This story of two women begins in 1961. That was the year Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, the daughter of the founder of Warner-Lambert and the Gillette Safety Razor Company and wife of banking heir Paul Mellon, hosted an August picnic for some close friends at her home on Cape Cod. Two of the guests were President and Mrs. Kennedy.
Very often, when gardeners walk through the well-tended garden of another gardener, the first impulse is to notice the plants, the textures, the play of color from one bed to the next. Quickly behind that assessment is the acknowledgement — and admiration — for the work and thought that went into creating their garden paradise.
It’s that thought which makes The Victorian Gardener (Shire Publications), by Caroline Ikin, such a fascinating book. Written with Ikin’s keen eye for detail and passion for all things Victorian, the book is a tribute in both words and photos to the men — and eventually the women — who made gardening their life’s work, who tended some of the most famous estate gardens in the world, and who did much of the work with their hands, muscles, and brains.
I recently had the chance to speak with Ms. Ikin, whose previous book, The Victorian Garden, was also featured on this blog.
NGDM: This is very exciting for me, since you mentioned you were working on this book in our earlier interview promoting The Victorian Garden. In that interview, you mentioned how drawn you were to the Victorian time period — the people, the technology, the role of women. Did anything surprise you in your research for The Victorian Gardener?
CI: It is astounding just how dedicated these young men were in the pursuit of their chosen career. To become a gardener they had to work their way up through the ranks of the profession, moving from garden to garden to gain experience and often living in very basic accommodations. They were expected to study in the evening, keep detailed journals of their progress, learn Latin, bookkeeping and geometry, and never really had any time off as the glasshouse vents had to be opened whether it was a weekday or a weekend.
It was inspiring to research the lives of the pioneering women gardeners who enrolled in training courses and overcame prejudice to gain employment as gardeners alongside men. However, my admiration of this achievement was tempered by the fact that many of these women abandoned their fledgling careers after a year or two to get married, forsaking their hard-won vocation so rapidly.
NGDM: At first glance, The Victorian Gardener appears to be a history book — or a tribute — to Victorian gardeners and their contributions to gardening today. I must tell you, though, that as I read your book I felt I was reading more of a family tree than a history book. I felt a very strong connection to the men — and eventually the women — who toiled in the garden. Was that your goal when you set out to write this book?
CI: There has been a lot written about gardening and garden design, but very little about the history of the gardening profession. I wanted to research the lives of the people who toiled behind the scenes to create such spectacular gardens for their employers and learn how they accomplished so much with the resources available to them at the time. It took a lot of dedication to become a gardener in the Victorian Era and there was opportunity to be grasped by the most ambitious young men. The faces looking poignantly out of the old photographs hint at untold stories and it was this history I wanted to explore.
NGDM: In our previous interview, you mentioned that the class structure and social conventions of the Victorian Era would prove too limiting for you. For many Victorian women who gardened, that seemed to be true as well — but as a male reader, I must say I was very impressed with the dedication that these gardeners displayed for their craft. What do you think they could teach us about gardening? What do you think they would think of gardening today?
CI: The Victorians recognised the value of apprenticeship where experienced gardeners would pass on their skills to the next generation. Their methods were based on trial and error, learning from experience and working with nature. Victorian gardeners did not always understand why their techniques worked; they just knew that they did.
When scientific discoveries demystified the nature of botany and processes such as photosynthesis were understood, the gardening profession was elevated to a new level and training courses were established to teach gardeners not only the practical skills necessary to grow plants, but also the science behind the practice.
Just as we do today, Victorian gardeners had to embrace new technology and innovative gadgetry, and experienced gardeners seemed remarkably adept at distinguishing the useful from the worthless. It is no surprise that basic tools such as the trowel and the rake have been in use for centuries with no change to their design.
Although the working conditions of gardeners have improved since Victorian times, it is still a profession where you have to start at the bottom and work your way up, learning all the time from other gardeners, studying books on botany and plant propagation, gaining experience in gardens with different types of soil and climate, working long hours and on weekends.
I think a Victorian gardener time-travelling to a garden in the twenty-first century would recognise a lot of what he saw, and would be disappointed to see that, despite advances in science and technology, there was still no effective way of getting rid of slugs, that weeding was still done by hand, and that water was carried around in a watering-can.
NGDM: As in your previous book, the artwork and collection of photos is astounding! When it comes to putting it all together, how difficult is it for you to narrow down your selection?
CI: I was very fortunate, as I was with my last book, to have access to the extensive collection of archive images at The Garden Museum in London. Although there are many group photographs of Victorian gardeners posing with the tools of their trade, it was quite tricky to find portraits of named gardeners, as few were recorded for posterity in this way, which reflects their status in society. It was also very difficult to find enough colour images to satisfy the publishers – all these remarkable photographs are, of course, in black and white.
