Famous Women Gardeners

Famous Women Gardeners
By Gay Klok



You may have heard of the first two but not have heard of the last two ladies. During the next weeks we will learn how these five women had an enormous influence on our modern-day gardens and I hope to open to you, with discussions and suggested readings, their fascinating gardening world and interesting lives.

These women had many things in common, though they lived and gardened in different geographical areas. They were all passionate about gardening, they lived mostly in the same period of time and they designed and planted other people’s gardens, creating a soft and romantic style. Perhaps we could say they planted with a strongly feminine style.

When we examine their personalities, we might remark they presented a masculine presence – the way they dressed, the physical garden labour they undertook and their strong belief in equality of the sexes. Although there are these shared characteristics, we will discover they all led quite different private lives!

The women gardeners were most prolific in their writing and publishing of books and articles. They were pioneers in women being able to enter the world of professional landscaping gardeners. Prior to the 20th Century, in the 19th Century, ladies stayed at home and wrote their delightful garden books – I enjoy reading them very much. But a big change took place in the 20th Century and we owe a great deal to these ladies who presented, to the home gardeners, fresh ideas and gardening advice.

Through reading the books of these wonderful gardeners, we will learn of not only their thoughts regards gardening and their love of certain plants but the influences that changed their lives and style of living.

Gardening is a peaceful and yet exciting endeavour enjoyed by millions through out the world. Pioneer writers and gardeners changed the philosophy and style of modern day gardening which is becoming the most popular pastime throughout the world. Will this be revolutionary enough to make the world a safe and environmentally clean home for all of mankind?

Tasmania is the island state of Australia where I live and garden. It was also the home of another unique lady gardener. Kitty Henry was my garden Guru and I have written an article about Kitty in Suite 101.com. You may like to read this before joining us in exploring the lives of these other , just as interesting, but more famous women gardeners and where we will venture when you take part in this course.

Kitty Henry a gardener and florist of outstanding talent who loved deep, red roses and lilies that flourished in her wild and wonderful garden.

Lesson 1: GERTRUDE JEKYLL, the first of our lady gardeners

Miss Jekyll is the first woman gardener of the four we will study. Her wonderful style and new philosophies towards garden creation began in the 19th Century and have lasted until the present day.

First experimented in the family garden in Wargrave, Berkshire.

We learn of her attendance at the School of Art at South Kensington and her blossoming as an artist in that exciting period.

Miss Jekyll created her second garden at Munstead House. It became obvious during this period that her greatest interest in life was going to be in horticulture.

The woodland gardens she landscaped started to draw the interest of horticulturists such as William Robinson. This lead to her first printed articles.

“Gardener’s Testament” was written but not compiled until after her death. In 1897 she moved to Munstead Wood, designed by Edwin Luytens. We will discuss this long relationship.

Born 1843 – died 1932

“It is no use asking me or anyone else how to dig …
Better to go and watch a man digging, and then take a spade and try to do it.”
Gertrude Jekyll, c.1896

I am going to call our gardeners by their first name but after looking at her photos, I do not think I should shorten Miss Jekyll’s Christian name to Gert! I feel the lady is quite prim. I have some large graphics at the end of the article. I hope you can read the text as they are downloading


Gertrude had a typical Victorian upbringing, living most of her life with her four brothers and one very much older sister, in a large rented home in Surrey. She showed a good intellect at an early age, making her own little garden when eight years old and spent many hours roaming alone in the surrounding countryside. She became very accomplished in the pursuits of a well bought up Victorian girl, excelling in embroidery, piano-playing and painting in water colours. After all, these hobbies could be done at night when the light had left the gardens of the Surrey woods.

How did this lady become the gardener that was to change attitudes to garden landscaping? The effect of her new garden philosophy is still evident in our gardens, large and small, throughout the world, even now in the twenty-first century.

The first “conditioning” of Gertrude’s life came about in 1861. She enrolled in the School of Art at South Kensington, surely a brave move for a young girl of eighteen, brought up in a lonely life and in the secluded atmosphere of country Surrey. Her father was a keen scientist and both he and mother were accomplished musicians, who could count among their friends many of the leaders of the arts and science movements, innovators like William Morris, John Ruskin, George Watts and Michael Faraday. Through her parents’s friends, and particularly through Sir Charles Newton, Keeper of Antiquities in the British Museum and his artist wife Mary, Gertrude’s world was expanded and she joined intellectual and artistic circles very naturally.

Exciting changes were happening in the last decades of the 19th century. England was experiencing enormous growth brought about by industry and technology. Gertrude would have taken part in stimulating discussions on music, painting, architecture and philosophy; a wonderful time for a blossoming artist to experience.

Lesson 1: GERTRUDE JEKYLL, the first of our lady gardeners


We will move on to the next radical change in Gertrude’s life. In 1868, the family inherited a house in Berkshire and Gertrude had, at last, space to plan her first real garden. The house was built on a hill and overlooked the River Thames. The land surrounding the rather ugly house, became the experimental area for Gertrude to try out her new ideas on the creation of a beautiful garden. A terrace was created with a retaining wall and planted out with banks of lavender. Garden furnishings were used in the form of a fountain with a lion’s head and carefully placed urns. The garden artist was emerging!

But the biggest dream was still in the future. Gertrude’s father died eight years later and the family wanted to return to Surrey. A plot of land was purchased on Munstead Heath. By 1878 the family, which included Gertrude’s two unmarried brothers, had moved to “Munstead House” and Gertrude could start to plan her second garden. Fully loaded wagons made many trips, full of trees and plants removed from the garden of Wargrave, the family’s previous house. She finally realised that her enormous creative talent would be greatly satisfied in the pursuit of garden design and execution.

Gertrude had already formed a relationship with the controversial William Robinson, who had published his ground breaking book “The Wild Garden” 1870 and “The English Flower Garden”. Robinson became a kind of mentor to Gertrude, their revolutionary ideas of the natural and wood garden had started to excite the other horticulturists. No longer were the bedding out, dull gardens in vogue: flowers for the house could intermingle with the vegetable garden! Gertrude made many useful contacts through Robinson amongst the nursery folk and some of the leading horticulturists.

Lesson 1: GERTRUDE JEKYLL, the first of our lady gardeners

The garden at “Munstead House” was watched with interest. It was free and easy in style and the formal garden style that needed constant attention began to vanish. Gertrude began to write: her first commission was for Robinson’s magazine “The Garden” in 1881.

In 1883, Robinson asked her to publish a plan of the Munstead House garden. This was an important year for Gertrude. She now could buy the wooded 15 acres of land situated over the road from Munstead House. From her friend Robinson, who had caused some strong reaction by publishing his ideals of a natural garden, she gathered the strength to also foster the ideas that, to make a beautiful garden one should take into consideration the importance of leaves and the blending of colours in plants that would grow naturally in the climate and soil that suited them.

There was one difference between these two garden artists. Gertrude believed that the natural look could be obtained by the careful planning of the gardener, that choice of colours and placing of plants were to be taken into consideration. In other words, she believed that formality could be mixed with the natural garden. William Robinson preached the completely natural garden should be the character of the whole of the garden landscaping.

In 1896 she wrote in the book “A Gardener’s Testament,” “Within the last few years just such another war of controversy has raged between the exponents of formal and the free styles of gardening …..The formal army has hurled javelins poisoned with the damming epitaph vulgar.” This book was not published until after Gertrude died.

After her mother died in 1895, Gertrude’s brother inherited Munstead House so she moved across the road to Munstead Wood. She engaged Edwin Lutyens to build her home. Her companionship with this young and brilliant architect was very important to her career. They formed a working partnership and their styles complemented each other beautifully. It was a stimulating friendship that produced many wonderful houses and gardens. Gertrude was tireless and by the time she died, in 1932, she had designed many gardens. People with money hired her to create simple gardens that were designed with passion and love.

Lesson 1: GERTRUDE JEKYLL, the first of our lady gardeners

Colour, form and shape were the criteria for a Jekyll garden and her knowledge of plants, their likes and dislikes and their habits, were of prime importance. She never seemed to tire and while looking after her own garden “Munstead Wood,” running a nursery, and designing perhaps more than 400 gardens in England, she also found time to write or co-write 14 books. Seven of these books reside in my bookcase and I still use them to find inspiration and knowledge. Plans exist for garden designs in the United States, Germany, France and Hungary. Sadly, very few of the gardens remain. “Munstead Wood” is now, thankfully, being restored.

