New take on garden rake

Gardening Women: Their stories from 1600 to the present
Catherine Horwood
Virago; £17.99

WE’RE all gardening now – interior designers have been touting the garden as the room outdoors for a few years now and a frugality forced by the poor economy has also sparked a huge growth in gardening. A general trend towards GIY (grow your own) and allotments has also seen a surge in spend on gardening products.

But this book isn’t some film tie-in to cash in on our love of all things green. It reads more as a labour of love by someone who is a master at in-depth research into matters horticultural and historical – indeed author Catherine Horwood is honorary research fellow of the Bedford Centre for the History of Women at Royal Holloway and is about to be a visiting fellow at Yale.

So we can take it that the information here has been meticulously researched. Actually, there is such a wealth of facts on gardening women over the past four centuries that at times it reads more like a postgraduate thesis than a tale of gardening women.

Horwood has also won prizes for her gardens and has gardened professionally for many years. This passion is also abundantly apparent in her book.

She describes how she moved from hating gardening as a child to developing a devotion to it: “Gardening became a shared passion, so that a walk with my mother around either of our gardens inspecting new treasures became almost as important to us as an update on her grandchildren.”

This theme of gardens and plants as almost comparable to children continues through Gardening Women.

One such woman with a ‘foster garden’ was Lady Anne Monson. In the mid-1700s her husband headed off on a two-year round-Europe trip with his brother and uncle, leaving his bride and their two children behind. He returned to find her again in full bloom.

While Charles Hope-Vere may not have been the most attentive of husbands he presumably wasn’t happy with his wife’s fruitfulness as he promptly divorced the heavily pregnant Lady Anne.

He also prosecuted her in the church courts and she was exiled without their two children and the son she bore with her lover – never to see them again.

There’s enough material in this brief biography alone to merit a bodice-ripper. But Horwood swiftly brings the focus back to gardens: “However the parting from her children may have affected her, we do know that she devoted herself to plant collecting and to cultivating friendships with some of the greatest names in the horticultural world.”

It seems all that fresh air and propagating stimulates more than just one’s mind as many of the women featured here enjoyed complex and active sex lives.

Among them was Henrietta St John who was forced into an arranged marriage and who was later banished by her husband after striking up a “platonick” friendship with a young poet.

Vita Sackville-West naturally features, though Horwood obviously focuses more on her gardening legacy than her bisexuality or open marriage.

At times Horwood’s dedication to all things horticultural sets up some unintentionally comic phrasing. Botanical expert Lady Dorothy, daughter of the Earl of Oxford, really only developed her horticultural career after being excluded from court society by Queen Victoria for a youthful indiscretion. The word ‘rake’ should really only have one meaning in a book about gardening so it causes a bit of a double-take when Horwood describes Lady Dorothy’s downfall as arising out of an incident with a rake in the family summer house.

Despite these romantic interludes, gardening is often seen as tame or monotonous – and indeed it must be for anyone who sets aside time every week to clip their hedging into submission or to drag out their electric lawnmower and tackle their 20ft x 30ft patch of grass.

None of the women featured in this book would have recognised such chores as gardening. They travelled widely and corresponded with people in other continents about what seeds and plants were available.

They typically developed gardens covering several acres and imported new species of everything from ferns to aquatic plants. Yet, while the description of their efforts leaves little to be desired, the pictures are often disappointing.

Elaborate flower gardens and extensive, carefully developed grounds are shown in black-and-white sketches measuring only a few inches. Lush tropical plants are also shown in monochrome which often fails to demonstrate why they captivated generations of gardeners.

Otherwise this book is a pleasure for its sheer delight in gardens, gardeners and their efforts.


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