English Women and Their Gardens

An evening spent imaging how English women shaped and informed the development of gardens and gardening was enjoyed on June 17 when Marion Mako spoke at the Marion Music Hall. Mako was hosted by the Sippican Historical Society and the Marion Garden Group where she took the full house on a centuries-long romp through English gardens.

            Mako is an author, educator and expert on the topic of English gardens through the ages and has honed some of her knowledge into a talk about the female influencers whom we Americans may or may not have heard about previously. Her talk was not only informative, but it was entertaining, as Mako sprinkled historical tidbits like a light English shower throughout the hour-long verbal tour. It was also beautifully annotated with slides of English garden splendor.

            According to Mako, it all began with Adams and Eve in the Garden of Eden!

            This biblical reference to gardens has long stood for perfection and for paradise lost, given what we are told became of this couple. Mako’s perspective was that Adam got to enjoy all the fruits of the garden, including Eve, who was cast as a weak and wanting, nay even devil-possessed soul.

            Women would, as we know, eventually come to stand shoulder to shoulder with men (more or less) but that would take centuries – centuries that would find women figuring out how to advance gardening, Mako would explain.

            Gardens were considered refuges for women. Islamic gardens were the only outdoor spaces women could go unaccompanied by a male family member. English gardens were nearly as important to the women of those early eras, given that women weren’t given much in the way freedom of movement, again and unless a trusted mail escort was at the ready. But what these women saw in those early gardens was used as imagery that they could incorporate into clothing and household décor. Mako called out Elizabeth I, whose gowns were heavily embroidered with floral scenes. The queen also instructed her gardeners in the selection of plants and garden designs.

            Bess of Hardwick (1527-1608) was known in her time as one of the richest women in the country, a noblewoman who was also famous as a builder who had two residences constructed side by side and, of course, associated gardens. She was a close friend of Elizabeth I. Mako said gardens were developed at this time by titled women, while poor women were employed to weed them and were called “weeding women.”

            Mako’s presentation thoroughly explored the garden vistas helped by noblewomen such as Henrietta Maria, who participated in the design of St. James Park, Summerset House and Wimbledon, Elizabeth Duchess of Lauderdale at Ham House and Mary Duchess of Beaufort, who became the first female plant collector and breeder raising exotic varieties.

            Mako shared that queens were important influencers of garden design. There was Queen Mary, who planned gardens for year-round blooming and with Dutch context, Queen Caroline, who added German themes, and Queen Charlotte, who adopted a more relaxed, less formal approach to garden designs and participated in the development of Kew Gardens in London, not to be confused with the Kew Gardens in New York.

            By the 1800s, women had established themselves as viable “plants-women,” Mako stated, including the publication of books on gardening. Jane Loudon is noted as one of the first women to write about gardening for women, including a ladies magazine on the topic. Further, Mako pointed out that women were expanding their educations and areas of interest including Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) whose father was Lord Byron. This highborn woman was a highly respected mathematician and writer and is remembered for working with Charles Babbage on the Analytical Engine, a calculating device.

            Mako said that with the advent of WWII, many gardens were turned to the task of food production. She said that publications such as The National Garden Schemes Yellow Books became and continue to be very popular.

            And as the decades brought power-generation plants onto what before had been unobstructed country views, one Sylvia Crowe wrote a book titled “Landscapes of Power,” in which she explained how well, thought-out plantings could over time camouflage power plants so that from a distance they are barely visible.

            To learn more about English gardens, you can view Mako’s presentation at sippicanhistoricalsociety.org or visit Mako’s website at makogardens.co.uk.

Marion Garden Group

By Marilou Newell

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