Gardening women: meet Fionnuala Fallon’s horticultural heroes

A “forest” of women across the world are connected by their love of plants and flowers

Jennifer Jewell: “I see hope and value in a self-sustaining cycle of living with plants, loving plants, learning plants, growing plants, knowing plants, interpreting plants.”  Photograph:  John Whittlesey

Jennifer Jewell: “I see hope and value in a self-sustaining cycle of living with plants, loving plants, learning plants, growing plants, knowing plants, interpreting plants.” Photograph: John Whittlesey

 

  We all have our heroes and it’s not surprising so many of mine belong in one way or another to the world of plants.

They include gardeners, designers, nursery owners, botanists, herbalists, writers, ecologists, environmentalists, botanical artists, landscape architects, soil scientists, seed producers, garden photographers, organic farmers, horticultural therapists, plant breeders, garden historians, growers, floral designers, conservationists, adventurers, educators and innovators.

Many are women, a fact brought vividly home to me while browsing through the pages of an inspiring new book by the American garden writer and broadcaster Jennifer Jewell.

Titled The Earth in Her Hands; 75 Extraordinary Women Working in the World of Plants (Timber Press), it arrived in bookshops this week, its publication date chiming almost perfectly with the celebration of International Women’s Day tomorrow (March 8th).

Jewell’s own place within that same world as the creator of the award-winning Californian radio show and podcast – Cultivating Place: Conversations on Natural History and the Human Impulse to Garden – is a well-established one. 

Wide-ranging, engaging and insightful, this long-running podcast series has played host to a remarkably diverse range of guests with whom Jewell companionably explores the many ways in which the plant kingdom enriches and informs their lives.

In the case of this book (her first), she continues to explore that same fertile ground, profiling a very diverse group of women (I’m honoured to be among them) whose careers are all firmly rooted in the world of plants.

Some of those featured – Sarah Raven, Alys Fowler, Sarah Price, Arabella Lennox-Boyd, Anna Pavord, Erin Benzakein, Marina Christopher, Jekka McVicar. Ariella Chezar, Martha Schwarz – will already be familiar names to many Irish gardeners.

Portrait shot of Ngoc Minh Ngo  – credit Julian Wass
Ngoc Minh Ngo: Photograph: Julian Wass

Others – examples include the environmentalist and social activist Vandana Shiva, head gardener of Tokachi Millennium Forest Midori Shintani, floral designer and author Cristin Geall, textile artist Sasha Duerr, garden curator Peggy Cornett, writer Jamaica Kincaid, nursery owner Megan Twilegar,  urban farmer Yolanda Burrell, botanical artist Hemlata Pradham and scientist Elaine Ingham – perhaps less so.

Hailing from India, the US, Canada, Australia, Europe and Japan, together they represent a fascinating cross-section of womankind whose careers are intimately connected to the natural world and whose lifelong relationship with the plant kingdom has shaped, sustained, inspired and empowered them.

Jewell writes that compiling the final list of women featured was “akin to mapping mycelia pathways between collaborating organisms in the soil of a forest. They are distinct individuals, and yet in connection and communication: learning from each other, riffing off each other, reacting and responding to one another”.

It is a wonderfully apt description of the myriad ways in which so many very different lives led in such very different parts of the world connect. Not just those of the 75 women profiled, but also the lives of the hundreds of other women that they in turn single out for mention in Jewell’s book as people who’ve inspired and educated them over the course of their careers.

Like ripples in a pond, the latter is a fascinating longlist that stretches right back through time and across the planet. The hugely influential 20th century floral designer Constance Spry is in there, for example, alongside many outstanding gardeners, plantspeople, designers and writers.

