Early Women Gardeners

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Gardening was once a restricted pursuit for women, seen as merely a hobby for upper-class women and a means of survival for lower-class women; it took a considerable amount of societal growth for women to garden as a career.
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“The Compendium of Amazing Gardening Innovations” by Abigail Willis taps into the history of gardening through the eyes of the botanists and explorers who cultivated it.

The Compendium of Gardening Innovations (Laurence King Publishing, 2018) by Abigail Willis explores the history of gardening and the ingenious discoveries that shaped it into the productive past-time, passion, and livelihood that it is today. Willis is a qualified gardener through the Royal Horticulture Society in the UK. She writes for the London Evening Standard, the Daily Telegraph, and has authored another book called The London Garden Book A-Z. The illustrations are by Dave Hopkins whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Economist and Mojo. The following excerpt discusses the entrance and contribution of women gardeners.

Gardening became a popular amateur pastime for ladies early in Queen Victoria’s reign; by the end of the century, horticulture was becoming an acceptable career path for her Empire’s ‘surplus’ women.

Gardening manuals written by women for women were published from the 1830s, with authors such as Louisa Johnson, Elizabeth Kent and Jane Loudon empowering their readers to discover the pleasures of hands-on horticulture.

A successful science-fiction author, Jane Webb was a gardening novice when she married the horticulturalist and writer John Claudius Loudon in 1830, but from a standing start she became a trusted authority as well as an accomplished botanic artist. As a self-taught gardener (she learned much by attending lectures given by the botanist John Lindley), Jane could identify with her female readers, whose education would typically have lacked science and Latin. Her first gardening book, Instructions in Gardening for Ladies (1840) sold 1,300 copies on the day of publication, and was followed by a steady succession of bestselling ‘ladies’ titles, including Botany for Ladies.

Gardening as a profession opened up to women at the end of the century, with several horticultural schools catering exclusively for female pupils. Swanley Horticultural College in Kent accepted its first female students in 1891, and had become an all-female institution by the end of the century. Women regularly topped the RHS exam boards and, despite skepticism in some quarters, in 1896 three Swanley graduates became the first women gardeners to work at Kew Gardens.

Horticulture was seen as a skill that unmarried emigrées could take to the colonies, but the move towards professionalism was not confined to Britain. In her 1908 book Gardening for Women, Frances Wolseley (founder of the Glynde School for Lady Gardeners), listed a number of other serious establishments on the continent and in America (the Lowthorpe School of Landscape Architecture, Gardening, and Horticulture for Women in Massachusetts boasted the Olmsted brothers among its lecturers).

Even sceptics saw the point of professionally qualified female gardeners during the two world wars, when their objections (typically about women’s perceived lack of physical strength), faded in the light of a national shortage of male gardeners and the urgent need for productive gardens. However, as with the case of so many women’s wartime occupations, many female gardeners lost their jobs when peace returned. Beyond the world of private gardens however, female landscape designers such as Brenda Colvin and Sylvia Crowe (both Swanley graduates) helped shape the post-war world of campus universities, nuclear power stations and new towns.

Women garden makers have been among horticulture’s most persuasive and enduring tastemakers. The doyenne of the herbaceous border, Gertrude Jekyll, and her contemporary, the incorrigible plantswoman Ellen Willmott, were the first women to be awarded the Victoria Medal, the RHS’s highest honour, in 1897. With only 63 medals held at one time, the award is a telling barometer of contemporary horticulture; other influential figures to have been awarded the VM more recently include Rosemary Verey, Penelope Hobhouse, Beth Chatto and, in 2017, the ‘queen of herbs’, Jekka McVicar.

More from The Compendium of Amazing Gardening Innovations:

Reprinted with permission from The Compendium of Amazing Gardening Innovationsby Abigail Willis and published by Laurence King Publishing, 2018.

Mother Earth Gardener
Mother Earth Gardener
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