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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? 

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)

How to cultivate a new career with the help of the WFGA

Claire Howard in greenhouse(Medium)

Standing in the greenhouse in the tranquil grounds of Combermere Abbey in rural Shropshire, it’s hard to believe Claire Howard (above) wasn’t always as stress-free as she is today. 

Just five years ago, she was working in Social Services in senior management. After a 15-year career, reorganization was imminent and she took the opportunity to review the direction of her life. “To contemplate such a massive career change” she says “was very frightening.”

 In 2010, she started her WRAGS training at Combermere Abbey, reducing her social services commitments to 4 days a week. (WRAGS is the acronym for The Work and Retrain as a Gardener Scheme). The scheme is run by the Womens Farm and Garden Association, an educational charity formed in 1899 to improve opportunities and conditions for women. Uniquely amongst training programmes, recruits are placed for a year, generally for two days a week, in one or sometimes two larger gardens. Claire was one of the first trainees to do one day a week over two years instead of two days a week over one year. She also took on weekend gardening jobs at the same time.

When she completed her placement she was offered a full-time gardening position at Combermere & resigned from Social Services to accept. Her former manager told her, encouragingly, that she was going into a job where she would see results.

Garden and Mere(Medium)

Aerial view of the 6 acre walled garden at Combermere, complete with fruit maze (top of picture) consisting of Espalier apples and pears in the micro-climate of the walled gardens, which also nurture more tender exotics such as Echium pininana and Euphorbia mellifera

The results are truly spectacular. Claire is responsible, under Head Gardener Phil Tatler (a career changer himself) for cut flower, fruit and vegetable production. This is a very demanding job, as the Abbey is a highly sought-after wedding and corporate events venue. Her duties include pruning, maintaining and harvesting the fruit of 139 apple and pear trees. She can – and does – give masterclasses in the art.

Claire first heard of the WFGA as a National Trust volunteer gardener at Attingham Park. As Claire says, ‘Working as a volunteer I discovered that the possibility of becoming a professional gardener could become a reality. The WRAGS scheme enabled me to stay part time employed whilst gaining practical and technical experience and allowed me to explore the real world view of being a full time gardener.’ Through the WFGA too she discovered like-minded people and has made friendships that continue to support each other.

Garden Owner Sarah comments: ‘Combermere has supported the WRAGS scheme for a number of years with 5 trainees being placed with us over that period. It is extremely satisfying to see enthusiastic individuals taking the chance to change their lives for, hopefully, the better and to see them grow from nervous starters to confident gardeners.’

 The WFGA  aims to improve its geographical coverage and increase its public awareness through fund-raising and greater marketing efforts in 2015. There are some 70 trainees in 2014, but there are also more places available than people to fill them. The WFGA believes there is significant unsatisfied demand for training, particularly from men and women career changers, who may find it difficult to source elsewhere.

A new book on gardens that inspired writers

After a quite spell, I am delighted to chat to Jackie Bennett who has just published a book I just love on writers' gardens including many women. Jackie is the former editor of the Garden Design Journal and a regular writer for The English Garden Magazine. Her previous books include Wild About the Garden (Channel 4) and Your Wildlife Garden (2011). In 2009 she was awarded Column of the Year by the Garden Media Guild. She also co-edited the collected biographies of well known women in Covent Girls (Virago 2003 pbk). Scroll to the bottom of our Q & A for a special offer from her publishers for readers of this blog. 

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I started by asking Jackie what sparked the idea for the book?

 As a garden writer I visit and have visited a lot of gardens over the years.  Knowing a garden belonged to a writer gives it an added dimension: it tends to be more atmospheric because of the people who lived there. So, I wanted to explore these literary writers and understand what part their own garden had played in their life and their work.

 How did you make your choice of writers? 

 I focused on real gardens that the writers themselves had played some part in and where they had added to the history of those gardens. Researching the book was an exciting journey for me, so I wanted people to be able follow in my – and the writers’ - footsteps, so mostly the gardens in the book are open to the public.

 How did gardens inspire the work of the female writers in the book?

 Some used their gardens as a retreat – as somewhere to find a quiet space, including Virginia Woolf, whose writing ‘shed’ is probably the most famous. Agatha Christie, on the other hand, used her garden at Greenway in Devon as a location for her crime stories. It’s obvious in at least three of her novels (Five Little Pigs, Dead Man’s Folly and Ordeal By Innocence) that she’s writing about Greenway.

