In the past, great gardeners and landscapers that left their mark on the historical record books have been creative men like André Le Nôtre and Lancelot Capability Brown. When you think of those imposing gardens attached to the great houses of yesteryears, they were generally staffed with men and led by a head gardener with a wealth of knowledge and experience. This system unravelled after the heavy loss of lives during the World Wars as there was no longer the manpower to run large gardens and many fell into wreck and ruin.
In spite of a perceived gender imbalance in a professional capacity, there were, albeit more recently, women gardeners who also left their impressive gardening achievements for posterity to appreciate and are remembered fondly for it.
The first of these great woman gardeners was Gertrude Jekyll (1843 – 1932) who, as a Victorian young lady, bucked the trends and studied botany, anatomy, optics and the science of colour. Her horticultural career flourished when she moved home to support her mother after her father died, and started designing an impressive garden to complement her mother’s new home.
She was hugely influenced by the Arts and Craft movement which was based on respect for nature, traditional techniques and a sympathetic connection between the house and garden. She developed a creative partnership with the respected architect Edwin Lutyens and together, they had a long and successful career developing buildings and landscapes together.
Gertrude went on to design over 400 gardens in the UK, Europe, and the United States. She was prolific in sharing her gardening knowledge with 14 books and over a thousand articles published. She also became an avid plant collector, successful breeder, and had an extensive nursery to protect and preserve plants for future generations.
In her day, she was considered a garden design influencer and even today, her style and advice is still relevant, with plants chosen based on how they grow as well as their colour and aesthetic value to create gardens that are both practical and beautiful in their unique landscapes. Her garden at Munstead Wood in Surrey is open to modern day visitors so that they can be appreciated by all.
Vita Sackville-West (1892 – 1962) was an English author and garden designer who had an unconventional upbringing and somewhat scandalous romantic life. She married Harold Nicolson and eventually made the rundown Sissinghurst Castle their home. Although she was primarily a prolific writer, the way they approached the garden at Sissinghurst created a lasting influential impression that is still appreciated today.
Without any formal garden training, Vita was able to instinctively put plants together that worked in a wild and carefree way and Harold’s desire for more classical formal lines complemented Vita’s style.
The garden is made up of many garden ‘rooms’, each with their own unique style and theme. The garden rooms became interwoven with the ‘house’ as it connected various outbuildings and the indoors and outdoors were considered living spaces. The garden was eventually opened up to the public and Vita turned her hand to garden writing and the garden is still open to visitors and is considered among the most influential gardens in the UK.
Ruth Stout (1884 – 1980) was born and raised a Quaker in Kansas, USA and had a rebellious youth. However, on her marriage, the couple moved to a 55-acre farm, and she began gardening. Finding traditional gardening labour intensive and at the mercy of others to do the ploughing and hard work, she decided to do things differently. She was an eccentric character who was said to often garden in the nude and came up with a system inspired by God where in nature the earth was repeatedly covered in leaves and plants grew well. So, a new plot of land was deeply mulched with straw and other compostable materials, which resulted in a lovely rich fertile soil. It took some time to gain traction but eventually it became known as The Stout System, which she wrote about in her "No-Work" gardening books. She was a pioneer of the now popular ‘no dig’ gardening style.
Beth Chatto (1923 – 2018) only recently died, however her contribution to the gardening world was outstanding with her philosophy of ‘Right Plant, Right Place.’ She started her career with a love of plants and with one of her friends established one of the early flower arranging clubs in the UK. This quickly grew into a nursery and mail order plant business. The family land was far from ideal for the traditional gardening style with areas of ‘too dry’, ‘too wet’, ‘too shady’, ‘too sunny’ and too much clay and too much gravel to name a few of her problems. There were many challenges to creating the perfect English garden.
Rising to the challenge, she turned each problem area into a stunningly successful garden by putting plants in places where they would thrive in the conditions rather than forcing them to conform outside of their natural growth habit. It seems like quite a logical approach, however, at the time, the concept was completely overlooked in the pursuit of the perfect English garden. She was well respected for the knowledge she shared and was awarded an OBE in 2002. Beth’s garden is open to visitors in Essex, England.
These days gardening certainly isn’t seen as a solely male domain and is just as popular with everyone. Who you are is no longer a barrier to success in a rewarding career in horticulture, and if you just want to create an oasis in your own backyard, then you can, as countless generations have before you. There is still plenty of opportunity to combine your creativity with a love of gardening to become an innovative influencer in the gardening world.