Gertrude Jekyll

Last opportunity to see the Gardening Women exhibition at Sissinghurst


Just a reminder that the exhibition is only open until Sunday 21 October so still time to visit. You may have missed the old roses in the gardens but there's still masses to see. I'm off there again this weekend to see the splendid late summer colour.

I'm delighted to have had the opportunity to curate this exhibition at Sissinghurst. It is free to visitors of this world-famous garden and runs from 5 May until 21 October. Highlights include a beautiful suffrage banner embroidered by Gertrude Jekyll and one of Vita Sackville-West's own garden notes which, we believe, has never been publically displayed before. And some marvellous film footage of early women garden students 

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

First Ladies_p165
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.

First Ladies_p50
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)

The Story behind those Valentine's Day flowers

Getting very excited about the opening later this week of the new exhibition at The Garden Museum,  Floriculture: Flowers, Love and Money. It's about time that the story of floristry, the 'Cinderella' trade of the horticultural industry, was told.  It opens, naturally, on Thursday 14 February, the biggest day of the year for the trade, and runs until 28 April 2013.

Here's what they say we can expect:

"Next Valentine's Day the Garden Museum will open the first exhibition to tell the story of the cut flower trade from the 17th century until today. The exhibition will also explore the inspiration of cut flowers to painters, and to the art of floristry, and their symbolism in rites of passage such as marriage, funerals, and memory.

The exhibition begins in 17th century Covent Garden: the square built by The Earl of Bedford contained a market for fruit and vegetables. Covent Garden continues to be the heart of the flower trade, whether represented by the Floral Hall, illustrations by Edward Bawden, or iconic films such as Lindsey Anderson's Everyday Excerpt Christmas, from the 1950's. The stall-holders, in their current location in Nine Elms, will be the subject of an artist's commission as we seek to record their stories of life at the Flower Market.

Until the 19th century, the wholesale trade in flowers was local, small in scale, and existed alongside allotments and Head Gardeners' cutting gardens and displays in the great house. This slowly evolved, with, in the 1880s growers of snowdrops and daffodils in Spalding, Lincolnshire, racing to supply London markets by train; by 1929 this had increased to 20 tonnes a day. In 1940, 4 million bulbs were shipped to America as payment for arms. 

The world's flower trade has increased from £1.8 billion in the 1950s to in excess of £64 billion today. After trains came planes: in 1969 the first air freighted flowers flew to the United States from Colombia. However, the globalised trade has attracted increasing controversy over its environmental impact, and allegations of exploitation of vulnerable workforces.

The exhibition will explain each side of the debate – including the new movement for "Fair Trade in flowers" – but will also be a celebration of the domestic growers, an industry which has all but vanished but may be revived by a new generation of eco -aware, creative growers.
The exhibition will follow the growth of the retail industry, from florists' shops to supermarkets; in 1979 Marks and Spencer– which had sold plants since the 1920s – first experimented with the sale of cut flowers and quickly grew to be a significant
force in the modern marketplace. 

Earlier in the century, Gertrude Jekyll and Constance Spry established floristry as an art form and a profession. The exhibition will pick out iconic weddings which have transformed taste, such as the 1961 marriage of The Duke and Duchess of Kent in York Minster or that of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in 2012 – masterminded by Shane Connolly, whose ideas in floral design the show will explore. 

The exhibition will look at the relationship between artists and cut flowers, through works by artists such as Stanley Spencer's view of his cutting garden at Cookham, Duncan Grant's still-lives and glimpses of the garden path at Charleston, and Cedric
Morris's masterful studies of irises. The paintings selected will capture the fragile beauty of flowers from their gardens.

Finally, we shall explore the place the beauty and quick mortality of cut flowers play in rites of life and death: marriage, funerals, and memorial shrines."


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.


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.’

The garden history writer who published under four names

Full marks to Sue Minter for finally giving the Hon. Alicia Amherst her rightfully place in horticultural history. Or should that be the Hon. Mrs Evelyn Cecil? Or the Lady Rockley of Lytchett Heath? Or the Dowager Baroness Rockley? Confused? You wouldn't be the first. These are all the names that aristocratic author Alicia Amherst, author of The History of Gardening in England (1895) published under. No wonder Sue Minter entitled her biography, The Well-Connected Gardener.


Alicia Amherst painted by her daughter, Maud, holding a stem of the yellow form of the Gloriosa lily she had collected on her visit to South Africa in 1899-1900

Minter hails Amherst as the 'founder of Garden History' but also questions why she isn't better known. Her titles came from family and marriage but she was given many high horticultural honours including being the only woman to be given the Freedom of the Worshipful Company of Gardeners at a time when her contemporaries were Gertrude Jekyll and Ellen Willmott (a friend).

