Mother’s Day is just around the corner and with the shops filling up with cards and flowers it got us thinking about the relationship between women and gardening. I suppose it’s a bit like food – the top chefs tend to be men, but it’s the women who do most of the cooking in the home. A straw poll of the top garden designers, head gardeners and TV gardening celebrities will probably reveal that the majority are men. Think of Dan Pearson, Fergus Garrett, Monty Don and Alan Titchmarsh. But in millions of households across the country it’s the women who are doing the everyday work of looking after the garden.
Any gardening magazine will tell you that three-quarters of its readership are women. Garden centres are full of products targeted at women. Genus sells three times as many of its gardening clothes to women as to men.
In the garden traditional gender roles still hold sway. “I mow the lawn, the wife weeds the beds.” “If it’s a machine with a motor, it’s his job.” I wonder if this is a legacy of the age-old practices of pre-industrial farming. In a village in Africa where I have spent a lot of time, women are responsible for the home garden, the patch of land close to the house where they grow vegetables and also for the cultivation of rice, the staple food. The men control the production, and therefore the proceeds, of cash crops such as peanuts, cashew nuts, oranges and mangoes.
I’m quite fascinated by this subject so I’ve been hanging around Waterstones lately looking for books on women and gardening. Here are a few I found: Virgins Weeders and Queens: A History of Women in the Garden by Twigs Way, 2006; Gardening Women: Their Stories from 1600 to the Present by Dr Catherine Horwood, 2010; and two published in 2015: Women Garden Designers: 1900 to the Present by Kristina Taylor; and First Ladies of Gardening by Heidi Howcroft. All these books tell the story of women busy in the garden, active behind the scenes, and struggling to find a voice in the male-dominated institutions of the gardening world
Last Sunday was International Women’s Day so minds were focused on the role of women in world affairs. Currently there are 29 female heads of state around the world, a paltry 15% of the UN membership, but nevertheless a number that has been increasing steadily. Europe leads the way and since December 2019, Finland has a female prime minster heading up a coalition government where all five coalition parties are led by women. In every walk of life, women are winning the fight for equality step by step, inch by inch.
So, all you women gardeners, now that spring has arrived, start mowing the lawn and get practicing with the strimmer and the hedge cutter.