Munstead Wood

“Munstead Wood” is considered one of the most perfect expressions of the blending of nature and of house and garden. It became famous during Jekyll’s lifetime through the many books and articles written with passionate love by Gertrude. The fame was broadcasted abroad by the personal visits of writers, horticulturists, garden designers, and architects from around the world. The house, designed by Luyten, the brilliant architect, and with a Gertrude with determined ideas, made a good combination. The “perfect pictures”, the blending of colours, the placing of the paths and garden beds, all evolved over nearly fifty years. It became a beautiful natural garden, blended with formality in the placing of the paths and beds, but above all it represented a fifty-year duration of love and passion.

Gertrude had made mistakes in the garden of “Munstead House”, for instance the 240-foot-long flower border was far too ambitious and by 1883 she had run out of room. When she created “Munstead Wood” she remembered the failures. In “Munstead Wood”, she again had to deal with poor, sandy soil which she described as the “poorest possible soil.” This was a challenge which she met head on and in a Scots pine forest she created a wonderful woodland garden.

Masses of rhododendrons and giving each woodland path a specific interest, whether ferns and bracken or lilies or dog’s tooth violets, to complement the selected groupings of birches, chestnuts, or oaks, was the culmination of all the discussion Gertrude held with William Robinson. Groups of silver birch, for instance, mingled with large plantings of salmon and pink rhododendrons, which gave way to white-flowered types in the denser woodland. She planted a river of daffodils along the ancient pack-horse tracts that ran through the woodlands and established a garden devoted to native heaths. Where the lawn met the woods, she planted clumps of lilies, ferns, asters, and other shrubbery-edge plantings.

As she explains in “Colour in the Flower Garden” (1908), Jekyll established a number of ornamental gardens at Munstead Wood that were devoted to flowers of one season. These included a spring garden, a naturalistic primrose garden (filled with her famous “Munstead bunch” primrose), a June-blooming cottage garden, September-blooming aster borders, and an October-blooming Michaelmas daisy border. Perhaps her most widely acclaimed creation was the main hardy flower border. Some 200 feet long and 14 feet deep, it was backed by an 11-foot high stone wall that separated it from the spring garden. The border had a complex and intricate colour scheme based on harmonious colour relationships. The large central portion had fiery reds fading to orange and deep yellow. The colours continued to fade to paler yellow and pink, culminating at both ends with blues and lilacs in a ground of gray foliage.

On the south side of the house she built a long terrace looking towards the woodlands. This was planted with borders of China roses (Rosa x odorata ‘Pallida’), rosemary, hydrangeas, and vines, with a broad flight of steps leading to the lawn. On the north side, a paved court was decorated with pots of hostas, ferns, and lilies, with a fragrant Clematis montana on the wall and a square tank, the only formal water feature in the garden, linked up with established shrub borders.

The working gardens, two and a half acres in size, consisted of a kitchen garden, nursery, and a large orchard. Many cottage-style borders were filled with China asters, hollyhocks, delphiniums, roses, irises, and lupines, and a variety of gray foliage. The large nursery supplied plants for Jekyll’s garden commissions.

The partnership between Edwin Lutyens, architect, and Gertrude Jekyll, landscaper, lasted many years. Her love of simple materials and excellence in craftsmanship extended to the planning and building of all aspects of Munstead Wood, both garden and house. Before settling on a design for the house, which Lutyens eventually built in 1896, two other cottages were built on the site: the gardener’s cottage and the Hut, where Gertrude Jekyll lived for two years while the main house was being built. All three buildings were styled in the Surrey fashion , using half-timbering, deeply hipped roofs, and plastered walls. Gertrude Jekyll’s esteem for the Arts and Crafts movement, seen in her study of numerous crafts, extended to the interior layout and furnishing of her house as well as to the building craftsmanship.

Even though the character of Munstead Wood was lost after Jekyll’s death in 1932, her many books, articles, and extensive photographic records keep her garden and home philosophy alive today. Munstead Wood went out of family hands in 1948 but restoration is taking place. A field survey carried out by the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments of England was initiated in 1991 after storm damage destroyed many historic trees on the property. Research findings uncovered much technical information that was invaluable to the recent restoration.

Lesson 1: GERTRUDE JEKYLL, the first of our lady gardeners

A quotation from “A Gardener’s Testament” by Gertrude Jekyll:

“Fifty years ago, when the bedding out of tender plants for a summer display was the general practice, if any thought was given to arranging them for colour, it was to produce the crudest and most garish effect; such as a round bed of a vivid scarlet Geranium with a border of blue Lobelia, or a wavy ribbon border of scarlet, blue and yellow……..when colour is rightly used the various portions of the garden will have the highest pictorial value.”

Gertrude wrote a whole book teaching us of the importance of colour in the garden. This was, perhaps, the largest gift she gave us.

“It is extremely interesting to work out gardens in which some special colouring predominates, and to those who, by natural endowment or careful eye-cultivation, possess or have aquired what artists understand by an eye for colour, it opens a whole new range of garden delights.

Arrangements of this kind are sometimes attempted, for occasionally I hear of a garden for blue plants, or a white garden, but I think such ideas are rarely worked out with the best aims, I have in my mind a whole series of gardens of restricted colouring, though I have not, alas, either room or the means enough to work them out for myself, and have to be satisfied with an all-too-short length of double border for a grey scheme. But, besides my small grey garden I badly want others, and especially a gold garden, a blue garden, and a green garden; though a number of these desires may easily be multiplied.

It is a curious thing that people will sometimes spoil a garden project for the sake of a word. For instance, a blue garden, for beauty’s sake, may be hungering for a group of white Lilies, or for something of the palest lemon-yellow, but is not allowed to have it because it is called the blue garden, and there must be no other flowers in it but blue flowers. I can see no sense in this; it seems to me like fetters foolishly self-imposed. Surely the business of the blue garden is to be beautiful as well as to be blue”.

Here are the Gertrude Jekell books I have in my library. Most of them are available from Barns and Noble through the Internet, both secondhand and new! I recommend every one of them. The information is of enormous value

I show them here for the cover photos are so lovely and all show the garden of Munstead Wood

Photos scanned from my copy of “A Gardener’s Testament” in the restored garden of “Munstead Wood”

Black and white photo taken in 1923 by Professor John Harshberger of Philadelphia and shows Gertrude Jekyll sitting on her camp stool in the spring garden at Munstead.

Lesson 2: VITA SACKVILLE-WEST, her beautiful garden and infamous life

We will discuss Vita Sackville-West’s dream garden, “SissingHurst Castle” which is the most visited garden in all of England, and Vita Sackville-West’s turbulent life which was the most talked of by gardeners and society throughout Europe.

Vita’s writings influence many home gardeners. We take particular note of the articles that appeared in the “Observer” newspaper and her many gardening books.

Her love of cottage gardens and romantic settings still influence our gardens today. Her famous “white garden” has been imitated in countless gardens throughout the world.

We will discuss her special plants and observations of how they should be placed within the garden.

Vita had several passionate love affairs with women, including the famous writer, Virginia Woolf.
Vita Sackville-West

VITA SACKVILLE-WEST, born 1892 – died 1962

“The man [sic] who has planted a garden feels that he has done something for the good of the world.” Vita Sackville-West

Vita was a passionate person. Above all else, the love of all things to do with gardening was sincere and soul consuming. And lasting. Her love affairs were equally passionate and life-consuming, but not everlasting. She liked writing and we will not comment on her poetry here, but her articles and gardening books are as relevant today as those days when Vita sat in her tower sitting room at Sissinghurst Castle and penned her articles and books.


Vita became a gardener, a garden writer, a poet, a creator of the most visited garden in England, a married woman, a mother, and a lady with the most talked about reputation in Europe. She was born at the end of the 19th century. The family home, “Knole”, an enormous house which had belonged to the family for three hundred years, still shows slightly decaying grand splendour and was loved very dearly by Vita. Her father was descended from a long line of Lords and Earls. Her mother was descended from Spanish gypsies. Vita’s grandmother was a famous Spanish dancer and her illicit romance with the second Lord Sackville was as prolific as Vita’s flowers. Five children were born from this union, Vita’s mother being the youngest “love child”. She married her first cousin and the one child born from this marriage was Vita. It is no wonder, with these clashes of temperaments and genes, that Vita grew up as a “mixed up” person. Her character strongly included the traits of aristocratic manners but the gypsy in her caused her to thumb her nose at the constraints of high society.

Her mother, Victoria, was a highly excitable woman and very beautiful and was the only overwhelming influence in Vita’s life. Vita never quite shook the effect her mother had on her life, which was not always for the best. She was a lonely child but the affluence of their style of living and the romance of the house and garden remained fond memories throughout Vita’s life. She wrote a book “Knole and the Sackvilles”, a history of her family. A quotation from the biography written by V. Glendinning, apparently taken from a letter Vita wrote to a cousin at the time of publication of this book, “They were a rotten lot, and nearly all stark staring mad”.

