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  • Writer's pictureJulie Bare

WinH Inaugural Book Club Meeting

On Sunday, March 31st, 2019 Women in Horticulture held their Inaugural Book Club Meeting at Jenny Rose Carey's Northview Garden. Jenny's Carriage House, packed full of books, was the perfect setting for our first meeting. Not only did she and Hanna von Schlegell, Head Gardener at Northview Garden, host but they also provided us with a lovely spread of snacks and tea. We are very grateful to Jenny and Hanna for providing us with the perfect atmosphere for our first book club meeting.

WinH members at the Inaugural Book Club Meeting

Our first book was A Woman's Hardy Garden written by Helena Rutherfurd Ely in 1903. A Woman's Hardy Garden was truly unique for it's time, as was Ely. The book gives women practical gardening advice, complete with plant lists and planting dates. The reader follows Ely on all of her trials and errors in her garden at Meadowburn Farm.

One-hundred and sixteen years after she wrote this book we are still reading it because it is an important part of the history of Women in Horticulture. Before Ely, there hadn't been any books on gardening for women by women in America. Her book is considered a milestone. Ely was one of the most influential garden writers during her time. She was a founding member of the Garden Club of America, serving as the first vice-president of the club. The club members really pushed her to share her gardening strategies. She was known far and wide as a talented gardener.

“Nearly sixteen years ago there swept across this Country a rage for gardening. Helena Rutherfurd Ely, one of the first Vice-Presidents of the Garden Club of America, had in the Woman’s Hardy Garden inspired and bidden women to care for and work in their gardens. The call was answered, and bedding-out plants (the joy of the professional gardener) disappeared, and in their places came Delphinium, Columbine, Fox-glove and hundred of other charming plants which had once blossomed in our grandmother’s gardens but had long been neglected or forgotten. With our hands we sowed the seeds and planted the tiny seedling in permanent border, and had the joy of seeing them bloom; then we lived among the beauty of these new found friends.”

-Elizabeth Martin, Founding President of the Garden Club of America, The Bulletin, 1920 (Quote from the Meadowburn website)

Our meeting started off with members expressing what they hoped to get out of the book club. Some of the thoughts shared were to advance professional knowledge, reading about history and women's history, and motivation to read some of the titles we are very familiar with but haven't made time to read. After this discussion Jenny gave us a quick overview of some of the historic women in horticulture. She emphasized the fact that without the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women (Temple Ambler) many women in our area would not have been educated in horticulture. During this discussion, Gertrude Jekyll's writings were highly recommended. Jekyll's writing style was compared to Helena Rutherfurd Ely's. In the early 20th century, Gertude Jekyll was the only other woman writing about gardening, but she was in England. It was noted that Ely was a master at marketing, the title of her book says everything you need to know about who should buy the book and what it is about. Jenny mentioned that one of her favorite and most quoted authors is Mrs. Francis King, another historic woman in horticulture. Maddie Paule came prepared with some information about A Woman's Hardy Garden. Maddie informed us that A Woman's Hardy Garden was reprinted sixteen times and sold over 40,000 copies. Needless to say it had a major impact on the world of gardening. Martha Keen informed us that Ely received fan mail at her house twenty years after she had passed away. Jenny had us imagine that this book was the only gardening book you owned, which would have been the case for many women at the time. Ely wrote two more books after A Woman's Hardy Garden; Another Hardy Garden Book and The Practical Flower Garden.

We all shared some of our favorite parts or quotes from the book. In the introduction she wrote, "Love of flowers and all things green and growing is with many men and women a passion so strong that it often seems to be a sort of primal instinct...". In the book Ely talked about "sending her men" to dig out Rhododendron from the woods, we all got a kick out of that. She emphasized that you should start with what you have, even if its a small plot. She talked about Scabiosa caucasica in the book and wrote that it caused me to feel that without it the garden was nothing. She was constantly amending the soil and digging. Our modern thought was that all that digging would be destroying the soil structure. Jenny commented on the fact that her name was on the front cover is shocking for that time.

Our discussion eventually turned to present time and the status of Ely's Meadowburn Farm. Luckily, her garden and some of her plantings are still around today! Ownership of the garden and house have changed hands through the years, however in the interest of preserving this piece of history, preservation efforts are currently taking place. The preservation of the garden was lead by Quill Teal-Sullivan, who was the Garden Manager at Meadowburn Farm after researching Helena Rutherfurd Ely and possible preservation options for Meadowburn for her masters thesis.

Did you know Meadowburn is known for their cultivation of dahlias? Today, you can buy heirloom varieties that are propagated from Ely's own collection through their website!

The conversations about Ely, Meadowburn, and historic women in horticulture eventually turned to another great book, Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim (1898). Many agreed that this book would be a great selection for our second book club read. Martha Keen recommended AbeBooks, to find older editions of these texts. Project Gutenberg is a good resource for downloading free books. A digital version of A Women's Hardy Garden is available for free from University of Penn's library for anyone interested.

The meeting concluded with a discussion about what the focus of the WinH Book Club would be. We decided that our book selections would feature female authors, historic books (1800s to 1980s), and influential books centered around Women in Horticulture. The idea for book club "season openers" and "season closer " meetings was tossed out. We could refer to the meetings as "First Frost" and "Last Frost".

After a very successful first book club meeting, many of us were eager to explore the Northview Garden. Jenny and Hanna were kind enough to give us a tour and answer all of our plant questions.

Huge thank you to Maddie Paule who organized the book club meeting on top of all of her other responsibilities! Another huge thank you to Jenny Rose Carey and Hanna von Schlegell for hosting the Inaugural Women in Horticulture Book Club Meeting! Look out for details on our second book club read, Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim.

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