FRANCES PERRY, with her startlingly white hair in a tidy halo round an always tanned face, was a familiar sight at all the gatherings of the gardening correspondent's calendar. By the time I joined the pack in 1986, she was already almost 80, but was still working hard, contributing her column to the Observer, as she had done for almost 20 years, writing books, attending meetings of the Royal Horticultural Society of which she was the first woman council member. 'If you want me because I am a woman, the answer is no,' she wrote in reply to Lord Aberconway, who first invited her to join that daunting cabal. 'If you want me because of anything I have done in horticulture, the answer is yes.'
Like her second husband, Roy Hay, who died in 1989, Frances Perry was one of the tribal elders of the horticultural world. Their entire lives were spent in horticulture and their success was won through endeavour rather than luck.
She was born Frances Everett in 1907, and her first job was in a famous nursery, the Hardy Plant Farm, which belonged to Amos Perry. Frances Perry married Amos's son Gerald in 1930, and eight years later published the first of her many books, Water Gardening. She spent most of her life in and around Enfield. She was born there and educated there. She worked there at the Perry's nursery and lived there most of her life. Only after Hay's death, did her son by her first marriage persuade her to join him and his family, at Lustleigh, in Devon. I remember going to see her one morning at her home in Enfield at the start of my own career as a gardening correspondent. It was a comfortable house with a well-filled conservatory on one side of it. Gadgets almost outnumbered plants. Both she and her husband shared this fondness for gadgetry: pump action watering cans to water plants in high places, complicated chain mechanisms to raise and lower hanging baskets.
Her study was thick with bookshelves and her collection of gardening books covered almost three walls. Outside the kitchen window, a particularly fine clump of a pale yellow Helleborus orientalis flowered in the winter sunshine. She had been given it by the plantsman EA Bowles, an Enfield neighbour and mentor since her childhood. Perry suggested I should stay for lunch. 'I didn't ask you before,' she said. 'I wasn't sure I should like you.' This direct manner was one of her most endearing strengths. She used it to great effect on television where she was one of the first of the personality pundits. 'The heat in the studio was terrible,' she remembered. 'They always said I was too brown so they put yellow stuff all over my face.' The programmes went out live and there were no rehearsals.
Her writing career spanned more than 50 years and though she will perhaps be best remembered for the books she wrote on water gardening (there were four of them), her interests ranged over a wide variety of subjects. She wrote about tropical plants, about herbaceous borders, about women gardeners and about bulbs. Her last book, Scent in the Garden, was published in 1989, but right up to the time of her death she was working on another, a history of garden plants.
Shortly after she started her writing career, she was appointed horticultural adviser to Middlesex County Council. Nobody could have known the horticultural capabilities of that particular patch better than she did. Ten years later, she was invited to be the principal of the Norwood Hall College of Horticultural and Agricultural Education and she stayed in that post until she retired.
Her face had the no-nonsense quality of the best kind of teacher. It was a robust, country face and her voice still carried a faint trace of a country burr. Nothing could be further from the rural idyll than Enfield now, but in Frances Perry's childhood it was still a place of meadows and open spaces. She picked wild flowers there which Bowles helped her to identify. 'I look upon you as one of my boys,' he said. Before she retired from the Norwood college, Perry was appointed MBE for her services to horticultural education. It was the first of several honours, the greatest of all being the Victoria Medal of Honour which was awarded to her by the Royal Horticultural Society in 1971. For gardeners, this is the ultimate accolade. Her readers, and they are many, will continue to value her for the straightforward and clear advice offered in her many gardening books.
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