Great women gardeners

Jacq Barber, Assistant Editor, Curatorial Content Online Jacq Barber Assistant Editor, Curatorial Content Online

Women have long been owners and creators of some of our most famous gardens but until the early 20th century it was virtually impossible for any woman, regardless of her social background, to enter the world of professional horticulture and garden design.

Here we take a look at some of the pioneers over the past 170 years, from aristocratic women who, as garden owners, orchestrated their personal visions, to others from a variety of backgrounds who became garden designers in their own right. The celebrated gardens they created carry their legacies which you can still enjoy today.

The Jekyll garden centenary plaque

Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) 

In creating her arts and crafts legacy, Jekyll's naturalistic drifts of herbaceous planting faded from cool colours to hot and back again; a stark contrast to the prevailing fashion for formal, garish bedding schemes.

Her partnership with the young architect, Edwin Lutyens, lasted nearly 25 years and their collaboration produced over 100 houses and gardens at the pinnacle of Edwardian garden design. She authored ten books in as many years, alongside thousands of articles, and her style of gardening remains popular today.

The McLarens at Bodnant Hall.

Laura McLaren, Lady Aberconwy (1854–1933) 

Bodnant’s acclaimed gardens owe much to Laura McLaren, Lady Aberconwy, who inherited the house and garden from her father, Henry Ponchin, in 1895. She followed in the footsteps of her mother as a leading Liberal suffragist, but her other passion was horticulture.

Alongside her eldest son Henry, Laura expanded and developed the garden. Her influence can be seen in the ambitious Italianate terraces they planned in the early years of the 20th century.

In later life, in recognition of her horticultural achievements, she was awarded the prestigious RHS Victoria Medal of Honour.

Norah Lindsay

Norah Lindsay (1873 - 1948) 

Norah Lindsay was the preeminent society garden designer of the interwar years. Yet she may have been remembered foremost as a socialite, had her marriage not collapsed in 1924. Aged 51 and needing an income, she used her talent to make beautiful gardens for the titled and wealthy across Britain and Europe.

Without horticultural training but with a great eye for design and colour, Norah borrowed Jekyll’s style, often adding more exuberant and looser planting alongside formal hedging and topiary. You can see Lindsay's work at Cliveden, Blickling Hall, Chirk Castle, Hidcote and Mottisfont Abbey.

Edith Lady Londonderry in the gardens at Mount Stewart

Edith, Lady Londonderry (1878-1959) 

Visionary garden designer, suffragette and society hostess, Edith Vane-Tempest-Stewart, Lady Londonderry, created one of the most original gardens of the 20th century at Mount Stewart, in County Down, Northern Ireland.

After the First World War and in her 40s, Edith channelled her energies into the garden, filling it with rich symbolism inspired by her Celtic upbringing and Greek myths. She amassed an unrivalled collection of rare and tender plants, taking advantage of the mild climate of Strangford Lough and experimented with bold planting schemes. She even famously turned down Gertrude Jekyll’s proposals for the garden in favour of her own.

Vita Sackville-West, photographed around the time Sissinghurst was purchased in 1930

Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962) 

Sissinghurst Castle Garden in Kent is one of the most famous and influential gardens in the world. Purchased in 1930, Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson restored the collection of neglected Tudor buildings and farmland, salving Vita’s bitter disappointment that, as a woman, she was unable to inherit her beloved ancestral home, Knole.

First and foremost a writer and poet, Vita was not a professional gardener, but her planting and originality are a hallmark of the garden. She filled the formal structure of garden rooms and vistas with romantic, billowing planting and defined colour schemes including the White Garden, which has inspired thousands of imitations.

Kitty Lloyd Jones

Kitty Lloyd Jones (1898-1978) 

Kitty Lloyd Jones had neither the social connections or financial security of the women gardeners before her.

One of the first women to train as a professional horticulturalist, she graduated from Reading University in 1925. Despite her exceptional ability, she struggled to find work in her chosen profession. A chance job led to Kitty’s first commission and an important entrée into the world of the wealthy and well connected.

Her style of gardening wasn’t radical, but her chosen profession was; she became a true pioneer for the professional female horticulturalist and garden designer.

Framed photographic portrait of a young Anne Messel, later Lady Rosse, in the Old Staircase Hall, Nymans, West Sussex, c. 1920s.

The Messels at Nymans 

Three women from the Messel family at Nymans in West Sussex helped to shape this famed 20th century garden.

Ludwig Messel, a successful stockbroker, purchased Nymans for his family in 1890. His daughter, Muriel, inherited her father’s love of gardening and her catalogue of all the plants in the garden was published in 1918 in 'A Garden Flora'. Her sister-in-law, Maud, had a particular interest in old rose varieties and the rose garden, created in the 1920s, became home to her collection. Maud’s daughter, Anne, grew up at Nymans and moved back there when widowed in 1979, continuing her close involvement with the garden’s development until her death in 1992.