Women Gardeners – Book review

The Virago Book of Women Gardeners

edited by Deborah Kellaway

I found Women Gardeners, written in 1995, in a used book store in Seattle. I bought it simply because I am interested in the female viewpoint of pretty much anything, but definitely areas I am interested in like gardening.   I’ve been sporadically interested in the way women have influenced garden design in both the US and England, although I haven’t done a huge amount of research on the issue.  Historically, it seems to me that many of the well known women designers  were wealthy women who also had supportive husbands encouraging their work in the garden.  It does seem that changed in England around of the turn of the last century and women did start to become more influential in the gardening world because of their abilities and not just their place in society or the name of their husband.  Gertrude Jeykell, Rosemary Verey, Beth Chatto are three names that come to mind.

This book however, is not a history of women gardeners.  In fact, it isn’t even a story or narrative of any kind.  It is a compilation of quotes from women gardeners, many of whom are famous but I believe some are not very well known.  The quotes are organized by subjects such as Flower arrangers, Colourists, Plants women, Visitors and Travelers, and Visionaries to name a few.  

The problem with this organization however is that its hard to sit down and read the book from start to finish.  It scream out for you to skip around and perhaps even best it allows you to simply read a few of the entries and then put the book down to reflect on those entries.  And yes, it is a great bathroom book as you can find inspiration on literally any page of the book in a short minute or two of reading.

The whole garden is singing this hymn of praise and thankfulness… It was pleasant to wake from time to time and hear the welcome sound, and to know that the clogged leaves were being washed clean and that their pores were once more drawing in the breath of life, and that their thirsty roots were drinking their fill.  Gertrude Jekyll, 1900.

And I have found great inspiration in this book.  Even the section on floral arranging, which I initially skipped as too domestic, had great entries on color as well as practical comments on how to keep the water filled in your floral arrangements.  I also found that many of the ideas that appear today to be modern concepts, really have been around for a long time under different names or no name at all.  Permaculture concepts are a good example. 

I like that the editor didn’t just use snippets of letters, but often allowed multiple pages of an entry to completely express what the author wanted to say.  I found the section on weeding to be particularly interesting in reading the very practical views of women and weeds… the best times to pull, using children to help, types of weeds they hated.  But also finding a more philosophical view:

Weeds have a peculiar fascination for us.  They are endlessly interesting, like an enemy who occupies our thoughts and schemes so much more than any friend and who (though we would never admit it) we should miss if he suddenly moved away. Ursula Buchan, 1987.

Many of the entries are from the early 1900’s but some are modern.  And it does appear that they are almost all English women.  I enjoyed the language used by these women.  Often formal but also very real.  In one entry from 1919 by Margaret, the Crown Princess of Sweden, she comments that one persons garden needed a little more nature in it and a little less “Master Gardening”.

This book is full of inspiration, not only for what to do in the garden but how to be and think in the garden.  Its often a reflection on why we do gardening and encouragement in the process even when its as mundane as weeding.   I’ve picked this book up multiple times when I needed that extra drive to get out in the garden and do something different.  Not many garden books can do that time after time.

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