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In praise of women gardeners

PUBLISHED: 15:00 26 March 2015

Sue Whittington. MMGI / Marianne Majerus

Sue Whittington. MMGI / Marianne Majerus

Marianne Majerus Garden Images

Ruth Pavey looks at a new book which celebrates the plots of passionate amateur female gardeners.

A beautifully illustrated book about gardens made by women is a collaboration between author Heidi Howcroft, and photographer, Marianne Majerus.

In their foreword to First Ladies of Gardening, they say the idea was to celebrate English gardens that they liked, “made in the traditional mode by passionate amateurs”.

Only when they started compiling a list did it emerge that most of their choices were the work of women. Among the fourteen included, all by women, there is a distinct bias towards big flower-filled country gardens, designed to looked effortless but actually requiring labours of love.

With only two urban examples, Highgate can feel reflected glory. Sue Whittington’s garden at Southwood Lodge has long been a favourite among National Garden Scheme (NGS) visitors, and now here it is under the title A Country Garden in London. Not that Sue is quite comfortable with being called a First Lady, in company with Gertrude Jekyll and Vita Sackville-West, but her work is indeed special, and sits well with the others.

At 1/3 acre, Sue’s is one of the smaller gardens in the book, but Majerus’s pictures capture the spacious feeling the visitor experiences when walking round the corner of the house to find the generous terrace, alive with flowers, with the arched beech hedge leading the eye to a sculpture in one direction, or further round, the sloping, plant-filled woodland garden with its stream and pool or, on the far side of the house, the lovely greenhouse.

At the end of each chapter are Guiding Principles, in which each gardener expresses, in bullet point form, some ideas. One of Sue’s is Accept the hand of fate and embrace new opportunities, a precept she herself is in the course of following with a big conifer that had become dangerous in the winter winds of 2013/14. She had to have most of it cut down in haste, but now, at leisure, has been able to choose a sculptor to carve the remaining trunks into something interesting (and abstract …“not Squirrel Nutkin”). With luck, this work will be complete by the time the garden opens through the NGS on Sunday 26th April.

As to the other First Ladies, some are dead but their gardens live on (Beatrix Havergal, Margery Fish, Rosemary Verey) but most are very much alive. In the case of Jekyll, who died in 1932 and has not been particularly lucky in the preservation of the gardens she designed, Rosamund Wallinger is a sort of First Lady Mark II, in that she has done an amazing job of restoring the gardens of Upton Grey Manor, in Hampshire, which Jekyll had designed from 1908-9.

The end papers show the beautiful work of Rosanna James in the garden of Sleightholmedale Lodge in North Yorkshire – spreading under the branches of an old tree (a beech?) is a wave of blue meconopsis poppies, cow parsley, columbines, bluebells, red campion, alliums, all growing so thick and natural it seems no weed nor snail could ever gain a foothold, and the gardener need do nothing. What an illusion that is … these women with their naturalistic gardens are pulling off a great trick, one of the hardest to play in all horticulture.

First Ladies of Gardening, Pioneers, Designers and Dreamers. Frances Lincoln, £20.00


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