NGDM: Two photos in the book jumped out at me — and they’re both of women. One has a woman in full Victorian attire — as if she were going to a garden party — while pushing a lawn mower. The other features a trio of women in men’s clothing. When you’re in your own garden, what’s most comfortable for you to wear?
CI: I love that photograph of the women gardeners at Kew, looking rather defensive in their breeches and boots. The staff at Kew were put in a tricky position when they took on these first women gardeners as there was no precedent for female gardening attire – women would not dare to show their ankles, let alone don a pair of trousers! The voluminous skirts of Victorian fashion were liable to squash the plants, and frills and lace were hardly practical for digging, barrowing and muck-spreading. The decision to allow women to wear the same clothes as men may seem like a radical act of equality, but I suspect it was made out of necessity and a lack of other options.
The idea of wearing a shirt and tie and a three-piece suit for gardening does strike me as uncommonly impractical, not to mention uncomfortable – I prefer jeans and a T-shirt and a sunhat (I’m very much a fair weather gardener, I’m afraid).
What gardening clothing or garden tool could you not live without?
If you would like to win your own copy of Caroline Ikin’s The Victorian Gardener, please leave a comment about the garden clothing or garden tool you could not live without. For a second chance to win, please visit the Nitty Gritty Dirt Man Facebook page, and answer the same question there.
Entries should be received by Friday, May 16. A winner will be announced on Sunday, May 18.
Thanks for participating — and Happy Mother’s Day!
Wow! What a week it’s been. Comments from all over the world arrived on both this site and my Facebook page. Not only did I appreciate your interaction with the post, but after reading each comment I learned so much about all of you.
The one thing you all had in common is that you are a very creative group! It was refreshing and impressive to see how many of you are not deterred by age, proudly holding onto crayons and colored pencils to use in all sorts of coloring books.
To select a winner, I created a spreadsheet of commenters, each one receiving a number. I then went to Random.org, where I inputted the number range in the “True Random Number Generator.” The next step was to hit the “generate” button . . .
And the winner is . . .
This post begins and ends with a gift.
Just prior to the Christmas holiday, a very dear coworker of mine, Lorraine, presented me with a silver-wrapped package tied with a string of sparkling stars. She explained that when she saw this item, she thought of me. It was whimsical, she said, and she thought — or at least hoped — that I would understand.
Her only instruction was to open it on Christmas morning.
And so I brought the present home and placed it under the tree and stared at it, wondering what sort of whimsy was hidden beneath the silver foil paper.
At this time of year, as the garden tumbles into autumn colors in preparation for its winter sleep, it’s difficult to not search out garden photos — whether of my own garden, the gardens of other bloggers, or especially gardens of the past.
It’s in those old photos, the kind that give a peek into a moment in time, that the questions start to swirl. What plants did they select and why? Where was the best spot to view the garden? What were the scents and aromas? The sounds? Who tended the beds? What tools did they use?
Enter The Victorian Garden (Shire Publications), a fact-filled and image-rich book by Caroline Ikin. Beautifully crafted, the book not only offers a clear explanation of Victorian garden style and history, it also celebrates the Victorian gardeners and their innovations — accomplished through Ikin’s skill at bringing readers along as she steps through the garden gate.
Recently, I had the chance to ask Caroline Ikin about her book, the Victorians, and life in her own garden.
Some conversations are too big to fit into a single post. That’s how it was when I communicated with Linda Holden Hoyt, author of the very fascinating Presidents’ Gardens. Just like the book, the interview was filled with anecdotes and historical tidbits, as well as Ms. Hoyt’s warm recollections of her experience in the White House gardens.
NGDM: What was your role in the Reagan administration?
LHH: I worked on President Reagan’s staff and had an office in the West Wing, so I enjoyed a beautiful view of the ever-changing White House grounds and I pinched myself in the morning when I walked through the gates on the way to work and again in the evening when I left for home.
NGDM: When you were a young girl visiting Presidential gardens, did you ever dream that someday you would be working in the White House?
LHH: No, but as a child I spent a lot of time cutting and pasting pictures of the White House and the presidents into a scrapbook. I’d flip through magazines like Life and Calling All Girls, collected from my grandmother and piano teacher. When visiting the White House, I remember wanting to run up the stairs to see what was up there! In my teen years, I read Backstairs at the White House, Upstairs at the White House and anything like it I could get my hands on. History is really important to me — especially the “story” part — I love the stories of the people who impacted history.
I’m kicking myself — again. This time, it’s all because I forgot to bring my camera to a July 4th fireworks show. It would have been a great opportunity to play with the fireworks feature on my camera.
That’s what I was lamenting when I noticed these white begonia blooms. Kaboom!
The begonia story actually began last summer, when they were planted in a narrow strip along the north side of the house. Fast forward through a hurricane, freezing winter temperatures, a blizzard that dumped three feet of snow, and spring, when I noticed small green leaves poking up in a bed of dead begonias.