees and butterflies.

The world, she feels, would be a better place if people “surrounded themselves with nature, instead of creating hard spaces”.

“Everyone is under pressure,” she adds. “And an easy way to relieve that is to have your own sanctuary. If we have a little piece of land outside our door, that is a tiny piece of the earth that we are responsible for. Don’t cover it up with concrete.”

Super Gardenis on RTÉ One on Wednesdays. See for more details about Reynolds' work