Lady Mary Coke

Review/Interview by Ruth Gorb

For more years than she'd probably care to remember along with marvellous interviews with all the local glitterati, Ruth Gorb wrote the gardening column in the Hampstead & Highgate Express. All us keen gardeners would devour it for she always knew about the best gardens long before they appeared in the NGS's Yellow Book.

Nowadays, Ruth Gorb writes for the Camden New Journal/Islington Tribune and I was delighted to be interviewed by her about Gardening Women.

Joan Stokes tends her strawberries

Joan Stokes of Waterperry School of Horticulture with her prize-winning strawberries (Photograph Valerie Finnis:RHS)


Published: 20 May 2010
by RUTH GORB

THE title says it all. “Women Gardeners” would have been soft, friendly, ordinary. But “Gardening Women” are strong, a force to reckon with, as they prove themselves in a fascinating new book. From the 17th century Mary, Duchess of Beaufort – (“Gard’ning,” they said of her disapprovingly, “took up two-thirds of her time”) – to the spade-wielding goddesses of 21st-century television, women have been at the forefront of our horticultural tradition.

But, says the book’s author, Catherine Horwood, their  importance has been lost along the way. “It’s like men are chefs and women are cooks. If you ask anyone if they can give you the names of great women gardeners in the past, you’ll be very lucky if they come up with Vita Sackville-West, and maybe Gertrude Jekyll. But there are so many, and their contribution  is so great…I want to reclaim them.”

The book represents a culmination of Catherine Horwood’s two great passions – gardening and women’s history. She is not a trained garden historian but a social historian – “so my book is about people”.  She became an academic after raising three daughters; her PhD became her first book, Keeping Up Appearances: Fashion and Class Between the Wars, which was followed by a humorous look at Worst Fashions, What We Shouldn’t Have Worn, But Did. Her most recent book is Potted History: The Story of Plants in the Home. 

She is honorary research fellow at the Bedford Centre for the History of Women at Royal Holloway.

She is no mean gardening woman herself, creator of a prize-winning garden in Haverstock Hill, open to the public for many years, and now of a stunning roof garden overlooking Primrose Hill. She learned about gardening from her mother, the most romantic of women (a childhood spent in Rupert Brooke’s Old Vicarage in Grant­chester, a ballerina beloved of a Russian prince ) whose love of beauty found its expression in her gardens. 

What is this special relationship women have with gardening? It goes back originally to caring for the family, growing medicinal herbs and strewing scented plants in often less than fragrant houses. More well-heeled ladies found an outlet for their creative energies in designing and botanizing, spending huge amounts of money on stocking their gardens and greenhouses – the great 19th-century beauty Louisa Lawrence had 500 varieties of roses, 600 species of herbaceous plants, and 227 varieties of orchids in the grounds of her home near Ealing. Her much older husband, it is hardly surprising, lived in a separate house, surrounded by his books and wine.

Gardening women were feisty, often unconventional. Lady Mary Coke, married off in 1748 and regretting it almost immediately, left her husband, bought a villa in Notting Hill, cut down trees to open the view towards Hampstead and Highgate, and hired a woman weeder to come and clear the kitchen garden – for economic (cheap labour) rather than feminist reasons. The glamorous Edwardian hostess Norah Lindsay, in her fifties and with a failed marriage behind her, became the most sought after garden designer in London society.  Her daughter Nancy inherited her mother’s horticultural talent but blotted her copybook when on a plant-hunting expedition in Persia “when she was delayed too long in a silken tent.”

Nearer home, a century earlier, Lady Dorothy Nevill spent rather too long in a summer house with a well-known rake, was ostracised from respectable society and obviously didn’t give a damn. She set about amassing a huge collection of plants that became so well-known that it attracted the attention of Charles Darwin. She provided him with an insecti­vorous plant that got him so excited that he wrote to her that “I have hardly enjoyed a day more in my life”.

But between the grand ladies and the working-class “weeding women” there was a growing army of middle-class women whose contrib­ution to horticulture was inestimable. There was Gertrude Jekyll who more than anyone changed the whole style of gardening in this country. Much has already been written about her, but Catherine Horwood has managed to unearth one particularly poignant incident. A group of young horticultural students were taken to see the great lady at her home, and were told to each pick something they liked. Jekyll was by this time completely blind. “One by one we put our bits of plants in her hands. She felt them and smelt them and then without hesitation named them…” 

There has been, as in all other areas, a good deal of sexual discrimination in the gardening world. Lady Anne Monson, an 18th-century botanist hugely admired in her profession, was not accepted in English society because she had an illegitimate child. It took years for women to be made head gardeners on grand estates or given posts in the horticultural establishment. As late as the 1960s there were no women on the council of the Royal Horticultural Society. Why? Because “there never had been ladies on the council and there were none at present who had as useful experience as the men available”. Arrant nonsense as Catherine Horwood’s book resoundingly and delightfully proves.

There is a difference in what men and women contribute to gardening, and one has to say “vive la difference”. Men, says Dr Horwood, tend to look at the grand picture, the lay-out of a garden – that’s when they are not being obsessive about one plant, such as dahlias. For women, gardening is a nurturing process, which often blossoms when children are grown and gone. As the great gardening woman Beth Chatto says: “You can’t go on having babies, but you can nurture life.”

Gardening Women: Their Stories 1600 to the Present. By Catherine Horwood. Virago £17.99

Catherine Horwood is consultant to a current exhibition at the Geffrye Museum, A Garden Within Doors. She will take part in an event at the Hampstead and Highgate Festival in September


Books: Review - Gardening Women: Their Stories 1600 to the Present. Catherine Horwood. Virago | Islington Tribune.