Gardening Women

Denis Judd enjoys a look at women’s horticultural adventures

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Reviewed by: Denis Judd
Author: Catherine Horwood
Publisher: Virago
Price (RRP): £17.99

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This is a brilliant idea that has become a brilliant book – whose full title reads Gardening Women: Their Stories from 1600 to the Present.

Dr Horwood brings not merely the enthusiasm of a redoubtable, hands-on gardener to the task, but also the skills of a proven and highly efficient researcher and a vivid writer. The author herself confesses: “As a child, I thought I hated gardening… but once I had a garden of my own everything changed.”

Women have laboured in the gardens of the world from the dawn of civilisation, unthanked and unappreciated for the most part one suspects, and in the myth of Eve in the Garden of Eden liable dramatically to stir things up.

But as Catherine Horwood makes plain, their influence was creative and profound from the outset: witness Flora, the Roman deity of plants, to a legion of inspired gardeners in the British Isles.

These range from Eleanor of Aquitaine; the 17th-century Northamptonshire merchant’s wife Sabine Johnson; to Lady Mary Coke, Gertrude Jekyll, Beth Chatto, Vita Sackville-West, and all those women who strove to beautify gardens in Victorian terraces and 1930s semi-detached houses.

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Also featured are those women who ‘dug for victory’ by growing vegetables during the Second World War and who today own allotments rather than patronise the supermarket. As the beautiful and wealthy Ellen Willmott of Warley Place (a famous Edwardian garden) wrote in 1906: “My plants and my gardens come before anything in life for me.”