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Going potty about houseplant pots

Blowing my own trumpet this week because I've had great fun talking to Guardian gardening editor's Jane Perrone's weekly podcast On the Ledge on everything you've always wanted to know about houseplants. We're chatting about the history of houseplants in the home and especially the pots used. When did that start? You'll have to listen! Or for more historical background to plants in the home, see my book, Potted History

Find us at On the Ledge Episode Six


Top award for Xa Tollemache

Enormous congratulations to Xa Tollemache whose fabulous gardens at Helmingham Hall, Suffolk, are just about to be named 'Garden of the Year 2017' by the Historic Houses Association. This is a prestigious award, voted for by visitors, that goes to the very best garden open to the public by owners of some of the most beautiful house in Britain.

I visit Helmingham regularly as it is also home to one of the best plant fairs in East Anglia in aid of Plant Heritage. Run twice a year, the first in 2017 will be on 28 May from 10am to 4pm. Loads of specialist nurseries - it's impossible to come away empty-handed!


For more details on the award, follow this link: 

Mulch admired: garden of the year award goes to Helmingham Hall


Photographs © Catherine Horwood

How much can you grow in a small city garden?

I'm in the process of downsizing my garden from a third of an acre country plot to a roof terrace five floors up in central London. So needless to say, I leapt to read Carolyn Dunster's new book Urban Flowers. Creating abundance in a small city garden (Frances Lincoln)

Urban Flowers copy

Carolyn's both a florist and a designer of small gardens and her sense of style comes through on every page photographed by the brilliant Jason Ingram. I particularly loved her chapter 'Experimenting with colour' with inspiration suggestions from sulky purples and blues to zingy red and orange planting schemes.

I think this is a brilliant book for someone fairly new to gardening - an upsizer perhaps going from a flat to a garden rather than a downsizer like me who has years of plant-loving to cut down on. It's packed with loads of ideas for evaluating what space you've got and choosing a style to suit your surroundings and your lifestyle. There's even a final chapter on cutting, drying and harvesting flowers from your garden as one would expect given the popularity for 'growing your own' these days. Carolyn shows that it can be done even in the small city patch. Maybe, just maybe, I'll learned to see a small garden as a blessing after all!



Jinny Blom new book offer March 2017 only

To celebrate our new look website, I am delighted to offer readers of the Gardening Women blog a very special discount on the latest book by brilliant garden designer, Jinny Blom - The Thoughtful Gardener.

Jinny is one of my favourite designers. Her no-nonsense attitude belies the fact that she is incredibly sensitive to the surroundings she is working in. To me, her gardens never looked 'designed', they just look right in their place. Lots to learn from this long anticipated book.

Scroll down to find out how to get your discount!


TTG p50-51 (c) Charlie Hopkinson

'The most romantic, creative person in garden design I know,' Piet Oudolf.

In this book, Jinny shares her insight into the creative process she has developed while designing more than 250 gardens around the world. 

 Until 31 March 2017, you can order this book with a fabulous discount of 20 per cent. Go over to www.quartoknows.com and enter the code BLOM20 at checkout. Enjoy!

A bumper stocking-full of books for Christmas

It's great to hear that our biggest bookshop chain is actually making a profit again. Part of the reason must be because there are just so many gorgeous books coming out that can't be read on a machine - and so many have been written by women who really know their gardens. Here's my choice for this year's Christmas lists.

First up is Victoria Summerley's beautiful Great Gardens of London (Frances Lincoln) with photography by Hugo Rittson Thomas and Marianne Majerus.

Great Gardens of London

Victoria has gone behind locked gates and found some gems most of us will never get the opportunity to see. Building on the success of her previous book, Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds (Frances Lincoln), Victoria explores the great and the good, gardens such as Winfield House, the US ambassador's brilliant space gardened by Stephen Crisp, the garden behind the black door of 10 Downing Street, as well as the quirky - the Downings Roads Floating Gardens, Bermondsey, and St Regis Close, Muswell Hill. 

Next on my list is Caroline Holmes's Water Lilies and Bory Latour-Marliac (Garden Art Press).


You may never have heard of this lily nurseryman but you will certainly know of his most famous client, Monet, and seen the result of his purchases whether in real life or in print. And it's thanks to Latour-Marliac that all of us are able to grow a wide variety of water lilies in our gardens in the United Kingdom thanks to his amazing breeding programme. Coincidentally I visited this nursery for the first time this summer and came away determined to add more water to my garden just so I can grow some of these exotic-looking treasures. Part history, part garden joy, Caroline's book is a love letter to this beautiful family of water plants.

These days when it's so easy to get practical advice from the web, it's hard for writers to come up with fresh and creative ideas for garden books. But I loved Louise Curley's The Crafted Garden (Frances Lincoln) with photographs by the brilliant award-winning Jason Ingram.

The Crafted Garden HI RES

You know that feeling when you're in a garden or craft shop and see something and say, 'Why didn't I think of doing that?' Well, Louise has done it for you. And not only that, tells you simply how to do it. So many fab creative projects to do all the year round. Most of the materials can come from your garden - seedheads, cones, twigs, but Louise also includes a really comprehensive list of suppliers at the back for all those finishing touches. Perhaps a book to get for yourself before Christmas to help inspire with everything from wrappings to presents themselves.

The next book is written by one of my absolute favourite gardening writers, Mary Keen. Her latest book (and they are rare events) is very special: Paradise and Plenty. A Rothschild Family Garden (Pimpernel Press), about Eythrope, is, of course, about a world outside most of our imaginations. And yet it is also full of practical information on the running of a garden, any garden. You may never ever have a big garden or indeed a head gardener - but I defy you not to learn something from Sue Dickinson's perfectionism. Hopefully, I'll be curling up under the duvet with this inspirational book on Christmas morning.



Finally, a real luxury item, and not written by a gardening woman at all, but so what? It's present-buying time. Prolific author and mastermind behind the 'Chelsea Fringe' festival, Tim Richardson has produced the ultimate gift for any gardener with Oxonian connections - a lavish guide to Oxford College Gardens (Frances Lincoln) with photographs by Andrew Lawson. One can dream ...

Oxford College Gardens LR

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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

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)

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.

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