Amherst was never a 'public' gardener in the sense that Jekyll and Willmott were and although I've always thought that many great female gardeners have disappeared from notice because they did not write about their garden work (Norah Lindsay being the most obvious example), she is one of my 'Gardening Women' for her astounding contribution to garden history writing.  Amherst achieved great fame through her major works on garden history and I did enjoy the story of her tussle with her publisher, Bernard Quartich.

My 'History of Gardening in England' came out in the autumn of 1895, and no one could have been more astonished that I was at its huge success. Quartich, the publisher, made an offer for a 2nd edition, three weeks from the day it first came out. His offer was double to what he had given for the 1st - £50, instead of £25. I was advised to refuse and, within a few days, he offered me £250.

  Sue Minter has impeccable credentials for tackling this biography.  She was the first female Curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden for ten years from 1991 to 2001 when she left to become Director of Horticulture at the Eden Project. Amherst herself was on the Management Committee of the Chelsea Physic Garden which now holds her uncatalogued archive. It is good to finally have the full background to the woman who wrote the book that should still be the starting point for anyone interested in garden history. Sadly it is no longer in print but thanks to fellow blogger, VegPlotting, for sourcing an online version of The History of Gardening in England at the Open Library site.

Just a reminder, I'll be speaking about 'Gardening Women' at the Chelsea Physic Garden on May 5. Full details also on the link under Events in the left-hand column.


Five Stars for sheer readability

Thanks so much to top author Lesley Pearse for this lovely review of Gardening Women on the prize-winning website ThinkinGardens edited by Anne Wareham who has created an astounding garden at Veddw House near Monmouth.

Gardening Women by Catherine Horwood

March 7, 2011

in Book Reviews,Reviews

Gardening Women by Catherine Horwood

A book review by the best selling novelist Lesley Pearse. ThinkinGardens gets around!

Anne Wareham, editor.

Reviewed by Lesley Pearse.

For anyone who has a passion for history along with gardening, this is the  book. It charts women gardeners from 1600 to the present. Gertrude Jekyll, and Beth Chatto were the only ones I could name, and so it was enthralling to read about less famous, but equally well-deserving other women, especially those back in the old days when the RHS wouldn’t allow women membership.

Catherine Horwood has clearly researched her book thoroughly, and she sets out the stories of these gardening pioneers in such a way that you feel you have a real ‘look over the garden wall’ at them. I was astounded by how many plants I which I had considered to be native to this country were discovered overseas, brought here, and nurtured by these women, beginning the plant nurseries so beloved of us gardeners now.

It struck me too, that as so many of these lady gardeners lived to a ripe old age, gardening really does keep you young and fit. I was particularly amused that the first women to be employed as gardeners at Kew Gardens were considered a great curiosity, especially as they wore knickerbockers to work in. But that is part of the attraction of this book, because it isn’t just dry facts. Instead it is a glimpse back into a more restricted, genteel world, yet one where the passion for growing flowers and plants helped to break down class and gender barriers.

Five Stars for sheer readability.

Lesley Pearse.

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.

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

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.

Review from The English Garden magazine

by Claire Masset, garden writer

Any feminist worth her salt will tell you that, until recently, women have rarely received the attention they deserve in the history books. This was especially the case with gardening, an area often regarded as an all-male domain. Catherine Horwood's Gardening Women is the latest offering in a short string of recent women-focused garden history books. Wide-ranging and meticulously researched, it delivers far more than its title suggests. Not just a simple history of 'female gardening folk', it sheds light on the many pioneering women who have made their mark on botany and plant research, garden design and landscape architecture, garden writing and education, and the floral arts. Spanning four centuries, it is particularly strong in describing the lives and contributions of 19th- and 20th-century women, exploring the 'how' and also the 'why' of each of their stories. Some of these gardening greats you will certainly know, such as Gertrude Jekyll, Penelope Hobhouse and Carol Klein. Others, though lesser known, are equally deserving of fame and equally formidable.

Did you know, for instance, that it was thanks to the studies of insect-mad Eleanor Ormerod (1828-1901) that the RHS was able to establish a number of the causes of insect damage to plants? Or, that by donating species to Charles Darwin, horticulturist and plant collector Lady Dorothy Nevill (1826-1914) was an essential help to his studies? Many more fascinating tales are retold in this eye-opening survey.