first ladies

Amongst the plethora of recent books showcasing gardens one has really stood out for me – First Ladies of Gardening.  Written by Heidi Howcroft with photographs by Marianne Majerus it looks at the gardens of fourteen women gardeners.  Initially Howcroft and Majerus had intended to produce a book on gardens made in the traditional mould by passionate amateurs that they liked and admired.  They soon realised that their short-list consisted almost entirely of gardens created by women and decided to follow this path.

The book includes obvious choices such as Sissinghurst, Kiftsgate, Barnsley House and Beth Chatto’s Garden.  However it also includes some gardens which are less well-known where the gardeners have created stunning gardens often on challenging sites.  We discover Gill Richardson’s Manor Farm in Lincolnshire, Gill is known for breeding Astrantias; Lady Xa Tollemache and Helmingham Hall a moated house with a garden dating back to 1510 and Rosanna James and the hillside garden of Sleight-Holmedale on the North York Moors.

The text puts each garden into context providing some historical background to it and its creator, their approach to gardening and a description of the garden although the essence of each is better conveyed in the photographs.  At the end of each chapter there are the gardener’s guiding principles set out in bullet point form as well as their signature plants.

This book is more than a collection of pretty pictures of gardens and what some people call the vanity shot of the owners.  It is split in two with the old guard in the first half, Pioneers of Design,  and the new guard in the second, New Directions.  We start with Upton Grey Manor a Jekyll garden which has been lovingly restored by Rosamund Wallinger who learnt on the job and then by contrast we have Waterperry where the indefatigable Miss Havergal trained women gardeners.  In the second half we can see how Jekyll, Sackville and Chatto’s legacies have inspired and influenced their successors who in turn have developed and taken their gardens to a new level.  These women are quietly but surely leading the way in planting and garden design creating exuberant and beautiful spaces which are individualistic and demonstrate the highest level of horticultural expertise.

The lady gardeners featured are passionate amateurs, many have learnt as they have gone along and have tackled difficult sites and conditions, which I find inspiring and it encourages me in my own gardening efforts and dreams.   Of the 14 gardens in First Ladies of Gardening there are only one or two which do not appeal to me and I am already making plans to try to visit some of the others.  I especially would like to see Sleight-Holmedale as it is a hillside garden on a much larger scale to mine and looks inspiring. Sissinghurst and Helen Dillon’s gardens are already booked in my diary this summer and I hope to add Upton Grey Manor.

First Ladies of Gardening is a beautiful book as well as being informative and inspiring.

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