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A celebration of influential women in horticulture, for International Women’s Day

Updated: Jul 1, 2020

For over a century, International Women’s Day has celebrated the achievements of women across the globe, seeking to raise awareness of gender equality. The awareness day looks at how we can challenge stereotypes - something that women gardeners and horticulturists have been doing for hundreds of years.

From grandmothers teaching their grandchildren the importance of home-grown produce, to the pioneering female horticulturists who challenged the institution of the RHS, women have been instrumental in transforming the landscape around us. In celebration of this, here’s our take on influential women in our industry.

A hobby in botany and plant collecting

Women have been making valuable contributions to horticulture for centuries. As early as the 1700s, when gardening and horticulture was very much ‘hobby’ territory for women, wealthy ladies who had the means to travel, collected plant specimens, documented new species and contributed to research.

Lady Anne Monson was an early English botanist and collector of plants and insects who aided eminent published botanists in the 18th century. However, she was never published in her own right.

Not until much later, in the mid-to-late 1800s, did we see the work of female horticulturists in print. Having turned the estate garden at her large Sussex property, 'Dangstein' near Petersfield, into a horticultural landmark, with seventeen conservatories housing her exotic plants, Lady Dorothy Nevill was featured in numerous articles in journals on horticulture.

Early garden design

While many of the country’s aristocratic women were able to apply their influence in their own gardens, Gertrude Jekyll (1843 – 1932) used her artistic skills and training to create over 400 gardens in the United Kingdom, Europe and the United States. In later years, Jekyll contributed to the preservation of plants by providing specimens to institutions across Britain.

Professional horticulturists and landscape designers

Trying to enter the heavily male environment on a professional basis took some perseverance. Although Kew Gardens employed women gardeners from 1896 on equal pay, it wasn’t so everywhere.

According to the RHS archive, in 1898 Olive Harrisson competed for a sought-after scholarship at the original RHS garden in Chiswick. Achieving higher results than her male counterparts she should have qualified but was denied the opportunity on account of RHS regulations making it a male-only institution. Undeterred, Olive was able to train at a college that did accept women – Swanley Horticultural College – and went on to work as a professional gardener.

Now, women are integral to the RHS. Elected as the society’s first female president in 2010, Elizabeth Banks, a landscape architect specialising in the restoration of historic landscapes, was also the first professional horticulturist to hold the post since its foundation in 1804.

When current RHS President, Sir Nicholas Bacon, took over from Banks in 2013 he recognised that Banks, together with current RHS Director General, Sue Biggs CBE, was instrumental in instigating changes to modernise the society, saying:

“An institution conceived in a smoke-filled room in the 19th century needs to evolve in order to prosper. The combination of Sue Biggs (Director General) and Elizabeth Banks viewed the RHS as having rested on its past successes for too long with the inevitable result that a vision for the future had never really been formulated. Any change, particularly with catch-up, is challenging to deliver and requires a single-minded approach, which Elizabeth and Sue demonstrated in speeding up the change required to make the RHS the leading horticultural charity, both nationally and internationally.”

Gardening in the media

We’re used to seeing and hearing from a variety of gardening experts on the television and radio these days with BBC shows like Gardeners’ World and Gardeners’ Question Time presented by both men and women, but it was the best part of 50 years after gardening was first covered on the radio, in 1931, before women horticulturists contributed to broadcasts.

In 1982, freelance garden designer and contractor, Daphne Ledward joined the panel on Gardeners’ Question Time, having started her broadcasting career on BBC Radio Lincolnshire just two years earlier. The current panel features four well-respected authorities on gardening: botanist and plant pathologist, Pippa Greenwood, chartered landscape architect, journalist and Chelsea Flower Show gold award-winner Bunny Guinness, horticulturist and writer, Anne Swithinbank and horticulturist, lecturer and writer, Christine Walkden.

The influence of social media

And now there’s a new wave of female gardeners helping make gardening ‘cool’ via blog posts, podcasts and social media. Often linking the subject to wellbeing, these influencers are bringing a passion for gardening to a new generation.

Ellen Mary, pictured right, featured in ‘Grow your own’ magazine’s article ‘5 Influential Women in The World of Horticulture,’ having co-hosted the podcast ‘The Plant Based Podcast’ and developed and presented the first completely live horticultural show, broadcast on YouTube and Facebook.

Ellen has 15.5K followers on Instagram, has appeared on BBC Countryfile and is the Horticultural Coordinator for the Royal Norfolk Show, claiming to ‘live and breathe gardening’ on her website. Via her broadcasts and ‘No Fear Gardening’ events she is challenging the perception of gardening and gardeners, believing that gardening and a connection with nature is essential for the future of the climate and our mental health.

What next?

There is still some work to be done to achieve the gender equality that the International Women’s Day calls for with its #EachforEqual campaign.

For instance, of the 700 National Trust gardening staff and apprentices, there are “almost as many women gardeners as men” according to their training specialist, Kate Nicoll.

And only five years ago, the RHS was calling for more female gardeners to come forward to showcase their talents, saying that just one third of the Chelsea Flower Show’s top designers were women which they attributed to a possible lack of confidence in their own abilities.

Perhaps those coming through the ranks can take inspiration from Sarah Eberle. With 17 golds, Sarah is RHS Chelsea’s ‘most decorated designer’ and still the only female garden designer to have won ‘Best in Show’ back in 2007. In a recent interview for Horticulture Week, Sarah expressed a sadness about the lack of female gardeners at the ‘top level’ putting it down to the time commitment required for developing a show garden – which is often a challenge for women with family responsibilities.

However, it seems fair to say that the pioneers of the 18th and 19th centuries opened up the horticultural world to generations of women, whether as a fulfilling career or a rewarding past-time.

Author: Hannah McGouran, Rolawn 

As Rolawn’s resident Copy and Digital Content Creator Hannah draws on her degree in Linguistics and Social Sciences, many years of marketing experience and a love of gardening, to make the world of turf, topsoil, barks and mulches accessible to the masses.


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