Women of Horticulture
By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
Held back by societal pressures over the centuries until really the most recent, and still oppressed in many cultures, women have had little opportunity to excel in most fields, including horticulture. A few, however, do stand out in a field dominated by men.
One of the first of note was Jane Wells Loudon, born Jane Webb (1807-1858). A writer of poetry and books for children, her first significant work, The Mummy, took a look at the civilization of the 22nd century, complete with steam-powered ploughs and air conditioning. This was written in 1827. This work brought her into acquaintance with then famous landscape gardener and architect John Loudon, whom she soon married.
She spent the rest of her career visiting gardens with her husband and writing 19 books on gardening, natural history, and botany. She was one of the first, at this beginning of the Victorian period, to write books for women on gardening. They had such titles as Gardening for Ladies (1827) and the Ladies Companion to the Flower Garden (1841). In these, Loudon wrote to an audience with little or no knowledge of science and practical gardening, beginning with the basics of botany as then known, in lay terms.
Following in this Victorian period is a well-known female horticulturist, and the person considered as having the most influence on 20th century gardening in the U.S. and England. Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) began her training as an artist. With failing eyesight in her forties, she turned to gardening and photography, creating as a result an impressionistic style of garden.
In the past decade or so, perhaps concurrently with the renewed interest in herbaceous perennials and borders, she has regained popularity. Although she didn't invent the herbaceous border, she perfected it much as we see in gardens today. Her influence is seen on many famous subsequent landscape designers and their gardens. She collaborated with the famous English architect Edwin Lutyens, as well as the famous landscape designer and publisher William Robinson.
Her writings also have regained popularity, and some have been reissued. She wrote ten books including Wood and Garden, Home and Garden, and Colour in the Garden. In addition to these books, she edited the weekly magazine, The Garden, and wrote more than 1,000 articles for various magazines.
Meanwhile, in America, the first woman botanist of note was Jane Colden. By the time she was only 34 years old, in 1758, she had described over 400 plants using the "new" Linnaean methods.
Although the Victorian period saw an increasing number of women authors in this country, as well as in England, the next really noteworthy woman of American horticulture was perhaps Beatrix Jones Farrand (1872-1959).
A landscape architect and admirer of Jekyll, Farrand was a consultant and designer of over 200 projects. Being from an established New York family, many of her projects stemmed from her connections. They included gardens for the Rockefellers, the Morgans, The White House, and the New York Botanical Garden, and also universities such as Yale and Princeton. She was a founding member of the American Society of Landscape Architects, and the first women charter member, elected at an age of only 27.
The 20th century has seen many more women than space here permits to mention. Louise Beebe Wilder, for instance, wrote famous books in the second and third decades on rock gardening. Another woman definitely worth noting is the English garden designer Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962).
Anyone taking a tour of English gardens, or reading a book on them, will invariably run across Sissinghurst Castle Gardens in Kent. Although Sackville-West designed many other private gardens in England, this is perhaps her most famous. In it she used walls and hedges, in a geometric pattern, to define distinct garden spaces or rooms. Many have separate color themes, the most famous being the white garden. In such gardens the influence on her by Jekyll is evident.
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