Words by Laura Bayliss
In honour of International Women’s Day, we’re going on a trip back in time, dropping in on six brilliant plantswomen who have taken on the male-dominated plant world over the past 200 years. From illustrators to garden designers, Michelle Obama to a modern-day revolutionary, these very different women are all green-fingered rebels, standing up when they were told to sit down and celebrating plants while they did it.
Gertrude Jekyll, 1843-1932
No shrinking violet and well known for her pioneering work as a garden designer, Gertrude Jekyll was big on colourful planting and rocked the botany boat by bringing an artistic flair to her horticultural creations of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. With architect Edwin Lutyens, she also established herself as one half of the Arts and Crafts movement’s most influential duos. Taking her cues from the artworld, multi-hyphenate Gertrude was inspired by how we really experience gardens, which led to lots of experimental planting exploring texture and colour. As prolific as she was ground-breaking, Gertrude wrote more than 15 books and 1,000 articles, designed over 400 gardens in the UK, Europe and America, and cultivated countless plants for preservation. In 1897 Gertrude was awarded the Victoria Medal of Honour of the RHS. As an aside, her brother was pals with Robert Louis Stevenson, so it’s possible that’s how the Jekyll name found its way into his Gothic horror story.
Edith Helen Vane-Tempest-Stewart, Marchioness of Londonderry, DBE, 1878-1959
Once you’ve recovered from saying her name, know that Edith was a woman of the people and a true twentieth century radical. Yes, she was a frequent flyer of high society but she was also friends with Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald and a fierce supporter of the women’s suffragette movement. This was a woman not to be messed with. During WW1 she held the title Colonel-in-Chief of the Women’s Volunteer Reserve Movement, a workforce of women assembled to take the spots of the men who had gone to war. In 1915, through inheritance, she assumed the title of Marchioness, became the owner of several large houses and set about designing bold and inventive gardens for them, reflecting her personality. The gardens at the Londonderry family estate were thought so impressive that they have been recommended for UNESCO World Heritage status.
Mary Rose Spiller, 1924-2019
Breaking new ground, Mary was the first female presenter on Gardeners’ World – unbelievably only in 2014. Women had appeared on the show before, but Mary was the first to actually present – showing that women can indeed reliably talk about plants and look into a camera at the same time. A teacher and horticulturist, Mary was particularly interested in sharing the work of fellow female horticulturists. In WW2 she wanted to work at the Women’s Land Army but her dad wasn’t keen on the idea, so sent her to Waterperry School of Horticulture, where she was taught by another pioneering female gardener, Beatrix Havergal – who set up her School of Horticulture for Ladies in 1932. Mary worked at the Waterperry Gardens from 1975 until 1990. Along the way, she wrote two excellently titled books Growing Fruit (to the point), and Weeds: Search and Destroy. She was awarded the RHA Associateship of Honour in 2008.
Liz Christy, 1950–1985
In 1970s New York, the Green Guerillas – a group of community activists who are still going strong today – wanted to reclaim the vacant plots and run-down sites they saw across their City. They threw seed bombs, planted sunflowers, and put up window boxes on abandoned buildings. To the Green Guerillas, any space had the potential to be a garden. In 1974, Liz Christy opened the first community garden – the Bowery Houston Community Farm and Garden – paying $1 per month rental to the City of New York. Sixty raised beds were planted with vegetables; trees and hedging came next, and the following year it won its first Mollie Parnis Dress Up Your Garden Award. News spread and soon the Green Guerillas were advising how people could do similar things across all five New York boroughs, and then helped other cities do the same. They ran workshops, learned which plants would thrive in derelict ground and held plant giveaways. Liz Christy hosted a Grow Your Own radio programme and worked as Director of the Open Space Greening Programme, until her untimely death at the age of 35. The original garden was renamed the Liz Christy’s Bowery-Houston Garden in 1986 and is now protected from redevelopment, coming under the New York City Parks Department. It has a pond with fish and turtles, wildflowers, fruit trees, veg gardens and a resident woodpecker. Today hundreds of community gardens thrive across the city, growing food, connecting urban young people and their families with nature and giving everyone a bit of green space to breathe. www.greenguerillas.org
Michelle Obama, as First Lady 2009-2017
As if we could love her any more, Michelle restarted the tradition of growing fruit and veg at the White House – but she did it bigger than ever before and right in the middle of the South Lawn. It provided copious amounts of produce: some went into the White House menus, but much of it went to the local soup kitchen and food bank. She also installed a beehive. Motivated by her wider concern about childhood nutrition, Michelle wanted to get more fruit and veg into her own family’s diet and at the same time encourage all Americans to make better food choices. Not afraid to get her hands dirty, the First Lady, along with a group of fifth graders, dug, planted and harvested the garden, which soon became a symbol of healthy change, leading to a review of school lunches and influencing other health policies.
Amber Tamm, NOW!
Based in New York, Amber is on a mission to shake up farming. She wants to enlighten everyone about how the systems of farming that exist today, which are based on historical practices, have created an unequal and unjust structure for young, black farmers like herself. Seeing the positive impact that connecting with the land can have on minority and underprivileged children, but frustrated that there’s nowhere for them to take that passion, Amber wants to change the current farming systems, moving them away from land ownership and towards a more collaborative model. Amber is a true twenty-first century visionary. You can find out more about Amber’s work and support her cause here: @ambertamm
Header image - Matilda Browne, In The Garden, 1915. Private collection. Photo via the-athenaeum.org.