GARDENING WOMEN: their stories from 1600 to the present

by Catherine Horwood

Publisher: Virago Press (2010)
ISBN 978-1-84408-463-0

Hardback £20

The title suggested to me that this book would feature owners and designers of well known gardens, both contemporary and from the past and, indeed, familiar figures such as Gertrude Jekyll and Beth Chatto do have a place. However, the author has taken a very wide view of the term ‘Gardens’; topics covered include early women botanists, gardening schools for women such as the well-known Waterperry School near Oxford, women writers of articles and books, often directed specifically at other women; there is even a chapter on war-time land-girls.

A large section deals with plant and flower illustration, ranging from the ladylike pursuit of sketching wild flowers, to famous flower painters, such as Marianne North, whose collection is displayed at Kew Gardens; there is even a section on those exquisite 18th-century depictions of flowers using paper ‘collages‘ which was a short-lived, fashionable hobby.

At least since medieval times, it had been usual for the mistress of the house to tend the herb garden and to oversee the garden as a source of food, but it took many years for women to assume a more prominent role. By the 18th and early 19th centuries a few women had established major plant collections; for instance Lady Dorothy Nevill, with 13 glasshouses as well as prodigious herbaceous borders, had notable collections of orchids and of ferns, some not even possessed by Kew gardens, and provided rare specimens for Sir William Hooker and also Charles Darwin. At this time botany was thought to be almost the only scientific pursuit suitable for ladies, even though the Linnaean classification system, being based on sex, was considered unseemly for women’s use. The concluding chapter discusses recent changes to many of these prejudices; for instance, not only are there now many distinguished women garden designers but also several female head-gardeners; increasingly presenters of television gardening programmes are female. Women occupy positions of authority in various horticultural organisations and one only has to go to a meeting of any garden society to observe that the majority of members are women.

Many interesting nuggets of information are to be found here, such as the fact that Gertrude Jekyll would only allow one type of flower in her arrangements as it implied that one owned a ‘cutting garden’ quite distinct from the ornamental flower beds. However, this book seems more suited for dipping into for such information, being more like an encyclopedia, rather than for a lengthy read.