Celebrating the growth of great women gardeners

— by Adrienne Wyper


Photo: by Cotton Bro from Pexels


Women have been overlooked by the predominantly male gardening establishment for centuries, unacknowledged for their work on magnificent estates, banned from horticultural colleges and under-represented in garden events and on TV – presenter Carol Klein has highlighted that the BBC series Gardeners’ World has had a male lead presenter since 1968. However, for the first time, this year at the Chelsea Flower Show there were more women designers than men, overall, the Balcony and Container Gardens category was exclusively female-designed, and there was a celebration of ‘Women in Horticulture’ installation in the Great Pavilion, featuring wicker planters around a shepherd’s hut, designed by Pollyanna Wilkinson. Designers, scientists, campaigners, plant collectors, journalists and artists were featured, as well as, of course, gardeners, including some of the greatest, whose work – and influence – you can still see.


Today at Beth Chatto Gardens.Photo via Instagram


Beth Chatto (1923–2018) is known for her principle of ‘right plant, right place’. Her naturalistic, wildlife-friendly schemes, for which she won 10 consecutive Gold medals at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, were ground-breaking. One judge apparently said all her plants were weeds and wanted her to be disqualified. And now her influence is everywhere. The Beth Chatto Handbook says: ‘We lost too many plants in our impatience to possess them, because we had not achieved the proper growing conditions.’

Her book The Dry Garden, published in 1978, has never been more relevant as we face increasingly hotter, drier summers and hosepipe bans. Visit Beth Chatto’s garden near Colchester in Essex, and see the dry ‘gravel garden’, unwatered since it was planted in 1992.


Beth Chatto’s ‘The Gravel Garden’


At work nearly a century earlier was Gertrude Jekyll (1843–1932; ‘jeekle’, not ‘jeckle’) worked alongside architect Edwin Lutyens and approached gardening as designing with colour, influenced by the artist JMW Turner. She’s best known for huge herbaceous borders, in colours running from hot to cold and back to hot. Gertrude was the first woman to be awarded the Royal Horticultural Society’s Victoria Medal of Honour – the most prominent of awards for British horticulturalists – introduced in 1897 to mark Queen Victoria’s Jubilee.

Earlier this year the National Trust acquired Munstead Wood, Surrey, Gertrude’s home from the 1890s to 1930s. The 11-acre garden, not yet open to the public, features areas designed to flower in different seasons with a woodland garden that demonstrates her approach to artistic ‘wild gardening’. Andy Jasper, Head of Gardens and Parklands at the National Trust, said: ‘Munstead Wood is not only a rare surviving example of Jekyll’s work…it continues to showcase Jekyll’s signature naturalistic design, her bold use of colour and innovative use of everyday plants. There is no greater example of a classic English garden.’

Gertrude created some 400 gardens in the UK, Europe and America. Five of her gardens are looked after by the National Trust: Lindisfarne Castle, Northumberland; Barrington Court, Somerset; Hatchlands Park, Surrey; Knightshayes, and Castle Drogo, in Devon.

Vita Sackville-West (1892–1962) opened Sissinghurst Castle Garden to the public in 1938, and the admission was one shilling (now from £16). The innovative Formal Garden was designed by her and her husband Harold Nicolson, as a series of rooms. Perhaps the best-known element is the White Garden, featuring only white, green, grey and silver flowers and foliage. In her plans, Vita imagined ‘a low sea of grey clumps of foliage, pierced here and there with tall white flowers’.

As well as colour-block planting, she advised readers of her weekly newspaper column in The Observer not to be too tidy, to tolerate self-seeding and to fill the garden, saying, ‘Cram, cram, cram, every chink and cranny.’ That’s sound advice, because it leaves less room for weeds.



A more modern take on women who garden is Why Women Grow: Stories of Soil, Sisterhood and Survival, by gardening writer Alice Vincent. She sought out the stories of many women who garden, and why, charting her own personal growth along the way. Some of the reasons she discovered are: ‘Women grow to create life and food and beauty…Women grow because sometimes rage can only be mollified by digging until the sweat trickles down their backs… Women grow because in doing so they can make space – sometimes silently, sometimes by stealth – that nobody expects them to occupy. Women grow because it offers them control in a world determined to rid them of it.’

Adrienne Wyper is a health and lifestyle writer and regular TNMA contributor. 


Great Women Gardeners

We’ve compiled a list of 12 great gardening books by women HERE. And the TNMA podcast digs women gardeners, so if you haven’t listened already, there’s an interview with Gardener’s World presenter Arit Anderson HERE and flower farmer Georgie Newbery HERE.


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