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October 2010

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.

Gardening Women Tip of the Week: Growing Schizostylis coccinea (1897)

I'd love to have this South African bulb brightening up a corner of my autumn garden. Next year I'll give them a try taking into consideration these tips from Mrs C W Earle.


"October 18th - I have at least succeeded in flowering the Schizostylis coccinea. I am relieved to see that in the new edition of the 'English Flower Garden' [William Robinson] this is pronounced a great difficulty in a light dry soil. It is probably owing to the very wet autumn we have had that these little Cape bulbs have done so well. They were planted in fairly good garden soil, under the protection of shade of a wall facing east; so they did not get much sun except early in the year, when at rest; and when they began to grow, they were watered till the rain came. When the flower-spikes began to colour and nearly open, as the nights were very cold, I cut them and put them in a water in a warm room, and they bloomed quite well. Two or three sticks as a support, and mats or newspaper thrown over them, help these late-flowering plants in prematurely cold weather, which often lasts only a day to two.'

Mrs C W Earle is one of my favourite female gardening authors who is regularly overshadowed by her contemporary, Gertrude Jekyll. Her first book, Pot-Pourri from a Surrey Garden, is full of practical advice and wisdom. It has been reprinted many times, the last time being by Summersdale in 2004. There is a story, which may be apocryphal, that her husband offered her £10 not to publish the book. Tragically, and quite unrelatedly, he was killed in a cycling accident a week after its publication. Most likely, she did not need the freedom of widowhood to carry on writing but she did and brought out several more books in a similar vein. Although the 2-acre garden in Surrey she created was never famous, Mrs Earle remains a key figure through her writing.

Gardening Women Tip of the Week: Growing hyacinths in glass vases (1840)

It's not too late to start hyacinths off in glass containers growing purely in water in time for Christmas (use prepared ones) or the New Year. If, like me, you have tried to grow them this way in the past and then found them at the back of the airing cupboard or in the garage in May, having forgotten all about them, read what Jane Loudon had to say about growing hyacinths in water in Gardening for Ladies (1840):

Hyacinth Original 1

'The very circumstance of growing hyacinths in glasses, where they vegetate and send down their roots exposed to the full influence of the light, appears contrary to the usual effects of light on vegetation; and indeed the plants are said generally to thrive best, when the glasses are kept in the dark till the roots are half grown. However this may be, it is quite certain that hyacinths in glasses should never be kept in darkness after their leaves have begun to expand; as, if there be not abundance of light to occasion rapid evaporation from the leaves, the plants will soon become surcharged with moisture from the quantity constantly supplied to their roots, and the leaves will turn yellow, and look flaccid, and unhealthy, while the flowers will be stunted, or will fall off without expanding.'

So there we are. Send yourself a reminder to keep checking for the expanding leaves and then bring them into a light but coolish place. When colour appears on the florets then bring into the warm to fill the house with perfume.

You can read more about the history of hyacinths in the home in my book, Potted History (Frances Lincoln, 2007). Sadly, the type of glass hyacinth vases that Jane Loudon and her contemporaries used are collectors' items now. Because of their fragility, secondhand vases rarely survive but there is a useful blog dedicated just to them. Luckily Sarah Raven has some lovely mauvey-purple ones on sale this year if you can't run to originals.

IMPORTANT: Remember that hyacinth bulbs contain an irritant that many people are allergic to. As a precaution, they should be handled with plastic gloves.

Hellebore heaven - or orchid eradicator?

Did you know that there are a couple of weeks in the year when the roots on hellebores put on an extra spurt of active growth? That time is now so it's the perfect moment to plant them out or move them.

I wonder if my favourite gardening woman from the early seventeenth century knew anything about that? She certainly knew enough about hellebores to be able to send them safely from Lancashire to London in the late 1960s - no mean feat.

Mistress Thomasin Tunstall was, according to John Parkinson, the famed seventeenth-century herbalist and botanist, a ‘great lover’ of rare plants and ‘a courteous Gentlewoman’. In Lancashire some time in the late 1620s, Mistress Tunstall, who lived not far from the village which bore her family name near Hornby Castle, carefully wrapped up some roots of one of her favourite hellebores. She had dug them up from a clump growing on the land surrounding her home, Bull-banke, close to the wooded edge of the river Greta which wound its way between the wild fells of Lancashire and North Yorkshire. Painstakingly, she prepared to send them to London to her friend, the famed apothecary and herbalist John Parkinson (below).

John Parkinson

Although we don't know what Mistress Tunstall looked like,  I have been able to find out quite a lot about her life and love of plants. Mistress Tunstall knew that Parkinson was developing his garden in Long Acre in Covent Garden and was always pleased to accept new discoveries. Sending plants such a distance was a fraught business in the seventeenth century and Thomasin would have wanted to make absolutely sure that the dormant roots had the best chance of survival. She may have used damp rags so that they didn't dry out on the long journey. Into the package, she tucked a note describing their blooms as small and white ‘with blush flowers’.

Parkinson, for his part, was no doubt excited to receive this new variety from his enthusiastic friend and gardening correspondent. Although he was one of London’s leading apothecaries, his great passion lay in his garden and the study of plants. He was also gathering information for his first and most successful book on horticulture, Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris, published in 1629. 


In it, he listed the many varieties of plants that he grew in his beloved garden in Long Acre, many of which had been supplied to him by horticultural contacts across the country. 

Within a year or so, he was delighted to report that Thomasin's hellebores had ‘born faire flowers’, and to conclude that she was indeed a ‘great lover’ of rare plants. But Mistress Tunstall was more than that; she was a fanatical plant collector. Writing at the beginning of the twentieth century, Reginald Farrer, the eminent plant collector, blamed her for the disappearance of the Lady’s Slipper Orchid from Britain.

‘If only you had loved these delights a little less ruinously for future generations!’ he wrote. ‘Do you sleep quiet, you worthy Gentlewoman, in Tunstall Church or does your uneasy sprite still haunt the Helks Wood in vain longing to undo the wrong you did?’

It feels unjust for Farrer, who knew a thing or two about the passions of plant collectors himself, to accuse Thomasin so harshly, for he would not have known her circumstances. In the very year John Parkinson’s book came out, Tunstall and Alice Clopton (probably her sister) defaulted on some loans and incurred even more debt when they had to move out of their home because of their father and brother’s mismanagement. So it was completely understandable that Tunstall turned to her passion for plants to earn some money. Other than the poor weeding women who earned 3d for clearing dandelions from royal lawns, Thomasin Tunstall is one of the earliest women I’ve found who managed to earn any money from plants. And who could blame her?