There are many incredible women who have, and are still dominating the world of gardening, so for International Women’s Day we’ve listed some of the key, female garden designers in British history that still influence the way we garden today, alongside some of the top women garden designers who are currently succeeding in the industry.
19th century female gardeners
From the middle of the 19th century, it is largely women who have shaped the way we think about gardens.
Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932)
No designer has had more enduring influence on the British garden: for a century her painterly way of grouping plants in large, informal masses of colour; her insistence on harmony and rhythm; and her embrace of formal structure softened with loose, richly textured planting, has been the sine qua non of the successful British garden. Gardens were considered a series of carefully made pictures; and only really in the last decade has colour been supplanted as the guiding principle of design.
Margery Fish (1892-1969)
Our current fascination for perennials, and especially our continuing love-affair with the cottage garden, can be traced back to Margery Fish, whose approachable, funny and commonsensical books championed a more simple and informal planting style. She was an early fan of silver foliage, and introduced the concept of ground cover as a labour-saving device.
Brenda Colvin (1897-1981)
In 1947, Brenda published Land and Landscape – an influential work on landscape in the 20th century, reflecting her commitment to an ecological approach and to simple planting. While loving her own garden, Little Peacocks, Brenda famously rejected private garden design as too subject to the whims and fancies of owners, turning to more durable projects such as power stations, reservoirs and town planning.
Norah Lindsay (1866-1948)
A major influence in the interwar years, Norah developed a rich, romantic, ‘untidy’ style that encouraged serendipity and self-seeding, wonderfully realised at her garden at Sutton Courtenay. In the 1920s, penniless but well connected, she began a glittering career as a High Society garden designer. Today she is best known for her long collaboration with Lawrence Johnston at Hidcote.
Phyllis Reiss (1886-1961)
When Phyllis Reiss moved to Tintinhull in 1933, she set about creating a garden of rooms within the Hamstone walls: tranquil enclosures unified by repeated plantings of silver, bronze and burgundy foliage and rhythmic topiary. Her unfussy elegance and year-round planting was to influence designers from Lanning Roper to Sylvia Crowe, and not least her successor at Tintinhull, Penelope Hobhouse.
Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962)
Vita would have insisted it was her husband, Harold Nicolson, who was the designer at now iconic Sissinghurst Castle – certainly in terms of its ground plan of rooms. But her exuberant, multi-layered planting style and her colour-themed gardens, especially her celebrated White Garden, have probably spawned more imitators in more countries than any designer, before or since.
Sylvia Crowe (1901-1997)
Sylvia Crowe was the pre-eminent landscape architect in post-war Britain and the author of a host of standard texts on landscaping, design and forestry. Her Garden Design (1958) is cited by many designers as a seminal text. Sylvia worked on Harlow and Basildon new towns, created Rutland Water, merged hated power stations and commercial forestry into the landscape – but never entirely abandoned gardens.
Rosemary Verey (1918-2001)
Rosemary came to epitomise Country House style, at its zenith in the 1980s, which she marketed with particular success in USA – all yew hedges, knots, fulsome pastel borders, discreet classical statuary and immaculate maintenance. She had a gift for striking set pieces – her laburnum tunnel and above all her supremely photogenic potager, inspired by Villandry, were copied the world over.
Key women garden designers today
Mother of four, Rosemary Alexander was given six months to prove herself when she began work in the 1970s as the only female trainee in a London firm of landscape architects. But she confounded expectations by lasting the course, and went on to rise to prominence as a teacher, writer and designer. For 11 years she was tenant of the National Trust’s Stoneacre in Kent, where she transformed the gardens. Since 2000 she has made a new garden in Hampshire.
LADY ARABELLA LENNOX-BOYD
Born in Rome, Arabella Lennox-Boyd spent seven years studying landscape architecture in London. In an international career spanning four decades, she has won six Chelsea Golds and created over 450 gardens, from sleek city rooftops to landscape parks and Italian palace gardens. “I’m in love with plants,” she declares. “And because I’m Italian, I’m in love with design, so I can only feel comfortable if the space is right.”
Following a first career as a psychotherapist, and a stint with Dan Pearson, self-taught Jinny Blom set up as a garden designer in 2000. Her best advice to women starting out? “Running a small business is hard work. Your family and friendships will suffer, your free time will evaporate and you will be, largely speaking, overstretched and underappreciated. But if you feel that’s the life for you, then go ahead.”
At 38, Penelope Hobhouse was turned down by the landscape architecture course at Leeds, on the grounds that she was too old to make a meaningful career. Crestfallen, she went home and wrote a book – the first of many that were to provide inspiration to gardeners. In 1980 she took on the National Trust garden at Tintinhull in Somerset, which proved a stepping stone to a stellar international career in garden design.
After struggling to make a living as an artist, Sarah Price retrained as a garden designer. Working on the Olympic Park, youth was more an issue than gender. “As a young woman designer, I was treated with a great deal more respect on the Olympic project than on many less high-profile jobs. It almost seems, the less professional the environment, the more prejudice you have to overcome.”