Nancy Lancaster

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)

Norah Lindsay at Kelmarsh

Last weekend I was up at Kelmarsh in Northamptonshire for their second Home & Garden book day. It was a chance to meet some lovely people and to see for the first time, the glorious gardens which were in part created by one of my favourite 'gardening women', Norah Lindsay. Unfortunately I was so carried away by the rose garden that I pressed video instead of picture on my camera for most of my shots but one managed to get through.

You might not think so from this picture (I love the camel-like humps of topiary) but Lindsay did not go in for a 'tidy' style of gardening and was happy to let seedlings grow much to the disapproval of her sister who preferred gardens that were 'a blaze of colour, very bright and rather formal' as was the fashion in Edwardian times. She was paid a retainer by her clients and later lived from grand house to grand house surviving on their hospitality.

One such client was Nancy Tree who later became Nancy Lancaster, the influential interior designer from Colefax & Fowler. I can see why she loved Kelmarsh so. The house and garden nestles in rolling landscape having been perfectly placed by its 18c designer, James Gibbs.

Lancaster's final garden at Haseley Court nr Oxford was another design masterpiece which I have never forgotten visiting shortly before her death in 1994 aged 97. 'Gardening,' she used to say, 'is best done on your stomach, weeding with your teeth.' Despite always living the life of a grand lady, Nancy Lancaster remained a hands-on gardener to the end.