 With other writers, such as Jane Austen, it’s more difficult to pin down exactly which gardens are which in their work. Scholars have endlessly debated about which garden is Pemberley! I can’t actually say, but what I do explore in the book is the gardens that Austen actually spent time in.

 Did you have a favourite from the book?

 A favourite author is probably different to a favourite garden. One of the nicest gardens I visited – and I went to every one – was Shandy Hall in the village of Coxwold in Yorkshire. It’s full of wildlife and has such great atmosphere. It belonged to Laurence Sterne author of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman – a book which, quite honestly, I’ve never been able to read from cover to cover, despite the fact that lots of people find it brilliant and funny. In terms of author and gardens together, I would probably go for Jane Austen – her life in Chawton in Hampshire is fascinating – and of course Chawton House is now a library of women’s writing.

 Is it more difficult for a woman to find time to write and garden, than a man?

 Truthfully, neither Jane Austen nor Virginia Woolf did much actual gardening – luckily, Austen’s mother loved gardening – and so did Leonard Woolf. We should perhaps be grateful that they didn’t get their hands dirty! But all the writers in this book had struggles with their homes, money and families. It made me realise that as a writer you have to transcend these concerns and distractions and somehow make a space for your work.

 Thank you, Jackie!

Special Offer

To order The Writer's Garden at the discounted price of £20.00 including p&p* (RRP: £25.00), telephone 01903 828503 or email mailorders@lbsltd.co.uk and quote the offer code APG218.

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'Under the management of a lady gardener'

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Recently I was sent this email about two 'lady' gardeners in 1911. Do these names ring any bells with anyone? We'd love to know more about them.

"I  happened to be looking through the 1911 census for St Nicholas, Artington, Guildford for something else entirely, when I came across a census return for two lady gardeners at Mount Browne, Guildford, and thought you might be interested.  Mount Browne is now a police college, but was earlier one of the homes of the Marchioness of Sligo, and at one time was let to Herbert & Agnes Jekyll.

Georgina Margaret Hallowes (1872 Hampshire - 1956 Bournemouth) was the daughter of Rear Admiral Frederick W Hallowes (1833-1901) & Georgiana Maria (1844 Germany - 1890 Portsmouth).  She is at home up to 1901, so presumably did her horticultural training between then and 1911.  I wonder where?  She married her father's first cousin, Edward Price Blackwood Hallowes (1851 Kent - 1923 London), a widower & a wine shipper, in 1920.  They had no children, and I cannot find her working between 1911 and 1920.  I imagine she did not work after marriage.

Adelaide Mary Acland (1885 Devonshire- 1972 Somerset) was the daughter of the Rev Henry Dyke Acland (1856-1903) & Adelaide Clementina (1865-).  She was at the Beehive School in Bexhill in 1901, but that is described as School for Ladies.  She died a spinster in Taunton.  I wonder if she went on working as a gardener and where?"

Do post a comment if you can shed any light ...

Tempted to have your own nursery or garden business? On 7th December,2013, the WFGA (Women's Farm & Garden Association) is holding a specialist workshop ‘Starting Up a Garden Business’ where they will cover the paperwork necessary, accounts, invoicing, records etc, marketing to attract business, dealing with clients and contractors. It's being held in the Cartwright Room, Canterbury Hall, 19 – 26 Cartwright Gardens, London WC1H 9EF, off Marchmont Street, nearest tube is Russell Square, is £45 per person. You don't need to be a member of the WFGA but contact them first.

AHRC funded PhD Studentship at University of Glasgow :: School of Humanities :: Latest News

Issued: Wed, 22 May 2013 08:42:00 BST

The University of Glasgow’s School of Humanities and School of Geographical and Earth Sciences, in partnership with the Scottish Allotments and Gardens Society (SAGS), are pleased to announce a three-year PhD Studentship under the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Collaborative Doctoral Award (CDA) Scheme, to begin 1 October 2013. The award covers Home/EU tuition fees and provides a maintenance award of at least £13,726 per annum, and some research and training expenses, for three years. Applications for the studentship are due no later than Wednesday 19 June 2013.

The Research Project