Virgins, Weeders and Queens – A History of Women in the Garden – Dr Twigs Way

We were so pleased to be joined by Dr Twigs Way for our April meeting.  Twigs has visited us in Biddenham on many occasions and she is always greeted with great enthusiasm. Twigs is a well known researcher, writer, speaker and consultant in garden history and designed landscapes.  Many of us have enrolled for Twigs’ courses at the Rothsay Education Centre or visited Wrest Park or Cambridge Botanic Gardens where Twigs has been involved with research projects …

Twigs began her talk by stating that history is littered with male garden designers  but we have failed to recognise that there were also many women who gardened.  They were not professional garden designers as this was not a career that was open to them.   However since Medieval and Tudor times the growing of herbs and foodstuffs were the good housewives’ domaine as women were in charge of cooking and medicines within the household.  A Book of Hours  c1550 depicted women working hard in a walled garden plot.  Women gardeners were employed (on lower rates of pay than men) to undertake the small, fiddly tasks in the garden.  In large gardens they were employed as “weeders”.  In private gardens the maids would be taught to weed by their mistresses.  The first book on gardening written specifically for women “The Country Housewives Garden” by William Lawson was published in 1618.  

There was royal interest and influence in gardens and gardening.  Many symbolic gardens were created for Queen Elizabeth 1 as she progressed around England; one of the most notable being at Kenilworth Castle.  In the seventeenth century Queen Mary, a keen plant collector, created a garden at Hampton Court and installed glass houses for her collections.  During the eighteenth century Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha founded the first Botanic Garden collection at Kew. The orangery housed her plant collection from around the world and was at the centre of this nine acre site. Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was an amateur botanist who took lessons from Joseph Banks and helped to expand and develop Kew Gardens.

Elizabeth Blackwell wrote “A Curious Herbal” in the mid eighteenth century.  She was the first woman to produce a herbal and it was aimed at housewives and written in English rather than Latin.  The book included both common and some introduced plants.  In the nineteenth century working class women did the weeding whilst the middle and upper classes avoided physical work in the garden – in part due to the restrictions of their clothes and corsetry – a little light watering or deadheading was all that could be managed.  The end of the nineteenth century saw a rise in lady gardeners and in the 1890-1914 period twenty horticultural colleges for ladies were created.  With the formation of the Women’s Land Army there were somewhere in the region of 23,000 women working in horticulture and the uniform for those women working the land changed to make it more comfortable for them.

At the time of the 1911 Census Gertrude Jekyll was able to describe herself as a Garden Designer.  She designed over 400 gardens but came to garden design later in life having been an artist first.  The same applied to many other women gardeners and designers for example Vita Sackville-West and Margery Fish who had pursued careers as writers before they took up gardening.  Twigs concluded her talk by mentioning Jinny Blom a well known garden designer of today whose planting schemes often include wild flowers that the “weeders” of centuries ago were being paid to pull up.

Many thanks to Twigs for her entertaining and enlightening talk.

More photos:

Please join us next month on Tuesday 17th May when Steffie Shields will elaborate on “Have Garden – Will Travel.”  Details can be found on our website.  The meeting will be open to all members, new members and visitors.   
                                                                                                          Linda Truscott  

New members and visitors are always welcome. 
For more information contact: Linda Truscott on 01234 270747

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