Here is our third and last part of our Make it Happen series for International Women’s Day. Last but certainly not least we feature Harriet Rycroft. Harriet used to be the head gardener at Whichford Pottery, she now describes herself as a free range gardener. Harriet is well know, or is that ‘notorious’ for her planting in pots, and you can now access her expertise through her course on Container Gardening through MyGardenSchool.com the next one starts in April.
My first gardening memory is sowing seeds of candytuft, cornflowers and love-in-the-mist in two little rectangles of soil in front of my brand new wendy house. I was amazed when they came up and flowered, and I can remember looking really closely at the flowers and being pleased that they were MINE! I was about five. My first jobs in the garden were probably picking fruit – my dad made a fruit cage, where we grew raspberries, blackcurrants, gooseberries and strawberries. Our dog liked to pick raspberries too, he did it very daintily with his lips, but we didn’t manage to train him not to eat them all!
I am inspired by lots and lots of other gardeners and the list grows all the time. There are gardeners who write inspiringly about their own and other people’s efforts, there are people who are brilliant at growing vegetables, amazing cut flower growers, people who have huge skills in training roses and trees into beautiful shapes, people who collect rare plants from far off places and people who work out how to make those rare plants happy in this country.
There’s one gardener who I really admire but I can’t mention her name because she works in a very grand place and is very discreet – but she manages a big team and a big budget with incredible attention to detail, and produces the most amazing flowers, fruit and vegetables; she has more skill and knowledge than anyone I can think of, is modest but determined and quietly assertive, and is very generous in sharing her knowledge.
I suppose the group of people which inspires me the most is the British women of the early 20th century, especially during the first and second world wars. They got on with learning about gardening and agriculture, which at the time were almost entirely done by men, and showed everyone that women can do those things too. Beatrix Havergal taught a lot of women at Waterperry and although it is said that Roald Dahl based Miss Trunchbull from Matilda on her (because she was very tall and I think she was quite fierce) it sounds like she was a very determined and fair teacher who made everyone work hard and to high standards, producing some of this country’s best gardeners.
I think it is very important to encourage young people to garden because our green spaces, both wild and cultivated, are shrinking all the time, and it is only when you get the chance to really immerse yourself in such a space and begin to find out how complex and fascinating it is that you realise how essential plant communities are to the world and to all the creatures that live there – including humans…
I think it is vital that girls (and boys) are shown at primary school age that getting outside and interacting with the natural world is a normal thing to do. I think many adults have become afraid of letting children explore for themselves, afraid of letting them get dirty and take a few risks, and that fear gets passed on to the kids. I have met far too many children who are afraid to get a bit of mud on their hands! I don’t think it’s helpful to make a big deal of it but we need to show them in an every-day kind of way how much we enjoy it and give them the freedom to experiment, the patience to observe the natural world, and the perseverance to try again if something doesn’t quite work.
As regards girls and gardening – whether amateur or professional – well, if we give them confidence in themselves and help them to challenge stereotypes and assumptions about gender roles plus the opportunities to try out as many things as possible, then those who enjoy it will do it.
I would like to say to girls embarking on horticultural careers: Do it on your own terms, don’t let people tell you that you can’t do certain things as there will always be a way of doing it that they haven’t thought of, horticulture is hugely diverse and there is room for everybody’s talents. Don’t be too proud to ask for help and advice, and remember to help other members of your team. Be interested and willing to try different things – for example don’t assume that machinery is ‘toys for boys’, there is no reason you can’t learn to operate and maintain it too. People (even other women) may not think of giving you the opportunity – don’t wait to be asked, if you see any interesting opportunity enquire about it. And don’t assume that the men in your team are all unskilled muscle – there are plenty of skilled and artistic men out there who just get asked to dig veg beds and mow lawns, equality works both ways!
Gardening well requires the ability to look at a task from many different angles – you need an awareness of science, history, even psychology, all with an artistic and observant eye. If you like being outside and you don’t mind getting wet/dirty/cold sometimes then go for it! Parents and teachers often EXPECT girls not to enjoy the more practical aspects of life but it’s easy to prove them wrong.
I remember helping a class of children at the local primary school to dig holes and plant daffodil bulbs all the way along a path, a really simple but quite laborious task – seeing their pride in the result the following spring was a real treat! So much of gardening seems like magic when you get your first little successes, and the best thing is that for many of us the magic never fades!
My desert island garden tool would be a little pointy spade only 2ft long, made by Sneeboer, a Dutch company which makes tools by hand. It’s great for splitting plants and replanting and it’s really sharp so you could find other uses for it too…
Plants are more difficult – if it really was a desert island I might want something edible like potatoes or runner beans (neither of which I could get sick of), but if I had to choose just one ornamental plant it would probably be a tulip bulb, or preferably a small assortment of tulip bulbs because then I could have fun cross-pollinating them and trying to produce new colours, which would give me something to look forward to.
Books – also tricky, but I’d choose something by Christopher Lloyd or Beth Chatto because they both bring plants alive in their writing and can be very funny at the same time.
My favourite thing about gardening? Being OUTSIDE! I’d hate to be stuck in an office all week.
A final big thank you to our three fantastic contributors. It is exciting to see the passion and enthusiasm for gardening that you ladies display, and also that you are united in your commitment for engaging young people with the natural world. Something as you know we are committed to also with our Educational programme.