Meet the Laidees – a book review by Katherine Crouch

June 22, 2015

in Book Reviews, Reviews

What is it with gardening that it seems determined to be stuck in a genteel 1950s? I couldn’t believe this title. But it has one of the very best photographers, so I thought we ought to have a look.

Anne Wareham, editor.

Outwitting Squirrels at Chelsea

Editor with book at Chelsea: where it sold out






First Ladies of Gardening: 

Pioneer designers and dreamers. By Heidi Howcroft. Photographs by Marianne Majerus

Reviewed by Katherine Crouch

First ladies picture 1 copyright Katherine Crouch

The prospect of reading a garden book with ‘ladies’ in the title raised my hackles, while my grubby-thumbed paws tried not to get the pages dirty. The term implies a life of refined delicacy unhindered by grime, a state of grace I alternately desire and despise.

We prevaricate about naming ourselves. Lady Mary Keen does not wish to use her title or be called a ‘gardening lady‘. To go ‘out to lunch with the girls‘ is OK but to term the women’s Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race teams ‘ladies‘ or ‘girls‘ is not OK. This book oscillates uneasily between ‘ladies’, ‘women’ and ‘owner’ to start with, but ‘women’ outnumbers the other titles two to one, and suddenly half way through the book, the titles disappear, the women in question being referred to by name or ‘she’.

First Ladies 2copyright Katherine Crouch


Once I got that out of the way on the first flick through, I settled down to a more thorough reading, very much enjoying the luminously lit photographs by Marianne Majerus and the histories of English and Irish gardens that happened to be created by women who rejoice in perennials and seasonal delights in their gardens.

The book is split in two, with historical and contemporary sections. The usual suspects are given a chapter each – Sackville-West, Fish, Verey, Chatto, but also given space are less well known women such as Beatrix Havergal who founded the Waterperry Horticultural School. Penny Hobhouse gets a mention in the introduction, but as she has only the wreckage of Hadspen to mull over these days, Ms Majerus has nothing to photograph.

First Ladies copyright Katherine Crouch 6

The book could easily have been twice as thick, it misses out many influential women gardeners. No Anne Wareham indeed! I would have liked to have seen more ‘before’ photographs of the gardens in their unimproved state, and as Susie White suggested in her review in the Society of Garden Designers magazine, maps of the gardens would also have helped.

First Ladies copyright Katherine Crouch 3

Ms (Mrs? Miss? Heidi?) Howcroft’s descriptions of the history of the gardeners and gardens was clear and informative. The management of change and preservation is ably discussed. The contemporary section introduced me to gardens I was entirely unfamiliar with, engrossing me until midnight. Less than an inch thick, this is not too heavy to prop against the knees in bed, so the entries might have been restricted by weight as well as length.

Not just a coffee table read, the lists of guiding principles and signature plants is well worth plundering. I shall give this book to my mother for her birthday. I suspect I might borrow it back again for reference occasionally.

If only the title was less cringe-worthy. But what to call it? ‘Gardens We Like and Wanted to Photograph that Just Happened to be Made by Women’ isn’t exactly catchy….

What I have learnt from ‘First Ladies of Gardening’


How to do it                                                               What I do

Marry a rich man                                                         Fail. Twice.

At least have a man with enough money

so you don’t have to go out to work                           Fail

Have enough money to get a decent house                Fail

with land

Work very hard as a professional gardener                 Fail

from an early age

Do not have children                                                  Fail. Twice

If you do have children do not work                          Fail

If you have children pack them off to

boarding school                                                           Fail

At least, have a lovely garden .                                   Fail

See picture.


Katherine Crouch Garden copyright Katherine Crouch

Crouch Towers.

Katherine Crouch

Katherine’s website 

DSCF3113 (Custom)


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Amy Murphy July 11, 2015 at 12:12 am

Terrific book review – really engaging, humourous and informative. Well done. “Ladies” is a lightening rod of a word at the moment, unless you are transgender, then it seems to be alright to use. Nevertheless, I too, like the good company here among the comments, might have overlooked such a title. Now that I have read your good review, I will look out for the book. I hope the publishers are reading this blog, your review, and the comments, so next time a worthwhile book comes along it is not hobbled by an inadequate title.

Marianne Majerus June 30, 2015 at 8:48 am

This book was first published in Germany under the title: Englische Gartenikonen: Die Schöpferinnen des englischen Gartenstils und ihre Gärten, not a title I would have chosen. The cover image was a scantily clad female figure which had the task of representing the strong creative women whose work is featured in the book. First Ladies, I thought implied the women are adjuncts to men as in the first ladies in the US but then I am only the photographer. Nevertheless, I hope the inspiring creativity of the women featured shines through, something us women can be proud of!.