Lesson 2: VITA SACKVILLE-WEST, her beautiful garden and infamous life

Vita married Harold Nicolson, [1913], a diplomat, and shortly afterwards Harold was posted to Constantinople. Vita was sure she would find the place “beastly” but, in her description of the house, it becomes evident that she was beginning to be excited by her new surroundings. “It is a wooden Turkish house, with a little garden, and a pergola of grapes and a pomegranate tree covered in scarlet fruit, and such a view over the Golden Horn, and the sea and Santa Sophia!”, quoted from a letter she wrote to a friend. It was here in Turkey that we first see Vita, the gardener emerge. During her childhood at “Knole” she had shown enthusiasm for the garden, but a team of gardeners would not let her touch the good earth or take any practical part in the actual gardening. Now, in Turkey, Vita created her own garden and learnt the practice of gardening that was to become so important later in her life, not only in creating two more beautiful gardens but in her career as a writer.

In regards to her husband, she goes on to say, “Living with Harold is like living with a sort of human and very merry angel, and it gets more so every day.” Thus began the extraordinary marriage, the friendship of which endured despite the extramarital love affairs of both partners. It was in Turkey that Harold revealed to his wife that he was having a homosexual relationship. Two sons were born to Vita and Harold whose loving friendship kept them together until Vita’s death in 1962. A heart broken Harold never got over her death and died six years later.

A few years ago, my ears pricked up when I heard our non-commercial television station was showing a series, in drama form, on the life of Vita Sackville West. I looked forward to seeing lovely video scenes of the gardens at “Sissinghurst Castle” but I was very disappointed, as most of the scenes were filmed inside the house and in Vita’s writing room in the tower. All emphasis was placed on Vita’s two lesbian love affairs with Violet Trefusis and Virginia Woolf and also the homosexual affairs of her husband. I have also noticed when doing research for this course, that more emphasis is placed on this part of Vita’s life, to the detriment of her contribution to the art of gardening.

Vita’s first writings included thinly disguised accounts of these torrid romances, the first with Violet lasted many years and, of course, was of huge importance in Vita’s life.

Violet and Vita were childhood friends and though both married, they continued their relationship after they became wives. One of the episodes in the television series related the time when Vita and Violet “eloped” to Paris, only to be chased half way across Europe by their two husbands and dragged home like two naughty children. This adventure caused a great scandal amongst society circles and not a little laughter.

The other well-documented romance, by Vita and others, was with Virginia Woolf, a famous woman’s rights writer and a leading personality in the Bloomsbury set of intellectuals.

Lesson 2: VITA SACKVILLE-WEST, her beautiful garden and infamous life

Vita was a prolific writer whose first works were published in the 1910s. Her writings included novels, poems, historical, travel, biographical and gardening articles and books. “The Garden”, written in 1939 but not published until 1946, won the Heinemann prize. The award was worth 100 English pounds, a fair sum in those years, and the whole amount was spent on Azaleas for the garden.

Let us now turn to Vita’s garden writings. In 1946, through her writings in the “Observer”, and later when the articles were published in a book titled “In Your Garden”, Vita became known not only in the social and intellectual circles but to the new generation and the generations to come of gardeners throughout the world. Anne Scott-James, an English garden writer still alive, wrote that Vita Sackville West “did more to change the face of English gardening than any other writing since William Robinson’s “The English Flower Garden”. Vita wrote these charming weekly articles for fifteen years, from 1946-1961. She was an experienced, published author and with her deep love of gardening, [she had created one of the most important gardens in England, Sissinghurst, by now], the articles had style. Vita’s personal experiences in the garden were simply put and the descriptions of flowers, written with a lyrical and romantic feeling, were a joy to read. Even non-gardeners became loyal fans of the weekly articles.

“Memories of May”

“There is nothing like the gentle, removing touch of slight illness to induce meditation over some experience recently enjoyed. Life is laid aside; one is vaguely aware of a wood pigeon cooing in the distance; the tap of a thrush on a snail; the rustle of a breeze through the poplars; all things very small but significant. In those moments, these few brief hours of leisure enforced …….

In such a mood, I remembered going down into the wood to dig up some roots of a specially deep pink anemone …..

Vandals ignorantly dig up wild plants, at the wrong time, and treat them in such a way that they can never be expected to survive. I knew I was doing right by my pink windflower in transplanting it to my garden. There was so much of it that it could well afford me a trowel-full of its roots.

That trowel-full of woodland soil taught me a lesson. It was so crammed with growing things…..There was a potential oak tree, sprouting from an acorn. There were young brambles, already in their innocence, threatening invasion. There were young honeysuckles, inch high, preparing to hoist themselves towards the light and the twiggy support of the hazel coppice. All a living tangle underground, struggling together, and me the superior human with my sharp weapon, prising up the chosen plant I wanted, destroying all that other scrambling and wrestling life, which may have come to completion had I not interfered’.

Lying feverish in my bed, I wondered whether I had done right or wrong. A whole crop of moral tangles came up. I had frustrated a young oak, but I had preserved a pink windflower. Where was the answer to be found in virtue?

All I knew was that the memory of that wood full of bluebells on a May morning would remain with me for ever”.

Vita and Harold had a wonderful working partnership in the garden. Vita loved large displays of flowers and roses. She grew them to tumble over walls, pergolas, climbing up walls so they seemed to reach the heavens. Harold was more of a tradionalist and he landscaped the containers for Vita’s exuberance plantings. He created formal clipped hedges and ordered paths edging the borders. The result is rather like huge vases of wonderfully placed plants; a very romantic flower arrangement kept in order by architectural containers.

Vita on Roses:

“Sometimes someone asks me which are my favourites among the various old roses we grow. This is really an impossible question to answer, since one changes one’s mind from day to day. Each one, as it separately comes out, seems to eclipse the predecessor in charm or beauty, but on the whole I am not sure I would not plump for ‘Rosa alba’ ‘Celestial’ and for “Fantin Latour”. ……How can I describe ‘alba’? I am holding up a sprig in my left hand as I try to write about it with my right. I look very closely; I peer. I see the pale pink petals, I see the golden boss. ……Yet all of these close impressions cannot convey any impressions at all of what ‘alba Celestial’ looks like grown in the open as a shrub rose when those shell pink flowers combine with the blue green foliage.

“Fantin Latour” may have been painted by Fantin Latour himself or it may have been named in his honour. Here, again, I cannot see that it much matters, so long as we get this lovely thing in our gardens, as we still can. It does not grow too large and is a manageable size for a small garden. Its colouring of a delicate pale pink is easy to place anywhere: it will not swear or quarrel with the other colours”.

Quotations from my own copy of the book “V. Sackville-West Garden Book”:

Suite101.com’s landscaping editor Kirk Johnson has written eighteen articles on the gardens at Sissinghurst Castle. You will not find better on the net and I recommend strongly that you read all the articles and look at photos taken in the one of the most important gardens created in the 20th Century.

These books are obtainable, second hand, on many Internet book seller sites, eg Barnes and Noble.

Coloured Photos scanned from “V.Sackville-West Garden Book”

Another book in my library is this wonderful book written by Jane Brown, Photographs by John Miller.

Other books published using her garden articles in the “Observer”:

“Even More For Your Garden”

“In Your Garden Again”

“More For Your Garden”

“V. Sackville-West Garden Book”

These books are obtainable, second hand, on many Internet book seller sites, eg Barnes and Noble.

Lesson 3: Gardens of the New Worlds, America and Australia

In the 19th Century, American and Australian gardeners and designers were influenced by English gardeners and gardens. The wealthy travelled to Europe and observed the changes that were taking place in the important gardens.

The home gardener, in the early part of the 20th Century, not having the money to travel and import the expensive plants, was only able to read the spate of gardening books and dream.

Cheaper communications enabled home gardeners to travel more.

The internet is the cheapest of all ways to share and communicate with other gardeners world wide and has caused a revolution to take place in the home gardens.

Communications via the Internet has enabled keen gardeners and horticultural students to buy gardening books either second hand or new.

Opening up these avenues has also been instrumental in creating the movement to planting natives in the home garden. This in turn has caused the Nurseries to stock natives, not only “exotics”.

Garden History in the New Countries


Much of the history of countries is conveyed by the stories we tell ourselves, the books that we read, and the images we can see. These mediums attempt to explain who we are, what we have done and what we would like to see in the future. One of the most fruitful and pleasant ways to observe the social history of our countries is to examine the changes in landscaping. The conservation movements in both America and Australia are growing stronger every year and these organizations have, through the study of historic gardens and city landscaping and preservation of important gardens and landscapes, given us an opportunity to observe the changes that have taken place over the past century.

