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Book Review: First Ladies of Gardening

First Ladies coverHeidi Howcroft First Ladies of Gardening (Frances Lincoln, 2015) £20

I’m not quite sure what to make of this book.  It looks good and handles well. It's intelligent and well-written, and has plenty of good illustrations, but as with so many contemporary gardening books the glamour factor covers up the fact that sadly it’s a bit short on depth and purpose. To be fair First Ladies doesn’t claim to be a comprehensive account of women and the modern garden, instead it is an account of just 14 gardens and their women garden makers, 8 from the mid and late 20th century and 6 ‘contemporary’.

The short foreword explains the selection of gardens included. The authors’ initial idea was to choose gardens that were personal [not designer] creations and which focused on plants and plantsmanship rather than instant appeal. Having discovered that most of the gardens they shortlisted for inclusion were created by women, this seems to then have become a convenient new rationale for the book.

The result, however, isn’t a book to read from cover to cover, and certainly not at one sitting.  Instead it is effectively a collection of garden and gardening portraits bound together between the same covers, like a compendium of some more of the more worthwhile articles in Gardens Illustrated.  As in such pieces after the article each gardener has offered a short [and usually rather bland] list of their guiding principles and signature plants.

For the ‘famous’ women gardeners included, such as Vita Sackville-West or Beatrix Havergal, the relevant chapter might serve as a stepping stone to read more lengthy studies. For the less well-known, such as Rachel James or Sue Whittington, it might act as a spur to visit their gardens. That’s its strength – it can be dipped into, enjoyed and appreciated without being overheavy or longwinded– but that’s its weakness too.  It is basically just a series of  articles put together in book form and unfortunately doesn’t have much sense of  ‘roundedness’ or more purposeful cohesion. 

Although its obviously a very different kind of book to Catherine Horwood’s Gardening Women, [and I’m not suggesting for one minute it should have been more like it] what First Ladies  doesn’t do is go beyond the individual. It does not try to explain if, how and why gender plays a role in creating gardens, especially in the quintessentially English style the authors purport to cover. At the end of it I’m not sure if women predominated in this kind of garden making, and if they did, what processes, creative instincts, or features mark them out from men?  Without such a discussion it’s tempting to ask what’s the point of the book? After all would Frances Lincoln have published an equivalent First Gentlemen of Gardening?

So while First Ladies is a pleasant way to discover more about some gardens and gardeners you might not know very well, it would  benefit from a longer explanatory introduction, and even more from an afterward which drew together the key elements that the authors identified in their chosen group of women, and that made them great gardeners and their gardens places worthy of pilgrimage.

David Marsh

21st Feb 2015