Who are the silent heroes of gardening? CLUE: They’re not men…

Who are the silent heroes of gardening? CLUE: They’re not men. In her book, ALICE VINCENT argues that women’s contribution to the craft is still undervalued


by Alice Vincent (Canongate £16.99, 304pp)

Is there any pastime which cuts across gender barriers in the way that gardening does? Go to a nursery or garden centre this weekend and I bet you’ll see a pretty even split of men and women browsing through plants or eyeing up shiny tools.

As the historian Catherine Horwood wrote in her 2010 book Gardening Women: ‘For centuries gardens have been important to women, and women have been important to gardens’, even though almost all women gardeners were denied any share of the limelight until the arrival, in the mid-19th century, of the great garden designer Gertrude Jekyll.

Nowadays, many of Britain’s most influential gardeners — Carol Klein, Rachel de Thame, Anna Pavord, Sarah Raven and even the Princess of Wales — are women.

In Why Women Grow, journalist Alice Vincent argues that women’s contribution to gardening is still being undervalued. ‘We have silently made the world more beautiful, too often without acknowledgement’, she declares, pointing out that ‘the majority of RHS Chelsea Flower Show gardens are still designed by men, who take home more of the medals; there has never been a female lead presenter of Gardeners’ World’.

Vincent’s previous book, Rootbound, told of her joyful discovery of gardening in her 20s and how tending a tiny urban balcony helped her get over a painful relationship break-up.

Female persuasion: Picking flowers in the garden. Journalist Alice Vincent explores the role women have played in art of gardening

Female persuasion: Picking flowers in the garden. Journalist Alice Vincent explores the role women have played in art of gardening

At the beginning of this book she has a supportive new partner and has moved into a new property — with a garden! — yet she is still anxious and dissatisfied. To cheer herself up she embarks on a project to interview other women about what gardening means to them. She posts a message online with the simple question: ‘What drew you to gardening?’ By the next day, she has received 500 answers.

For the next few months, Vincent travels around the country interviewing a selection of women about their experiences. Some of the replies from new mothers tell her that gardening gives them a reason to be outside with their children, while others see the garden as a precious opportunity to get some time away from their offspring.

One new mum finds the garden an escape from the loneliness she feels indoors. Several of her interviewees use gardening as a way of coping with stress and anxiety. 

One of them takes up gardening while in the grip of severe agoraphobia, brought on by being caught up in a terrorist incident in Paris. Her bramble-infested garden, now a jumble of roses, clematis and honeysuckle, was the only outdoor space she could bear to be in.

Soon ‘curiosity encouraged her to explore the local neighbourhood, see what was growing there that might work in her own depleted soil’.

Another woman, a victim of a sexual assault, says ‘the ground gave her something to hold, to indulge in and escape to’.

One of the best chapters in the book sees Vincent returning to the house where she grew up, driven by a longing to see her childhood garden again. The house’s new owner invites her to wander around and she has a Proustian moment: ‘I can taste the listlessness and longing of my adolescence.’

She had always believed her father was the gardener in the family but standing in the garden she has a revelation. All the things she loved best about it — the sweet peas, the Welsh poppies, the coldframe — were her mother’s doing.

‘I see her artistry, her cleverness, in the hard landscaping that still stands,’ she writes.

Alice Vincent writes lyrically about gardens and she makes some valid points about the pivotal role gardening plays in many women’s lives, but Why Women Grow is let down by her tendency towards navel-gazing. The simple joy of gardening gets lost in the mix.

Still, any gardener — woman or man — will surely agree with her when she asserts: ‘To green a space is to occupy it. To spring life from dirty grey concrete is to stage a takeover. To garden is to cultivate a superpower.’

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