“Certinale”, Italy

The settlement of Australia and America by Europeans followed a similar pattern. The early pioneers opened up huge tracts of land, first building their log cabins [or “humpies,” in Australia] and making their first plantings. Seeds of vegetables were probably placed in the virgin soil to provide the necessary food for the family’s very existence.

By the 19th century the newcomers were making homes and gardens of a more substantial nature, but many of the English-born settlers began to feel homesick for the lush green gardens of their original homeland in the British Isles and we find that in their recreational gardens, both large and small, they created gardens in a similar style to the gardens of England. Garden nurseries sprang up and these catered to their customers’ wishes by importing the trees and plants that proliferated the gardens of the “homeland”. Some “new Australians” and “new Americans” were beginning to make their fortunes and were wealthy enough to “go home” and export back to their new country the plants that were coming into fashion in the English gardens. Elaborate containers were made to accommodate the plants on the long sea voyage to Australia, and the garden owner would travel with his “treasures” to tend to them and water them over the several months of travel. This passionate gardener also had to take into account the different seasons and the wise would only bring seeds. Seedlings had a better chance to adapt to the weather and soil conditions of the new country

“Chateau de la Garoupe”, France

In Australia, the creation of an English garden often led to disappointment and failure, the conditions were so different in this new country. Lack of rainfall, different soil conditions and changed weather patterns should not have been ignored, but the home sickness was so strong that many new gardeners would not give up. If they were wealthy enough, they either moved to or bought land for weekends and holidays in the mountainous areas with a cooler climate and higher rainfall, and there are many beautiful mountain gardens within a few hours driving outside of Melboune and Sydney in Australia. The “cottager” began to ask the nurseries for seed packets of hardy annuals and perennials to make their colourful front gardens. They found these hardies grew abundantly and they also discovered that roses would withstand the sunny positions. In Australia, a typical cottage would be situated on a small block of land surrounded by a fence. Australians still have the desire to enclose their property with a wall or fence. Theories for this include: they wanted to keep out the bushrangers [escaped convicts] or, Australia being such a vast land, they felt the fence would give the owner a sense of security, of “this piece of land is mine”.

In America, the wealthy were also growing European plants. Sometimes they even imported the landscape gardener to help them create their English Gardens of Eden. Vast tracts of lawn were planted, labour was cheap with the Negro slave industry to mow, clip, weed and water and, in many areas, the climate and soil was ideal for the health of the imported exotics. There were times when whole gardens were imported from Europe, including garden furnishings such as fountains, garden houses, statues and grottos, or even the castle to go with the landscaped garden. Botanical gardens or “Pleasure Gardens for the People” were established, often with an English Director and Head Gardener.

“Villa Taranto”, Italy. Cornus florida

Lesson 3: Gardens of the New Worlds, America and Australia

Towards the end of the 19th century, a change of garden philosophy began to happen in England. We have seen that Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson were very much involved in this revolution. No longer was a staff of head gardeners and under gardeners available to manage the work-heavy formal gardens. “Natural” and “wild” landscapes were written about and created and garden owners, large and small, liked what they read and saw. This was the age when plant explorations to exotic lands became numerous. Private owners of beautiful gardens and plant nursery owners or employers sometimes risked their lives in these far flung countries, gathering seeds and plants to take back to the British Isles. They explored the Himalayan mountains, the woods of America and the bush of Australia. It was an exciting time, an experimental time, a revolutionary time. It has been written that this period of English garden landscape, which was to last right up until now, was and is (?) the height of excellence in English gardening history.

“Kibbenjelok” Tasmania Australia

Is it any wonder that the “new countries” looked to British green pastures for guidance and inspiration? Plant nurseries were able to import all the new exotics. It was easier now with the advent of the “flying machine”. Landscape artists were influenced by the books that poured out of England. Home gardeners were thrilled that the plants they read about in the gardening books, the “treasures” they could only dream of growing, had become obtainable from their home town nurseries. And thus the lovely woodland gardens were created, planted with Himalayan Rhododendrons, Gentians and Meconopsis from Alpine districts, Camellias from Japan and Wisteria from China. English gardeners planted conifers from America, America [in many cases to their regret] planted Eucalypts from Australia and Australia planted Cornus from America.

Lesson 3: Gardens of the New Worlds, America and Australia

This was certainly a very stimulating and wonderful period, but, all these thrilling plants were to take a toll on the land of our countries. Daily watering and frequent spraying was needed to keep the exotics healthy. In Australia, in prehistoric times a huge tropical forest, it is only the coastal and highlands that are arable. The centre of Australia is classified as desert, and only a few scrappy shrubs grow naturally, except after heavy rains when it comes alive with annual flowers for a few brief weeks. The consequence is that the coastal areas have become over-farmed and over-gardened and the water table is now dangerously full of salt. The greenhouse effect and the hole in the ozone are adding to the disaster about to happen. Our rivers have been dammed to water farm lands and they are drying up, the weather has become unpredictable with too much rain in some areas and far too little in other states. Tornadoes, earthquakes, wind storms and floods are becoming a daily occurrence all over the world.

The wonderful world of the Internet has allowed gardeners from the four corners of the world, to share experiences, knowledge and help in all our garden concerns. We can buy seeds and plants, we can see the gardens we read about, we can visit the International garden shows and observe the latest trends and we are able to speak our concerns on environmental matters. Let us hope that this marvelous device will remain open to us and that we use it wisely.

Is it time for gardeners and professional garden advisors to create another landscaping revolution? Are we already seeing the change? Looking at the photographs from the last years taken at the Chelsea flower show, we can see a definite trend towards the so called “architectural gardens”. Hard surfaces are taking the place of lawns, and garden furnishings take the place of garden beds and flowers. Women are now working full time away from the house and garden and have less time to “putter” in their own back yards. Maybe this style will be less work in the gardens. It is certainly more expensive.

What do you think? Please join in the discussions and share your thoughts.

You may like to see an article of mine written with tongue-in-cheek but also with some thoughts on where garden landscaping is heading to.

This is the cover of a seed catalogue I own. It is an old Tasmanian firm and was printed in 1925.

The front page says:

We are pleased to have you receive this copy of Creswell’s Seed Catalogue; we are sure you will like it and believe you will find many interesting things in it.

We feel sure that we can satisfactorily fill your requirements for Seeds, and we trust that you will give us the opportunity of serving you. Our service is safe and quick, our stocks are thoroughly tested, and we send out only those of proved merit. We guarantee the safe arrival of seeds, and guarantee their quality to the full amount of the purchase price.

Supplies for 1925 are exceptionally good, and with such good stocks we are in the position to give complete satisfaction in Price, Quality, and Service.

We thank old Customers for the many courtesies of the past, and assure them of fidelity in the future, trusting we merit the same spirit of confidence that we have previously enjoyed.

Price of seed packet six pence, postage free

Photos scanned by me out of my book “The English Garden Abroad” by Charles Quest Ritson

A few links you may like to explore:

Joseph Banks, explorer naturalist who took back to England a few plants from Australia and America

Read about the Australian arid lands Botanic Gardens

The famous Butchart Gardens nearly one hundred years old.

Lesson 4: LESTER ROWNTREE, American Pioneer

Lester Rowntree is important not only for the delightful gardens she created but for her passion for using Californian plants, many of which are in the garden nurseries today thanks to her.

Lester Rowntree was born in England in 1879. Her father was a gardener and a botanist and moved the family to Kansas as a “change for the family”. The family spent the next years moving to different areas in the United States.

She grew up to be, as she described herself, “a loner”, “runaway”, and an “ever roaming plant-chasing explorer.”

After marriage, she created the life she wanted. Many days were spent travelling the countryside of her beloved California, searching for seeds of new plants which she would take home and propagate.

She designed many beautiful and unique gardens but was frowned upon by the trained horticulturists because she had not attended any place of learning.

Lester Rowntree has written and published quite a few books and deserves to be better known for her fresh and unique garden designs and above all for her conservation and discovery of many Californian natives.

LESTER ROWNTREE born 1879 – died 1979

“But the best sleeping places of all are high in the mountains-so high that I know there’s no one camping above me-where the dawns and twilights do wonderful things to the crags overhead, turning pearl and ash gray peaks to silver and pink and purple and gold.”

Thus wrote Lester Rowntree in the first chapter of her book “Flowering Shrubs of California.”

