Paperback review: The Making of the English Gardener - Plants, Books and Inspiration 1560-1660, By Margaret Willes

Digging over our blooming past

One might expect a history of the English gardener that focused on the 16th and 17th centuries to be an entirely male-dominated one, and, as Willes shows, that is often the case. There were hierarchies, of course, that kept women out of it: "herb-women" whose medicinal expertise lay in the plants they grew were not welcomed or taken seriously by wealthy men such as William Cecil who wanted gardens designed in a classical manner. And those who brought back exotic plants from far-off lands were male explorers, not female ones.

But after the first book on gardening appeared, written by Thomas Hill and published in 1558, women not only read advice on keeping herb and vegetable gardens (famine in 1597 had starving folk turning to root vegetables, traditionally the food of the poor), but they published it, too, like Blanche Henrey. Such women as Lady Mildmay and Bess of Hardwick owned gardening manuals, although, as Willes admits, these are really only "tantalising glimpses" of what women might have known and read. But Lady Fettiplace grew her own flowers to be dried, powdered and distilled, and Lady Russell designed a garden performance involving her daughters, as a show for the visiting Elizabeth I – the first with speaking parts for women.

These may just be glimpses, but as civil war forced sons of great families to Europe, who later brought back with them what they learned in great gardens abroad, Willes marries the particular with the global, and intriguingly links decoration and detail – aspects more associated with women – with this era of male gardeners and garden designers.

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