Penelope Hobhouse

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)

Gardening Women on BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour Monday 31 May at 10am

Woman's Hour wants to hear what gardening means to you for their special Bank Holiday Monday programme on women and gardening. Photographs and thoughts are being asked for.

In the programme, there will be contributions from Catherine Horwood, author of Gardening Women, as well as from the gardener in charge of NT Tintinhull designed by Phyllis Reiss and Penelope Hobhouse, and Jane, Duchess of Northumberland, inspired creator of the gardens at Alnwick Castle.

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.