We probably all have a vision of Gertrude Jekyll based on the famous photos of her in later life – a dumpy but formidable old lady with dark clothes reaching to the ground and walking in a garden with the aid of a stick. But that is not how she saw herself and there was definitely another side to her: “I ought to know I am quite an old woman. But I can still – when no one is looking – climb over a five-barred gate or jump a ditch.”
In 1908 she wrote a lot about her own childhood in a book on basic botany and horticulture for young people called simply Children and Gardening. The quotes and the rest of the images in this post all come from that. There is a link to the full text at the end of the post.
Read on to find out more about an unexpected side to one of Britain’s best known and loved gardeners.
The young Gertrude was clearly a bit of a tomboy, growing up as she did with two older brothers and two younger, with her only sister seven years older. As she says rather gleefully she “delighted to go up trees, and play cricket, and take wasps nests after dark, and do the dreadful deeds with gunpowder and all the boys sort of things.” Of course it helped that the family garden was quite large and included two ponds, one of which covered several acres. She tells the story of turning a beer cooler “a wooden thing about 5 feet long and 3 feet wide, with sides eight or 9 inches high, like a shallow box or tray” into a boat “to make perilous journeys” over to an island in the middle. “It was very naughty indeed.” The idea of Gertrude Jekyll being very naughty is somehow rather appealing!
What’s also interesting is the very early age at which she came to love plants. She says she “wanted to know about them; but had no one to tell me…But I got to know them as friends long before I could find out what their names were.” She recounts her “delight in the pure blue” of “beautiful water forget-me-not,” and “the small quiet smell of the little wild pansy that you find in cornfields among the stubble” [a pleasure almost certainly denied to every modern child]. She was also especially attracted by dandelions, much to the annoyance of her nanny, nurse Marson, who said “they were Nasty Things.”
It was clear that her parents must’ve had some interesting gardening because she recalls that “from early years I was familiar with a number of the best shrubs and garden trees. There were several kinds of Magnolia, Ailanthus and hickory, the pretty cut-leaved Beech and the feathery deciduous Cypress. Then there were the rhododendrons, mostly the purple ponticum, and sweet azalea pontica, and Kalmias and bush Andromedas and Buttercup Bush. And there were Ayrshire Roses and Cinnamon Roses and Rosa lucida, and the sweet Moss Roses, but hardly any herbaceous plants.” I wonder if that had any effect on her later fascination with that plant group.
Of course you can tell what her upbringing was like from her description of a child’s playhouse and garden. It was a miniature rustic cottage . Actually not so miniature since it was probably large enough for a labourer’s family to live in. It should, she argued, have “a kitchen and a parlour, where they can keep house and cook and receive their friends…. if it can have an enclosed porch …and pantry…so much the better.” And of course “the garden would naturally be close to it and form part of its scheme.” She “confessed that a good play-house is a somewhat costly toy, but its value is so great” for teaching children about domestic life. She details at great length all the furniture and fittings should be included and adds, one suspects with nostalgia that the child “would in after years visited again with delight, and look back on its lessons of play-work with thankfulness.”
The text is accompanied by a photograph of a “pretty Lady” who was “a German princess… who has bought out her work to the old Playhouse and is trying to think herself a child again..the picture was done for me by my friend Miss Willmott, the greatest of living women-gardeners, and given me by her for your book.”
Gertrude Jekyll was very sensitive to the needs of children in creating a garden, arguing that they should not be put “in some unattractive, out-of-the-way corner, or most commonly of all, under or too near trees,… It is neither fair nor reasonable to give a child who wishes for a garden a place that is full of difficulties.” Indeed she goes on “I think it even better that the children should not have to make their gardens at all from the beginning” but instead the best way to get children “to love and value a garden is to give them a pretty one ready-made.” This is because “it is more interesting and inspiring and the needs of the flowers can be seen and intended to immediate result… [rather than] have to flounder through a mass of failure and mistake, and then to wait the best part of a year before the is anything whatever to seem.”