Diana Studer July 25, 2015 at 11:38 pm

English garden icons

would have been a more appealing and effective title

annewareham July 26, 2015 at 12:08 am

Except that they are not. They may be very worthy and it’s time we knew about some of them, but total unknowns can’t really be icons.

Sarah June 29, 2015 at 5:37 pm

What a well-written and hilarious review! I would have sailed right past any ‘lady’ gardening book but now may check it out, especially for the current section – that does sound enticing. Glad a few newer mentions were in there, plenty has already been written about the usual suspects. Thank you – please keep posting reviews.

Charles Hawes June 23, 2015 at 9:19 pm

I really enjoyed this review. Like James I can’t get past the dreadful title. How could the publishers have chosen it? I think I would like to have heard whether Lady Howcroft has any particular “take” on the subject. But as for the review, the end had me in fits.

Becky Lythgoe June 23, 2015 at 10:59 am

Very much enjoyed your review. The title and the front cover put me off, so might not add to my wish list. Your learnings struck a chord with me and were sadly hilarious. I have enough land, but I don’t seem to have enough time and find myself more and more wanting to ‘throw in the trowel’. These ‘First Ladies’ and their beautifully photographed gardens sometimes make me feel as inadequate as the supermodels in the glossy mags. Off to strim and then selectively photograph the few good bits.

Helen Gazeley June 23, 2015 at 10:45 am

I’m beginning to think that I should start a society for the rescue of “ladies” (or lady). What on earth happened that everyone now regards it as a term of abuse? I’ve even heard it called sexist! It’s a term of respect, like “gentlemen”, which is a word that isn’t, as far as I’m aware, regarded with such opprobrium. Women would now seem to prefer to respond to the terminological equivalent of “oy, you” than accept a compliment from a position of strength.

On the other hand, why on earth in these days is a book being written that excludes one sex? Isn’t that the most dated and offensive thing about it?

One further thought on the title: I suspect it resonates more in the US, where they obviously have the First Lady, and may well be expecting to sell more copies.

Having said all that, as Tristan says, it sounds interesting.

annewareham June 23, 2015 at 10:49 am

I think if someone published a book called ‘First Gentlemen of Gardening’ the title would be taken to be ironic. (or mad?)

Helen Gazeley June 23, 2015 at 12:53 pm

Many male gardeners or my acquaintance are charming, with lovely manners!

Catherine June 23, 2015 at 1:52 am

Why was there such a problem using ‘First Women of Gardening’? Maybe in a country where one of our most revered ex-Prime Ministers started every stirring speech with ‘men and women of Australia…’ it was reclaimed here to become commonly used rather than still ‘common’. Shame. That title would have recognised the strength and character that I’m sure these women gardeners had and have. In spades. Great review Katherine. You may think your garden is not lovely, but I see a place where people are out enjoying long summer evenings surrounded by plants. No fail there!

Katherine Crouch June 23, 2015 at 10:26 am

we do, we do! And we cook food on the gas bottle brazier and drink immoderate amounts of beer and cider. Making a garden for Taunton Flower Show called Party Animal which celebrates this.

Nell June 22, 2015 at 9:03 pm

:: Penny Hobhouse gets a mention in the introduction, but as she has only the wreckage of Hadspen to mull over these days, Ms Majerus has nothing to photograph. ::

So she’s no longer gardening at the Dairy Barn in Pitcombe, Somerset? I have an undated .pdf from Gardens Illustrated showing that garden when it was in its second season.

Katherine Crouch June 22, 2015 at 10:34 pm

ah, I must be out of date, last time I met her she was at the Clock House at Hadspen, come to think of it, it was a while back……

Tristan Gregory June 22, 2015 at 8:20 pm

It does sound like a good and useful book and it’s a shame that to market it the publishers have had to squeeze it into a particular niche, poor fit or not. There is so much out there to read and so little time to do it that a title like that pushes it right down a lot of peoples reading lists. Pity.

James Golden June 22, 2015 at 1:00 pm

This is one of the most entertaining and informative book reviews I’ve read in a very long time. Thank you, Katherine Crouch. I don’t think I will be able to buy a book with that title, or a cover that color, but Katherine’s review did catch my interest. I may well look into it if I see a copy in a bookshop.

Katherine Crouch June 22, 2015 at 10:35 pm

many thanks James!

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