Gertrude Ellen Lester was born in England to a Quaker family. As a child, growing up in the Quaker family with five sisters and four brothers she disliked most ” being told things I most wanted to find out for myself”. She made her first garden when she was two years old, she was to write in later years.

“Many years ago there was a tiny plot of ground in England’s beautiful Lake District that, by wise parents, set aside as soon as I could walk, as my first flower garden, the private domain of my earliest years, a place in which to play and work and adventure and imagine. From a spare spot of earth it grew to be a precious possession filled with hopes and joys and disappointments. As I look back on it today, that infinitesimal speck of the earth’s surface exercised on my life lasting influences utterly out of proportion to its diminutive size. It taught me many things in a manner far more lasting and efficient than any schoolroom ever succeeded in doing: patience and thoroughness, the trick of cooperating with Nature, and above all the love of a garden.

Ceanothus spinosis

In 1889, when ‘Nellie’ was ten, her scholarly father decided to change the family life and gave up his grocery store and bought, sight unseen, a farm in Kansas, United States. Although a considerable gardener, the farming life completely failed Mr Lester and two of the children died of typhoid lodged in the ranch’s well water. A Mrs Charlotte Rowntree read of the family’s plight in a Quaker newspaper, felt compassion for the family and offered them a home in her Missouri house. It was here that ‘Nellie’ met the man she was to marry, Charlotte’s son, Bernard. I do not know when she changed her name to ‘Lester’ but as that was the name of the plants woman and collector that we are interested in, I will use ‘Lester’ from now on.

Lester was to live in various parts of the United States for the next twenty-five years. She attended a Quaker boarding school in Pennsylvania and, as the only daughter still living with her father after the mother died, she accompanied him back to Pennsylvania in 1904 but she considered the best years of her life up to this point, had been spent in “the flashing and glorious pageant of California”. In 1908 she married Bernard Rowntree, an engineer working in Manhattan. Mr Lester decided to move in with his newly wed daughter and live in the large newly-built house in New Jersey. Lester soon created an ‘English Garden’; two Rowan trees were planted to “ward off evil spirits” and in honour of her new surname. A “remarkable rock garden” was a feature, vegetable and fruit gardens were established. There was even a woodland garden bordering the creek at the foot of the back garden. She planted joyous herbaceous borders and the peeking neighbours were astonished to see the stone wall go up [for privacy] and Mrs Rowntree actually gardening in pants! But despite all this criticism, the gardens became famous and Lester knew that she was a gardener of great talent. Sadly, very little still remains of Lester’s first garden. Lester’s father was no mean gardener and he helped her greatly in the garden and brother, Frances Lester, was to become a noted rosearian,

Mr Lester died in 1910 and soon after, Lester Rowntree began to feel the strong urge to return to California. But it was nearly a decade later before the desire was to be satisfied. A son was born a year after her father died and the following years were filled with sickness and near-fatal operations. To recuperate, Lester chose the Carmel Highlands as the ideal place to restore her health and spirits. A close friend, Mrs Elizer Clevenger, joined her for a while [a menage a trois?] and became a loving carer of Lester’s only child, Cecil. Soon after, Lester, in partnership with her lady friend, started the seed business “Lester Rowntree & Company”, a company to become famous for its Californian plants.

Carpentaria californica

Lesson 4: LESTER ROWNTREE, American Pioneer

We must move on now to Lester Rowntree, the ecologist and conservationist. She described herself as a ‘loner,’ ‘runaway,’ and an ‘ever-roaming-plant-chasing-explorer’ who thought the state of California to be her natural garden to love and protect. She was happiest when tramping through the wilds in California. At home, through the years 1935 and 1950, she was designing gardens for clients, calling herself “A maker of Gardens.” Although she professed to be a guide in the creation of gardens to her client’s own taste, you would not see any “stiff paths” or the “perfect made garden”. Nor would you see a copied “white garden” or “garden rooms everywhere” and not one “Laburnum Arch”. She had her own style and used “beautiful plants exotic or native,” always taking into account the soil, climate and suitability of the plant to the situation.

She said that she went plant hunting through the hills to find material for these gardens because the nurseries carried the same old boring plants and the books were rather similar to the nurseries. I think she also loved being a gypsy! Many times she would be away from home for as long as six months.

Let me quote from Lester Rowntree’s book “Flowering Shrubs of California”, printed by Stanford University Press in 1939. This book was my first Internet purchase. Through an E-mail group, I learnt of a good second hand book dealer in the United States. I asked the E-mail group correspondent if he could arrange for a catalogue to be sent to me because I was curious to see if there were any Australian garden books available in the States. I made several purchases and was attracted to the Lester Rowntree book. How lucky we are to be able to use the Internet in such a productive way.

“California’s distinctive wild flowers bloom in the setting of flowering shrubs which are just as distinctive. This is now at length being recognised. Indeed, one feels developing all through the country, an awakening to the beauty and the number of native flowering shrubs and their possibility in the wild garden….And garden planters comb the nurseries for the dwarf species of Ceanothus and Arctostaphlos.

The intent of this book is to report on the flowering shrubs of California and their culture…..I have put down what I have gleaned from personal observation of the habits of these shrubs in the wild and of the behaviour under cultivation of those which I have grown in California during the last twelve years…..

Work in the field is all pretty new. We don’t know very much yet about the cultural treatment of native shrubs. That technique is still in its infancy, the rules are not yet defined …….More and more nurserymen are adding native Californian shrubs to their stocks.”

Let me give you a quotation from the book that shows us much more of Lester’s delightful character:

“In February, just when my own garden is beginning to look its prettiest, off I go again chasing flowers, wandering all over California and not coming home to stay until late in the autumn.

I wish that becoming involved in this plant-chasing life didn’t involve losing such a lot of personal property. Scattered up and down the state are three of my miners’ picks, two trench shovels, one trowel and at least a dozen berets.”

Holodiscus discolor, Cream Bush

Just imagine this lady taking a sleeping bag and tramping all through the Carmel Highlands. On her trips she would mark any worthwhile plant’s flowering position and make copious notes in a journal. On the return trip, she would stop and collect seeds from the marked plant stands, gathering plants that she wanted to introduce not only to the United States plant growers but to European plants men [and women] as well. On getting to her home and nursery, she would press a specimen for her herbarium. The seeds would be sorted, dried, cleaned and finally sent to gardeners all over the world. She would ask these “experimental” growers to report back to her on the growth and hardiness of the seeds.

“Will someone who gardens in places where winter is cold, please experiment with the ‘alpine’ species Hallopapus? [Don’t judge the alpine by the taller species now in the trade.] Very little ink has been spilled in their praise. The low tufted ones suggest yellow Erigerons with large flowers and very fragrant leaves….Almost nothing has been done about Halopappus in cultivation, but if you could see the plants growing in their nativve rock-crannies I am sure you would recognise them as worthwhile horticultural effort.”

Lesson 4: LESTER ROWNTREE, American Pioneer

Lester was considered, with condescension, as “eccentric.” It must have seemed quite shocking to the more conservative society to see her riding a donkey through the hills, in the chaparral, desert or the Sierras, and “dossing” down in a sleeping bag, singing as she collected her specimens and dressed in trousers. The “establishment” in the botanical world were short-sighted, never travelling to the fields themselves. Lester was self taught and a woman: they were over trained and they could not accept that she had anything to offer or change for the better in their smug, accredited professional world. Nevertheless, Lester was a brave innovator and a woman with a dry sense of humour and though there were heated arguments, she was not to be put down by the academics. She continued to urge her readers, listeners and clients to continue to experiment.

In 1936 she wrote:

“California is a rich state in epidemics and many of them lurk in this hot and tranquil foothill region, brown and dull green now, when the alpine peaks are at the height of their flowering, but in a few months to be born again and swept with color”.

A map of the areas that Lester explored

In England, many of the noted gardeners, seeking new exotics for their gardens, turned to Mr[sic] Rowntree for advice on growing and propagating Californian species. Lester wrote back, not forgetting to explain she was a woman! Her books were being read and she wrote with an excellent style, her friendly but well chosen words urging her readers to take expeditions into their own wilds, into the exciting and satisfying botanical world, to seed and propagate and finally to grow the endemic species that grow in their part of the world. She could not understand that a true gardener would prefer to grow the usual, banal offerings in the nurseries.

In her first book, printed after a decade of wanderings, usually all by herself, she wrote:

…an awareness of earth and some of well-being which adds to the larger life . You exchange confusion for peace; the feverish occupations of the city for the calm and quiet business of stalking plants in Nature’s planless plantings; and most important, an unavoidably helpless and artificial way of life for one which is self-sufficient and authentic. Although men do not know it, it is the inspiration coming from experiences like this which they live by.

When Winter came, and Lester was forced to stay at home, she would retire to the ‘shack’, a tiny, wooden room, built behind the smaller house she had moved to in 1931 when she divorced Bernard Rowntree. Here she wrote her books and articles for magazines and journals. She said that the thirty articles she wrote for the Santa Barbara Garden Magazine were her best writings, written straight from the heart. It was also Winter time when she wrote and answered the letters of the garden growers of many parts of the world.

Marion Cran, the famous English gardener and writer wrote after a visit to this cottage:

“Mrs Rowntree fascinated me; I knew she led the lonely life, the gypsy life among the hills and the wild flowers. I liked her eager charm; she seemed happy in the realm of her seed-bags, where are folded treasures. I had known her long before we met; of her mariposa, thrifts, clitonias with their great lapis-blue berries, clarkias, shooting stars, gilias, godetias, fritillaries, lilies, honeysuckle, lupins, climbing nemophila, penstemons, flowering currants – a myriad of jewels; of blooms to go all over the world; beloved aliens of our English gardens”.

Lester published two books, including the one book I have, “Flowering Shrubs of California,” in which she ‘put down what I have gleaned from personal observations of the habit of those shrubs in the wild and of their behaviour under cultivation of those I have grown during the last twelve years’.

Her third book, the result of twenty-five years of plant hunting in the wilds and illustrated with the best of her photographic collection, were tragically destroyed when the writing ‘shack’ was burnt to the ground. Arson was suspected and this cruel act destroyed two-thirds of the manuscript for this third book, the photos and all her notes for future publications. It was heartwrenching for Lester and she never recovered from this cruel act. She never took the donkey on another field trip.

There are two unpublished book manuscripts in the San Fransisco Academy of Sciences, one with the topic “alpine Plants” and another on “Desert Plants”. There is also a month by month study of her Carmel hill side garden.

It is puzzling to me that there is nothing done about these manuscripts and also that the name of Lester Rowntree is now quite unknown amongst the gardening fraternity of the United States and elsewhere. The lady was a true pioneer.

Lesson 5: EDNA WALLING, Australian Horticulturist

Edna Walling was born in England in 1896, and is quoted as saying “My father thought I would be a boy and he went right ahead with his preconceived ideas on how to bring up a boy ‘hardy’ and in spite of the turn of events, he kept on going straight ahead”.

When Edna was a young girl, after a dreadful fire in the family business, they emigrated to New Zealand. The whole family was unhappy in New Zealand and left to settle in Melbourne, Australia. In 1916, aged 19, Edna started a horticulture course at Burnley Horticulture College, Melbourne as a full time student. Full time students were relatively new to the college and full time female students even rarer.

With her writings and the charming gardens she created in the harsh, dry environment of many parts of Australia, she became Australia’s most treasured and famous landscape gardener and philosopher.

Her own gardens and the gardens she was commissioned to create for wealthy estate owners, were of great importance to the advancement of fresh and natural ways to create a garden.

Her prolific writings, in popular magazines and published books, reached nany households in Australia.

Later in her career she praised the beauty of many of the Australian native plants and urged gardeners to find the beauty of the natural flora of Australia in the trees and flowering plants.


“It is a rare thing this gift for placing stones. Lovely as formal gardens can be, it is these informal schemes, in which boulders form so important a part, that appeal so tremendously for the reason, perhaps, that they give the atmosphere of the country, and the refreshment of mind derived from such.” – Edna Walling, Australian Home Beautiful, 1938.

Edna Walling was born in 1896, and she is quoted as saying, “My father thought I would be a boy [there was already a girl in the family] and he went right ahead with his preconceived ideas on ‘how to bring a boy up hardy’; in spite of the turn of events, he went straight ahead”.

It was the walks through the borders of Devonshire that gave Edna Walling her love of mauve and soft greens and mossy boulders and stone outcrops. The fire that destroyed the Walling family business in England, was the reason that the family left England for a new life ‘down under.’ In 1911, they set sail for New Zealand, leaving the Spring of England with its bluebells and foxgloves carpeting the floor of the ancient forests.

The whole family was unhappy in New Zealand and finally, after Edna’s brief training as a nurse in Christchurch, which she quite enjoyed, the family settled in Melbourne, Australia. In 1916, aged 19, Edna started a horticulture course at Burnley Horticulture College. With her writings and the charming gardens she created in the harsh, dry environment of many parts of Australia, she became Australia’s most treasured and famous landscape gardener and philosopher, of the last Century.

In the Australian Home Beautiful, Miss Walling describes her work in the wonderful seven acre garden “Warrawee”, in Melbourne’s most exclusive suburb, Toorak. She had been called in to redesign parts of the famous garden and in the magazine she describes to the readers how she transformed these sections. An “impossibly steep earth bank” was transformed by the implanting of a stone pillared pergola, graceful stone flight of steps and wrought iron rails. She also wrote of the paving stone walkway and the beds of flowers filled with foxgloves and iris to compliment the wisteria in flower on the pergola. She also recommended a native planting to link the new area with the natives growing in the other sections of the gardens of “Warrawee”. Later in her professional career, Miss Walling became very keen on using natural flora mixed with European ornamentals.

Lesson 5: EDNA WALLING, Australian Horticulturist

Excerpts from a preface article Edna Walling wrote for the book “Australian Gardening of Today Illustrated” – Arranged and edited by the Editor of “Australian Home Beautiful” {Miss Edna Walling], printed by The Sun News-Pictorial, Melbourne, no date but I imagine some time in the 1940s.

“The Design of the Garden” by Edna Wallling

She writes in the opening paragraph: “Numbers of charming and perfectly satisfactory gardens have been planned by their owners, and it should hearten many to observe that an extensive knowledge of horticulture is not essential in the design of the garden”.

She goes on to suggest to the reader not to rush into hiring a professional landscape gardener. Rather than call in the “first man jack who comes along,” take your precious ground and hand it back as an inferior garden to one you could have designed for yourself, first think long and hard about what you want and imagine how your garden should look and grow. But if the garden owner finds it is impossible to draw up plans or visualize, she suggests calling in someone who is able to take the garden owners’ ideas and thoughts and materialize them in the forms of plans on paper and, if needed, do the physical work of laying out the garden.

Quotation: “Before thought is given to planting, a careful survey must be made of all the natural advantages of the site, the restrictions to which the designer must adapt himself, and the architectural design of the house”.

One suggestion in the article that intrigued me is very revolutionary and brave as Miss Walling was never blessed by her own children:

“Some children show a great deal of imagination in garden making, and if a child likes a garden it is generally something out of the ordinary. For this reason it seems a pity that a little education and house design is not given to every child”.

“It is a most elusive thing, this matter of design in the garden, and it is not always the fervent horticulturist who achieves it. It is more often the person who builds a garden for the quiet peace and mental refreshment he hopes to achieve therein.” She continues to point out that there is a need of a sense of proportion and certain basic horticulture knowledge and warns: “When Winter comes, laying bare so much of the construction, it is sometimes a little distressing to look out upon a garden that is rather elementary in design when stripped of foliage and flowers.”

Lesson 5: EDNA WALLING, Australian Horticulturist

In 1948 she wrote this in one of her journal articles:

“I love all the things most gardeners abhor! – moss in the lawns, lichen on trees, more ‘green’ than colour [always said as if green is not a colour ], bare branches in winter, more foliage than flowers, root ridden ground [wherein one never attempts to dig] with a natural covering of leaves, of grass or some amenable low-growing plant. I like the whole thing to be as wild as possible, to have to fight your way through in some places. I always liked that architect who loved trees so much that he said he liked to have to fight his way to the front door! I like sheets and sheets of self-sown forget-me-nots, and anything else that will self sow itself and looks so beautiful. I like a mossy boulder more than I like a ‘splash of colour’. I like soft grey-green leaves and blue, mauve, white and pale yellow flowers and only the tiniest spot of red – looking exquisite as only red can against grey-brown bark and dusky-blue flowers. I like white flowers, both in day-time and at night, in the house and in the garden. I like quite a lot of plants for their foliage alone [not VARIEGATEDS {sic}, just plain plants that are supposed to flower] and never care if they don’t flower. I like quite large trees in quite small gardens sometimes. I like odd-shaped trees, and find the ‘perfect specimen’ rather dull. If there are two or three trunks coming up from the base so much the better. I like to throw myself into an inviting chair in the green shade of a large tree with my books on a low table beside me, but you might prefer to dig and to plant. I like to do that too …sometimes”.

In her later years, Edna wrote more urgently on conservation matters. She pointed out in her writings that Australian gardens were more often than not positioned in a water hungry countryside. She explained to her readers that many of the native plants were well used to withstand a dry atmosphere and also how beautiful they were. In the 1950s Edna turned from the blending of natives and exotics to a preoccupation with natives and their almost exclusive use in her designs.

This quotation from Edna is from a book I own that is called “The Edna Walling Book of Garden Design”:

When we go to the country we do not want gardens so much as landscape, preserving as much as possible of that which is growing naturally. Hardly do I dare to go to town when I have a new man in the garden for fear he ‘cleans up’ the bracken for a pleasant surprise for my return! It is difficult for them to realise that the bracken is at least as precious as the rhododendrons of which I have so few – they are so demanding, much as I love some of the species….And again, there is the tea-tree. Many a clump of Leptospermum scoparium is doing most valuable work in my garden: here it is creating a glade, there it forms a background…

When we come closer to the house it is reasonable that some exotic trees and shrubs may be desired, and if the selection is careful they should harmonize with the natural landscape quite pleasingly.

Down on the fringe of Lake Wellington, Gippsland, I saw some attractive native trees with small dark green foliage, trees that turned out to be the tall-growing form of Bursaria spinosa, commonly called Sweet Bursaria. This is a native that we should certainly cultivate; in the vicinity of some massive lichen-covered boulders it would be most picturesque. What is needed is someone who will propagate all these delightful natives that are so pleasing [but not necessarily so showy], who will have in his make-up the artistry to group them into pictures on suitable sites. Many a country home could enjoy an exquisite setting of Australian plants; that does not mean a ‘collection of native plants’; it may mean that only three or four species would predominate as a setting to some more colourful and floriferous types.

Edna goes on to recommend various shrubs and trees, natives to Australian bush. The article finishes with these words of wisdom:

There is a venerable tree at Mooroolbark. It is a Yellow Bark, Eucalyptus melliodora, one of the most beautiful trees I have ever seen, even though the top seems to have been blown out of it. It must have been a tremendous height [for a box tree] in its prime. Now its chief beauty is in its trunk. The pattern of the bark is fascinating beyond description, and I live in perpetual terror of it being cut down for firewood…

All around there is a healthy little family of children, but as they are growing in a grazing paddock they will, no doubt, be cut down as ‘brush’…

This natural reforestation from mother trees makes all old and mature trees extremely valuable. At present the value set upon naturally grown seedlings of some of the finest timber trees in the world is, to the average Australian, nil! In consequence, down come hundreds and hundreds of saplings often through the sheer joy of clearing. ‘Clearing’ has been a natural sport for so long that it is going to be hard to stop it now.

How true those last words are!

Edna Walling died in Australia in 1973. Her work is her lasting memorial.

This is a link to more photos of Edna Wallace Gardens . Please use your back button if you want to go to the class again.

Lesson 6: The Final Verdict and Elizabeth von Arnim

During this final class we will sum up the importance of the women gardeners from the 19th century into our times. Through their written literature and examples of their garden designs, we have learned of the enormous effect of the revolution that took place in the garden worlds of the 20th century.

We will use Elizabeth von Arnim and her book “Elizabeth and her German Garden” both as an example of the beginning of this change in attitude towards women in the garden, and for the enjoyment of reading a delightful book.

Will the soft, romantic garden still be in vogue in the coming years? At the huge garden exhibitions, such as the Chelsea garden Show, in the year 2000, it would seem the trend to create “architectural gardens” is becoming fashionable.

I hope you will have bought or borrowed some of the suggested books.

Some questions we can ask ourselves:

Will the future gardeners look to the books and learn from visiting the gardens of these creative women?

Has our changed life style forced us to create more “simple” landscapes?

Is the future to be “architectural” gardens?

What about the famous women gardeners of today?

Elizabeth von Arnim and Summing Up

ELIZABETH VON ARNIM b 1866 – d 1941

Elizabeth was born Mary Annette Beauchamp in Sydney, Australia but spent her childhood in England. In 1889 her father, Henry Beauchamp went on holiday in Italy, taking his youngest daughter, May who was 23, with him. He expected his wife would be joining them in a week’s time and he hoped that would be so, as he liked to wonder off exploring and doing serious sight seeing on his own. He hated to have to chaperone his daughter, preferring to leave the women to their own devices. Mary, called May by her family, was an intelligent young woman. She had won prizes for History and a prize for organ playing from the Royal College of Music.

May accompanied him on a whirl wind sightseeing tour of the main cities of Italy. May, who must have indeed been a good muscian, had been given an inroduction letter to a noted Roman muscian, with whom they spent the whole evening. This was to prove an important evening. Just before they retired, a gentleman arrived, dressed for a ball at the Quirinal palace. His name was Graf henning August von Arnim-Schlagenthin, a Count who was travelling to get over the deaths of his wife and child. He was attracted to May and one month later, after hearing her play the organ in the American Church in Rome, he decided to ask her to marry him. Von Arnim set about to court May by chasing her to Switzerland and Germany. By the end of July they were engaged to be married. Despite the fast courtship, the marriage did not take place until the following February in London, because von Arnim insisted that his wife to be was proficient in speaking German so she would be able to “handle the servants.”

At first, May [who was now to be known as Elizabeth] the new bride, did not mind mixing in the high society of Berlin and attending the parties of the rich Berliners. But it was not long before she became bored and restless. In 1896, that is five years after marriage and after two children were born, she accompanied her husband on one of his regular visits to his enormous country estate, ninety miles north of Berlin. She found this “country home” consisted of a 17th century castle that was once a convent and had been unoccupied for the last twenty-five years. This was another case of love at first sight, not with the castle which she always rather disliked but, Elizabeth on seeing the large, neglected and rambling garden, knew this was where she wanted to live. With great difficulty, she persuaded von Arnim [a city dweller by nature] to at least live there during the summer time.

The first book, written by Elizabeth, “Elizabeth and Her German Garden”, was published annonymously two years later and it became very popular, having eleven reprints in the first year, and the twenty-first reprint in 1899. Reviews were not all complimentary, one reviewer writing “even the amateur gardener will be disappointed, for he will find therein no tips as to the best method of grafting apples or of destroying vermin.”

The book, in the beginnig, describes her absolute delight of spending her first few weeks in the garden. She was alone there for the months of April and June, her husband believing she was supervising the painting and wall papering in the dishevelled house. But she was not attending to these domesticities: every daylight hour was spent in the wild garden. She discovered bird cherries, lilacs, wild flowers and four huge clumps of silvery-pink paeonies. She made the servants bring her meals of salad, bread and tea [with an occasional tiny pigeon] to her in the garden. The nights were spent alone in the cold house.

This is how she begins her book “Elizabeth and her German Garden”:

“May 7th – I love my garden. I am writing in it now in the late afternoon loveliness, much interrupted by mosquitoes and the temptation to look at all the glories of the new green leaves washed half an hour ago in a cold shower…

This is less a garden than a wilderness. No one has lived in the house, much less the garden, for twenty-five years, and it is such a pretty old place that the people who might have lived here and did not, deliberately preferring the horrors of a flat in a town, must have belonged to those vast eyeless and earless persons of whom the world seems chiefly composed. Noseless too, though it does not sound pretty; but the greater part of my Spring happiness is due to the scent of the wet earth and young leaves. I am always happy, out of doors be it understood, for indoors there are servants and furniture”.

The book, at times rather oddly described as a “novel”, was certainly a different piece of work. One critic declared that Elizabeth was really a man! Elizabeth’s newfound joy, her happiness and excitement that she could change the wilderness into a garden and her fascination with nature, are all written with a lyrical and romantic style. The enthusiasm is mixed with a self-confessed lack of knowledge: she buys ten pounds of ipomae seeds. This she threw everywhere “round nearly every tree, and waited in great agitation for the promised paradise to appear. It did not, and I learned my first lesson”.

The other theme that comes through her writing is the wonderful feeling of freedom she was experiencing. She was ecstatic not to be under the influence of her Prussian autocratic husband and his demands that she attend to “wifely chores and duties”. She could do what she liked, sleep, read and garden, be silent and enjoy the solitude and start to recognize her own determination to be something more than a German housewife and mother.

During these first weeks of solitary delight Elizabeth writes “How happy I was!! I don’t remember any time quite so perfect since the days when I was too little to do lessons and was turned out with my sugar and bread and butter onto a lawn closely strewn with dandelions and daisies. The sugar on the bread and butter has lost its charm, but I love the dandelions and daisies even more passionately now than then”.