But she does not argue that children should not have to work at it. They should be taught to use their tools on a vacant plot in the kitchen garden and learn “the three most important manual operations – digging, hoeing and raking.” Nor did she believe in pampering children. “A good straight bit of digging in clear ground for half an hour at a time will soon train the young hands and arms and backs.” To do this children should have proper tools although she doubted “with a good small tools can be bought ready-made. What are kept in ironmongers shops as ‘ladies tools’, with varnished handles and blue blades and that are usually given to children, are wretched things – badly shaped, badly balanced and generally weak where they should be strongest.” And reading on makes you realise how times have changed, because she recommends that the tools should be made “by a clever country blacksmith, and the handles carefully adapted to the use of little hands; perfectly smooth but not varnished.”
It’s also times like this when you realise quite how uppermiddle-class her background was. “The necessary tools are a spade, rake, hoe, a little wooden trug-basket, and a blunt weeding knife; a good cutting-knife, a trowel, and fork, and a little barrow. There will also be wanted some raffia for tying, some hazel sticks, and a little white paint. A tiny tool-shed, with a well-lighted fixed bench, is most desirable, the tools training in the places on the wall.… A birch broom will also be wanted.” Essential rules of gardening were to be laid down early. “Tools should never be put away dirty. A little wooden implement, that any child can whittle for himself, should kept on the bench for scraping off any earth that sticks to speed or trial. The gardener will show you how to make it.”
Now what should children grow? She suggested all sorts of herbs and said “it is very nice to grow Mustard and Cress in the letters of one’s name ..[but] for Lettuces you must watch the gardener someday when he is planting them…And you ask the gardener for some … and plant them with the Dibble as you have seen him do.” These choices were, of course, practical because she then adds recipes for “a nice salad” and quite adventurous “play-house soups” for “when you have a lunch at the Playhouse”.
But life is not all preparing lunch. Miss Jekyll tackled Botany and its potentially difficult language head on and with humour.
“My botany….is amusing, and is quite simple and easy. Botany means classification of plants; when you know my sort of botany, then someday you will very likely want to learn botanists’ botany, but I don’t think it’s any use to you just now.” So, instead she went through the various plant families such as the rose, pea and bell-flowers, discussing the main points of similarity and difference.
As part of that children needed to know their weeds from their flowers, especially “in quite a young state.” She gives basic botany lessons describing the difference between annuals biennials and perennilas adding that “any of you who have learnt a little Latin” will know the difference about “those who have not learnt Latin must take my word for it.” But she is not talking down and her accounts of common weeds, such as Hairy Bitter Cress are detailed and well-illustrated in the various stages of the plants life.
There is also advice on how to turn snapdragon seeds into models of little old ladies, [see the first image in the post] and to use dozens of cowslip flowers to make a cowslip ball – another impossibility for modern children.
Miss Jekyll’s particular prejudices and pre-delictions in terms of plants begin to show in a chapter on smells and shapes. She talks of the different leaf and flower shapes saying “the more you look at them for yourselves the more you will be used and interested, and the better it will be for you later, when some of you will want to study botany in earnest.” But she warns “when you get into the habit of watching plants and flowers closely, you will now and then come across some freak or monstrosity. Generally these flower-freaks are ugly things, like an absurd to Delphi knew that once grew in my garden, whose picture I have made for you, as a warning not to encourage that sort of thing. Instead of making a beautiful, tall, graceful eight-foot-long spike, thing made a baseball about 6 feet high with an ugly bunch of crowded flowers on the top, as it’s a silly thing was trying to be a rose…. these ugly monstrosities, which, I am sorry to say, some seeds and sell as desirable novelties, should never be encouraged in gardens, for we should do all we can to teach our eyes to see what is the most beautiful form had the most beautiful colour that any of our garden flowers take.”
There is a fair element of nostalgia. The chapter entitled My First Garden has a plan and a list of plants that she grew, with a little story about how she found “a grown-up wheelbarrow was a very comfortable thing to sitting when you are tired, particularly if you got a cushion or even an old sack in it.”
There is also practical advice on how to lay out a garden including how to make a right angle using string and pegs. It is followed by a chapter on how to choose the right flowers, and another on wildlife including hedgehogs bats and owls…
Children and Gardens is Jekyll at her most innocent. It gives a real insight into the beginnings of gardening in her life, with its constant gentle reminders of her own childhood when she thought at that time there were “…only two types of people in the world–children and grown-ups–and that the world really belonged to children. And I think it is because I have been more or less a gardener all my life that I still feel like a child in many ways.”
You can find the full text of Children and Gardens at: