First Ladies of Gardening

This has been one of the most delightful and enjoyable books I have read in quite a while. Marianne Majerus’ photographs are immediately captivating and this lead to my having to wait until my wife had read the book before I could have the pleasure. It was worth the wait and if you too wish to read of wonderful gardens and gardeners then I highly recommend this book.

Fourteen gardeners are interviewed, fourteen gardens displayed, and each is given a substantial entry, sufficient to give us far more than a glimpse over the garden wall – rather the gate is opened to us and we are welcomed to view the gardens and chat with the gardeners and the tone of each chapter is such that it is obvious that the gardeners were generous with their time and their information so we gain valuable insights into their gardens. Marianne Majerus’ photographs could stand alone as garden essays but their marriage with the wonderful text makes a perfect combination where one compliments and illuminates the other.

The book is divided into two sections with eight gardens reviewed in “Pioneers of Design” and the remaining six in “New Directions”, the first obvious from its title and the latter for those who have done something new and different with their plots. Overall, this is an unimportant distinction as all entries are so interesting, enjoyable and inspiring. Were I to suggest an overall unifying theme for the gardens it is that each of these gardeners show two fundamental qualities needed to create a good garden – a thorough and comprehensive knowledge of plants and a realisation that this must be matched by hard work.

Gertrude Jekyll’s work is celebrated in the restoration of Upton Grey Manor by Rosamund Wallinger – her own book on this garden is an excellent read, by the way –  as is Vita Sackville West’s at Sissinghurst, Marjorie Fish’s at East Lambrook Manor,  Rosemary Verey’s at Barnsley House, Anne Chambers’ at Kiftsgate Court and also the creations of Beth Chatto and Mary Keen while the contribution of Beatrix Havergal at Waterperry Horticultural School to the making of so many outstanding lady gardeners is warmly documented.

Moving in new directions could refer to the restoration of an ancient garden, the recreation of an established garden or the creation of a new garden in challenging conditions. Gill Richardson’s garden at Manor Farm is in the latter category – Gill’s name will be known from her breeding of Astrantias and her memory will remain fondly in my garden as she kindly sent me a very difficult to source Irish snowdrop which I had failed to find anywhere else. Lady Xa Tollemache’s work on the gardens of 16th Century Helmingham Hall is featured. Rachel James has created a wonderful garden at the seaside while Rosanne James gardens on a sharp country hillside. Sue Whittington has created a country garden in the city while our own special favourite, Helen Dillon, continues to be innovative and creative in an already fabulous garden.

Each entry has a final page listing the “Guiding Principles” and “Signature Plants” of the garden along with a final quotation from each gardener. We all know of Helen Dillon’s wonderful knowledge and flair with plants but she has always been a hands-on and practical gardener. When asked “How do you get rid of weeds?” she replied, “I pick them up between finger and thumb and put them in a bucket.”

This book is a beautiful celebration of 14 wonderful lady gardeners, ladies who have contributed so very much to our joy of gardening, and it is a delight to enjoy them in this book. A great read and a great treat for the eyes!

[First Ladies of Gardening by Heidi Howcroft with photography by Marianne Majerus, Frances Lincoln, 2015, HB, 176 pages, £20, ISBN: 9-780-7112-3643-1]

Paddy Tobin

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