The women who made gardening what it is today – and why they don’t get more recognition

Illustration of women gardening. Getty images

Ask a person in the street to name a famous gardener and you’ll probably hear Monty Don, Alan Titchmarsh or Geoff Hamilton. Ask the same person to name a famous historic gardener and you’ll likely hear Capability Brown. But the truth is that women are and always have been the greatest gardeners. Well, that’s what I think at least. It was my grandmothers and mother who taught me to garden and I chose to have an all-female planting team when I created my garden at RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 2016. So why don’t women get the recognition they deserve both historically and today?

Nick's 2016 'The Winton Beauty of Mathematics Garden' had an all-female planting team
Nick’s 2016 ‘The Winton Beauty of Mathematics Garden’ had an all-female planting team

True, we now have more female designers at Chelsea Flower Show than ever before, the likes of Carol Klein and the late, great Beth Chatto are household names, and the current and previous Director Generals of the RHS are both women. But both historically and today it’s the men in horticulture who seem to have the biggest profiles. Maybe it’s sexism, maybe to quote Carol Klein, there is a ‘grass ceiling’ in horticulture?

The late Beth Chatto is one of the biggest names in horticulture
The late Beth Chatto is one of the biggest names in horticulture

Women have led the way as plant breeders, plant hunters, botanists, educators, designers and botanic artists for the last 500 years.

I also think it goes unacknowledged that women are the primary horticultural consumers – women make up around 60 per cent of the Gardeners’ World audience, across TV, magazine and podcast. And so much of horticulture today is a result of a series of extraordinary women through the ages. And I don’t mean just hands-on female gardeners. Women have led the way as plant breeders, plant hunters, botanists, educators, designers and botanic artists for the last 500 years.

Let’s take a look back

Gertrude Jekyll at Deanery Garden, Sonning, Berkshire, c1901. Getty images.
Gertrude Jekyll at Deanery Garden, Sonning, Berkshire, c1901. Getty images.

Famed Edwardian garden designer Gertrude Jekyll might be the poster child for historic women in horticulture but many came before her. Arguably the female healers of the past (often labelled as witches and persecuted by fearful men) were among the earliest gardeners and foragers. It’s these women, although widely unacknowledged, who are responsible for much of the medicine that we rely on today.

Jeanne Baret was part of the expedition that discovered bougainvillea
Jeanne Baret was part of the expedition that discovered bougainvillea

Skipping slightly further forward in history I’d like to introduce you to the extraordinary Jeanne Baret (1740 -1807). She was the first woman to circumnavigate the globe, working as a naturalist on an expedition ship. Of course, back then women were not allowed on ships, but she managed to go undetected for two years disguised as a man during which time she collected over 6,000 plant specimens and discovered bougainvillea.

Relatively hot on her heels was Marianne North who lapped the globe several times over in the mid-1800s producing stunning (and accurate) botanical paintings which now reside in the North Gallery at Kew Gardens. And it’s not just relatively wealthy European women who’ve changed horticulture. Indian plant breeder extraordinaire Janaki Anmal (1897-1984) bred what is still to this day the sweetest, highest-yielding sugar cane on the planet. Thanks Janaki – though I’m not sure my teeth agree!

An engraving depicting Marianne North painting flowers in South Africa, 1883. Getty images.
An engraving depicting Marianne North painting flowers in South Africa, 1883. Getty images.

The list of hugely influential female garden types is beyond what I can cover here but let’s not forget Octavia Hill, founder of the National Trust, Lady Eve Balfour, founder of the Soil Association, and Sylvia Crow – one of the earliest chairs of the Institute of Landscape Architects. Ohh, and did I mention Fanny Rollo Wilkinson? In the late 1800s she secured a place at the ‘men only’ School of Landscape Architecture in Crystal Place and went on to design a mind-blowing 75 public parks and gardens in London. Or Beatrix Havergal who set up the famed (female-only) Waterperry School of Horticulture in 1932.

And only a few years back I was lucky enough to interview the female scientist whose life’s work is currently culminating in the safe eradication (through the introduction of a fungal pathogen) of the himalayan balsam which blights UK waterways, landscapes and train tracks.

Gardeners pruning pear cordons at the Waterperry School of Horticulture. Getty images.
Gardeners pruning pear cordons at the Waterperry School of Horticulture. Getty images.

Women are, have been and always will be central to horticulture. I think it more than time their extraordinary efforts are acknowledged. I’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to amazing women in horticulture. Who are the horticultural heroines past and present that would make it to your list?

Get in touch:

Want to share your views on why women have historically been overlooked in horticulture? Or is there an important historical figure who inspired you to start gardening? Email us your thoughts at: letters@gardenersworld.com

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