Portrait shot of Midori Shintani – credit Kiichi Noro
Midori Shintani: Photograph: Kiichi Noro

They include Gertrude Jekyll, Beatrix Farrand, Elizabeth Strangman, June Blake, Helen Dillon, Isabel Bannerman, Katharine S White, Penelope Hobhouse, Vita Sackville-West, Nicole de Vésian, Sylvia Crowe, Valerie Finnis, Miriam Rothschild, Beth Chatto, Joy Larkcom, Carol Klein and Margery Fish; environmentalists such as Rachel Carson, Marjorie Spock and Lady Evelyn Balfour; food writers and chefs such as Darina Allen, Elizabeth David, Yoshiko Tatsumi, Skye Gyngell and Jane Grigson; artists and photographers such as Rachel Ruysch, Marianne Majerus, Mary Delany, Margaret Mee, Marianne North, Georgia O’Keefe and  Anna Atkins; scientists such as Jane Goodall, Diana Beresford-Kroeger, Dr Barbara McClintock and Hope Jahren; and social activists and advocates such as Harriet Tubman, Dolores Huerta and Olive Pink.

This in itself is a truly astonishing roll call of talented, dedicated, brilliant women– just imagine them all in a room together – yet it’s still only the tiniest cross-section of the “forest” Jewell speaks of. 

Indeed, what this fascinating book proves beyond doubt is that all of us walk in the footsteps of others and are part of a vast and glorious collective – what some would describe as a hive mind – that hugely enriches our lives and our communities.

Yes, our perspectives can radically differ, moulded as they inevitably are by a host of factors – geography, age, ethnicity, upbringing, educational opportunities – but it’s our interconnectedness that ultimately shapes us, just like trees in a vast forest.

Jewell’s book also serves as a valuable reminder of how much we all owe the world of plants. Or as she puts it in her introduction: “I believe gardens and gardeners are powerful, intersectional spaces and agents of betterment in our world. I see hope and value in a self-sustaining cycle of living with plants, loving plants, learning plants, growing plants, knowing plants, interpreting plants, and educating and engaging upcoming plantspeople and the public through communication and interpretation.”

Ira Wallace. Photograph: Eze Amos Photography
Ira Wallace. Photograph: Eze Amos Photography

I couldn’t agree more.

(The Earth in Her Hands: 75 Extraordinary Women Working in the World of Plants by Jennifer Jewell, Timber Press $35/ £26.92)

Visit this

Drawn from Nature: Irish Botanical Art, the exhibition of Irish botanical art that opens at the National Gallery of Ireland today. Curated by Janet McLean and the author and art historian Patricia Butler on whose new book –Irish Botanical Illustrators & Flower Painters – it is based, the exhibition celebrates artists who have made significant contributions to art, science, and our understanding of the natural world from historical figures such as Lady Edith Blake, George Victor du Noyer and William Kilburn to contemporary artists including Mary Dillon, Shevaun Doherty, Deborah Lambkin, Siobhán M Larkin, Margareta Pertl, Yanny Petters, Susan Sex, Jane Stark, Lynn Stringer and Holly Somerville. Drawn from Nature continues at the gallery until Sunday 21st June.

This Week in the Garden

Continue sowing hardy annuals such as larkspur (Consolida), corncockle (Agrostemma githago), sweet pea (Lathyrus), cornflower (Centaurea cyanus), gysophila, orlaya and ammi, all of which will flower this summer from sowings made at this time of year.

For best results, sow under cover of a frost-free glasshouse or polytunnel for pricking out into cell-trays/ modules and then transplanting outdoors in late spring. Recommended seed suppliers include seedaholic.com and all good garden centres. 

It’s been an unusually sodden spring so far with the soil in most gardens chilled and waterlogged so do your best to avoid walking on lawns, flower and vegetable beds or working them until conditions improve; otherwise you run the risk of causing more long-term problems with drainage as a result of compaction.

When and if you do need to walk on them, use wooden boards to spread your weight and to help minimise damage. Likewise, hold off cutting lawns until conditions improve.

Dates For Your Diary

Thursday March 12th (8pm), Artane Beaumont Family Recreation Centre, Kilmore Road, Dublin 5,  “Daffodils”, a talk by Deirdre Cairns on behalf of Dublin Five Horticultural Society , admission €5, call 0872423020 for further details.

Saturday 14th March (from 10am), National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin 9, “Sustainable Gardening”,  RHSI  Annual Seminar with guest speakers Alys Fowler, Nigel Dunnett and John Fitzgerald, tickets from €40 (horticultural students), €80 (RHSI Member, and €100 for  non-members, pre-booking essential, see rhsi.ie

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