Elizath’s paradise was soon to be interrupted, as six weeks later her husband returned. “Then he appeared suddenly who has the right to appear when and how he will and rebuked me for never having written….I took him round the garden along the new paths I had made, and showed him the acacia and lilac glories, and he said that it was the purest selishness to enjoy myself when neither he nor the offspring were with me, and the lilacs wanted thorough pruning. I tried to appease him by offering him the whole of my salad and toast supper which stood ready at the foot of the little verandah steps when we came back, but the Man of Wrath [now her husband is called this throughout the book] said he would “go straight back to the neglected family”.

Lesson 6: The Final Verdict and Elizabeth von Arnim

Elizabeth’s relationship with her husband was strained from now onwards, not only with his domestic duties demand but also with his private desires. There is no doubt that “The Man of Wrath” was devoted to her, he found her fascinating and even learnt to put up with her eccentrities – spending her pin money on manure for instance. Elizabeth’s attitude [through reading the book this is evident] is affectionate too, she teases him and handles him with a brave tactfulness. Elizabeth now had three babies and, in the book she calls them by the months they were born in – “The April”, “The May” and “The June” were welcomed appearances. There were to be five children born to the marriage: four girls and finally the boy that her husband wanted to keep the family title alive.

“Today I am on the vernadah with the three babies, more persistent than the mosquitoes, and already several of the thirty fingers have been in the ink-pot and the owners consoled when duty pointed to rebukes. But who can rebuke such penitent and drooping sunbonnets? I can see nothing but sunbonnets and pinafores and nimble black legs.”

The garden was her escape from domestic duities, which she hated, the haven where she could breath and live, dream and plan. She was also a voracious reader and spent many hours in the garden with a book in her hand. But even in the garden there was conflict.

The above quotation continues:

“These three, their patient nurse, myself and the gardener, and the gardener’s assistant, are the only people who go into the garden, but then neither are we ever out of it. The gardener has been here a year and has given me notice regularly on the first of every month, but up to now has been induced to stay on. On the first of this month he came, as usual, and with determination written on every feature and told me he intended to go in June, and there was nothing should alter his decision. I don’t think he knows much about gardening, but he can at least dig and water, and some of the things he sows come up, and some of the plants he plants grow, besides which he is the most unflaggingly industrious person I ever saw, and he has the great merit of never appearing to take the faintest interest in what we do in the garden. So I have tried to keep him on, not knowing what the next one may be like, and when I asked him what he had to complain of and he replied ‘Nothing,’, I could only conclude that he had a personal objection to me because of my eccentric preference for plants in groups rather than plants in lines. Perhaps, too, he does not like the extracts from gardening books I read to him sometimes when he is planting or sowing something new.”

Elizabeth von Arim went on to write many more books, mainly novels, but it is this first book, “Elizabeth and her German Garden,” that is of most interest to us. She was [along with Gertrude Jekyll] ahead of her time. She created a garden that was not formal but blended the wild with the cultivated, no longer the “bedding out” gardens but a garden of copses and winding paths and garden rooms, a cultivated wilderness.

The famous writer E.M. Forester, 1904, tutor to the children, describes Elizabeth’s garden thus:

“I couldn’t find it. The house appeared to be surrounded by paddock and shrubberies. Later on, some flowers – mostly pansies – came into bloom. Also rose-trees in the little whirligig of laid-out beds. But there was nothing of a show-only the lilacs effected that, and the white flowering faulbaum by which the dykes were edged. Nor did Elizabeth take any interest in flowers. The garden merged into the “park” which was sylvan in tendency and consisted of small copses…..There was also a field in the “park”, over whose long grass, at the end of July, a canopy of butterflies kept waving”.

Hugh Walpole [ a good friend and also tutor] said “the garden is becoming beautiful in a wild rather uncouth kind of way, but it is a garden of trees rather than flowers.”

I searched the Internet to find a photo of Elizabeth von Arnim but it was to no avail.

Lesson 6: The Final Verdict and Elizabeth von Arnim

What have we learnt by delving into the books and lives of women gardeners? I left Elizabeth for this last lesson as she exemplified the beginning of women shrugging off the limited world that had been the expectations of society and husbands. She obstinately refused to attend to the servants or the new curtains so she could spend time in her beloved garden. She was not cowed nor frightened by the garden help and insisited on living her life as she thought best.

I must write mainly about Europe, and in particular what was happening in England and Australia. I was a little girl when the most striking revolutions began in the gardens.

The largest change for women came in the first to middle years of the 20th century. One thought of mine was that the two world wars came during this period. In Europe, the social life changes were dramatic: men left home to fight and the women were asked to turn their gardens over to growing vegetables. Gone were the head gardeners, the under gardeners and the bossy husbands. Food to feed the family was in short supply. Women went into their gardens and dug up their bedding gardens, planted vegetables and, those in the country in England, opened their houses and gardens to take in children from London that were in danger from the constant bombing. Prisoners of war worked on some of the farms and the lady of the house became used to telling men the jobs they should attend to. The Land Army was formed and young girls found themselves doing farm labour work and many discovered that they liked it. I remember, in our household in Tasmania during the years of the second world war, the Red Cross collected vegetables and eggs that had been laid down in isinglass to keep them from going bad. There was also a Land Girl organization formed. My mother worked (as a volunteer) in a factory making jam. Though she did not become a professional gardener, she was able to observe the bad working conditions and when the war was over, she stood for Parliament and was a member for twenty-three years, fighting for the workers.

When things on the home front began to settle down after the wars were finished, the luckier men returned home but sadly many of the men were weakened by war injuries and mental damage. It must have seemed natural for the women to continue working in the gardens and on the farms. In the big gardens, the gardening help of the past was a luxury long gone, the owners were fortunate if they found someone to do the heavy work for a few hours a week. There was only one answer: the lady of the house had to pick up the spade and get stuck into it. Simpler gardens which were not so labour intensive began to appear. Retraining began to take place in the horticultural institutions. Young men, back from the war front, having their training years taken away because they were fighting for their countries, needed to be helped to begin their careers. Teaching institutions were created and many of the young women started to attend them too. Women now had the vote and the feminist movement was becoming a strong force.

Pre 1914-1918, large gardens were formal gardens and part of a vast estate consisting of woods and grazing land. The properties started to become hard to manage and England was just getting back on its feet when the Second World War burst on the scene. After these horrific years, money was short in England and the old formal gardens were virtually gone. Estates were sold off and made into small farm lots [no longer did the whole village and villagers belong to the lord of the manor] and the gardens that we know and love began to be created by both husband and wife, or, in many instances, by the women alone. The women began to write journals of their experiences in the garden and then publish their thoughts, hints and feelings. These books were avidly read by the “cottage” gardeners all around the world. This, arguably, became the great period of “English” gardens. And home gardeners wanted to create the natural gardens, the little wood copses, the herbaceous borders and the cottage gardens they read about in these books, written by Gertrude Jekyll, William Robinson and Vita Sackville-West, to mention only the few we have studied. With this shared knowledge and involvement in gardening matters, women realised they could also enter the professional field and they opened nurseries, became professional landscapers and teachers in horticultural colleges.

The effect of this change was to evolve into demands at our nurseries for exotic plants and trees. Garden makers, looking at the beautiful gardens in their gardening books, wanted to be able to plant little treasures in their rock gardens and oaks and elms to line their driveways. Many families from the war-torn countries in Europe wanted a new start in life and emigrated to the New World Countries – America, New Zealand and Australia. Homesick for the gardens of “home”, their demand to create a “little bit of England” in their new back yards was another reason for the professionals in the garden businesses to consider the stock they were selling.

A period of exploration into the plant worlds of other countries also took place and exotics from all countries were tested for compatibility in the large nursery places and the Botanical Gardens and public gardens and large private gardens. This work demanded a larger work force and many women interested in horticulture found employment in these institutions. Overseas travel became obtainable for many folk as fares dropped in price and the importing of the new plants became a regular practice. This was not always for the best as it could also spread diseases and plant pests in gardens world wide. Some of the imported exotics became weeds growing in the milder conditions of, for example, Australia. But the demand was strong and mainly from the woman gardener who had fallen in love with the white garden of Syssinghurst Castle.

As the 20th Century passed, we saw the explosion into the homes of the Internet. Now we women gardeners are not only able to see the gardens of Europe and America but can order seeds from anywhere and order books, old and new, that have been unobtainable in our own countries. We can look for gardening jobs both at home and overseas. We are able to exchange ideas through forums such as this one. Will all this newly gained knowledge change our gardening habits? Women have joined the work force and are no longer able to spend many hours in the garden, even if the wish to do so is strong. Is the answer to create gardens with concrete instead of mown lawn? Will we women gardeners feel happy in such a garden? Or will we always long for the romance of the cottage garden?

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