Beatrix Havergal

First Ladies of Gardening

I envy Heidi Howcroft. And then again, I don't. When I wrote Gardening Women. Their Stories from 1600 to the Present, I mentioned over 200 women who over the centuries contributed to our marvellously rich horticultural heritage - and I still got accused of leaving people out! So the task facing Howcroft in choosing her 'fourteen most significant women gardeners of the last 60 years' must have been daunting. So it's my turn now to say for starters - no Penelope Hobhouse? No Nancy Lancaster? 

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Her brief was clear however. There had to be a garden to photograph - Penelope Hobhouse has been on the move in recent years, Lancaster's work no longer on view. So Sissinghurst, East Lambrook Manor and Waterperry make the cut even though Vita Sackville-West, Margery Fish and Beatrix Havergal are long gone. Beth Chatto, now 91 years old, has pride of place as do the three generations of Kiftsgate women carried on by Anne Chambers. Rosemary Wallinger's work at Upton Grey Manor is the perfect choice to focus on Gertrude Jekyll.

There is no question that Mary Keen and Helen Dillon deserve their places among this selection of 'pioneers, designers and dreamers'. I love both their gardens, one in deepest Gloucestershire, one in suburban Dublin. Like Beth Chatto, these are women who are 'green' to their fingertips, don't care for flower fashions but love to experiment and above all grow what they want. Note the brilliant dustbin plant pots in Dublin (below). © Marianne Majerus

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But for me, the envy comes because Howcroft has been able to give space to some gardeners who don't have famous names but are so deserving of their place as 'first ladies'. I've never visited Rachel James's garden at Eastington Farm on the Jurassic Coast in Dorset but I want to now. Sadly it is not listed at the back as opening to the public.

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Finally, such a worthy entry for Sue Whittington's beautiful garden in the heights of Highgate, north London (above) © Marianne Majerus. Over thirty years ago, it was Sue's garden that inspired me to hope that one day I have a garden worthy of opening for the National Gardens Scheme. I used to queue at opening time for a chance to buy from her memorable plant stall, all hand-raised, unusual and rare. Sue is still a stalwart of the London NGS and Marianne Majerus's mouthwatering photographs made me itch to be back there again on her open days

Howcroft and Majerus's book (for it is a good balance of words and pictures) is a welcome addition to the lexicon of works on women gardeners. 

First Ladies of Gardening by Heidi Howcroft. Photographs by Marianne Majerus (published by Frances Lincoln, March 5, HB £20)


Cross with the RHS? You bet I am

Rumour has it that the RHS are desperate to find ways of encouraging women, particularly younger women, to attend the RHS shows held at the London headquarters in Vincent Square. So it's a brilliant idea for the RHS to stage an exhibition from their archives of women's achievements in horticulture. But what do they do? Run it for just two days this weekend, 19-20 March, at the less well attended RHS London Orchid and Botanical Art Show. What a missed opportunity! Other exhibitions in the Lindley Library run for considerably longer - why stage this important show for just 48 hours?

Here is the RHS's press release to tempt you if you are able to go, or show you what you'll be missing from the RHS's rich archive if you can't. And if you feel like complaining to the RHS, please do! You can, of course, always read about these women in Gardening Women.

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For the first time in the Royal Horticultural Society’s history, two women, Elizabeth Banks and Sue Biggs, hold the most senior positions in the Society - President and Director General.

But women have played an important part in horticulture for many years. At the RHS London Orchid and Botanical Art Show over 19-20 March, the RHS Lindley Library will host a display to highlight the life and works of a number of women who have been extremely influential in horticulture over the last century.

On display will be photographs, books, archives and artworks to celebrate the lives of:

Gertrude Jekyll was a garden designer and one of only two women among the first recipients of the Victoria Medal of Honour in 1897.

Ellen Willmott, a horticulturist, was the other woman among the first recipients of the Victoria Medal of Honour in 1897.

Marion Cran was the first gardening radio broadcaster.

Dorothy Martin, a botanical artist. Her 300 original watercolours are housed in the RHS Lindley Library. Two of these will be on display.

Constance Spry, society flower arranger and social reformer.

Lilian Snelling, botanical artist. The RHS holds an extensive collection of her works. Three of her watercolours will be on display.

Margery Fish was a horticultural journalist famous for popularising gardening for the masses after the war.

Vera Higgins was another botanical artist.

Beatrix Havergal, a horticulturist who was a member of the RHS Examinations Board for over 20 years. She started the Waterperry School of Horticulture for Women.

Margaret Mee, a conservationist and botanical artist famous for her trips to the Amazon rainforest.

Valerie Finnis, a plantswoman, alpine gardener and photographer.

Joyce Stewart who worked as a botanist in Africa, she was the first Sainsbury Orchid Fellow at Kew and went on to be Director of Horticulture at the RHS.

RHS Art Librarian, Charlotte Brooks, says: ‘These women are represented within the library collections by books, archives, original photographs and artworks, many received as valuable donations. We will be exhibiting 13 original items, including a wall paper design by Gertrude Jekyll and an unfinished field sketch from the Amazon by Margaret Mee.’


Gardening Women Day at Cheltenham

I'm just back from speaking at the Cheltenham Literary Festival where yesterday was definitely 'Gardening Women' day.

First off was Jekka McVicar, queen of the herb garden. It was Jekka who broke Beth Chatto's record of ten consequtive gold medals at Chelsea before retiring from exhibiting in the main marquee. Instead as well as running her highly successful nursery, she's been writing and the audience pounced on her new cookbook using herbs.

Women growing herbs was one of the questions that came up during my session. This is, of course, one of the oldest forms of gardening that women have been involved. Yet during the eighteenth century, women became increasingly marginalised from herbal medicine as the medical profession became 'institutionlised', excluding female practitioners. Amazingly the growing of herbs fell out of favour until the 1920s and 1930s when one woman revived their popularity. Mrs Hilda Leyel was the public face of herbalism in the interwar years. She was the force behind the Society of Herbalists which started a year after she opened the first Culpeper shop in London.

In my session, there was lots of chat about sex and scandal - not botanical interbreeding but the fascinating lives of two of my 'horticultural women', Lady Anne Monson and Lady Dorothy Nevill. Plenty of lively debate and excellent questions ranging from seventeenth-century nursery-women to Beatrix Havergal who ran the Waterperry School of Horticulture to the trials of being a female head gardener today.

After me, the delicious James Alexander Sinclair interviewed Gardener's World presenter, Carol Klein, in front of a rapt audience. From the time she shared a bath with John Lennon to filming a year at Glebe Cottage, Carol entertained everyone giving encouragement to all to 'get out and propagate'!

Off to Guildford next week for my last 'litfest' of the year. I'll miss them - they are such a great way to met like souls and swap stories about favourite gardening women. Hopefully lots will follow this blog and keep the comments coming.