Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Gardening - where have all the men gone?

First of all - Happy New Year!

A recent piece in Gardens Illustrated, by the always interesting and perceptive Ambra Edwards, discussed the role of women in garden design, and in particular that all-too familiar problem, that it is always a small number of men who dominate at the 'top' of the profession, and that women in the profession tend to be stereotyped in what they do. Both are issues in many professions.
Here, I'd like to address a problem at the other end: the demographic both of hobby gardeners and of the horticulture professions more generally. Where are the men?

The audience. Whenever I do a talk, I always do a quick mental survey of the gender – how many men, how many women? All too often these days there is a shortage of men. Men are a particular rarity in my all-day workshops, usually 20 or so people, quite often there are no men. Occasionally, I do a public lecture – 50 or so people, and no men at all. I find that profoundly depressing – all those chaps who could be enjoying gardening, and getting something out of a event, and who aren't there.
I grew up in the 1960s when gardening, as hobby, was dominated by men, and as profession, overwhelmingly by men. My father was a working-class Welshman who just loved gardening. He was also something of a Victorian throwback whose backward views on gender did not see any role for women in the garden. Garden culture at the time was undeniably very male-dominated. Although having said that, Vita Sackville-West and Margery Fish were extremely influential as writers in the papers. There were some women who ran nurseries, very often characters who attracted adjectives such as 'redoubtable', such as Mrs. Desmond Underwood and her silver plant nursery; my father came back from an RHS flower show one day and he was clearly terrified of her. Does anyone else remember her? (I also remember my father being completely nonplussed by a very butch lesbian friend of mine). BTW, I may have got my love of gardening from him but I did not get on with my father.

When I had my nursery, back in the 1980s-1990s, I could see a gender shift. One of the things I really liked about the whole horticulture world was that it did seem a relatively egalitarian one, in which male/female roles were pretty irrelevant compared to so much else. But there were some groups I used to sell plants at, which did strike me as having a very distinctly female bias. Which has just gotten more and more so over the years.

I am not the only one to have noticed that there has been a considerable male turning away from gardening in the last decade or two. Part of it is to do with the collapse of traditional working class culture – of which the allotment (i.e. community garden) was an important part, and a certain kind of gardening-as-craft. Mind you – the passing on of that whole generation of older working class men (who often sexist attitudes like my father) has created a space for a completely different
demographic – for all the families, couples and women who now crop these places, which were once so overwhelmingly, and almost aggressively, male.

Ornamental gardening was almost certainly an invention of women in the first place. I am thinking of all those little peasant plots around the home, full of vegetables and medicinal herbs – it was here that a few plants would be grown for colourful flower and leaf. You can see this today in many developing countries – a narrow strip of annuals along the wall of an adobe house, or pelargoniums in cooking oil cans arrayed along the path to the front door. But I suppose, as ornamental gardening became organised, commercial, and competitive, the boys took over. Victorian values (which seemed to have been quite general across the industrialising 19th century world) marginalised women, and in the middle-class or aspirational home, tended to keep them out of the garden – anything which involved women getting dirty fingers was a slight on a man's perception of being able to pay someone else to do it.

Another reason perhaps is the way the media present gardening. In the past garden TV and magazines were very much focussed on gardening as a craft – how-to stuff, getting it right, dealing with pests and diseases. The 1990s saw the beginning of the shift to a much greater focus on design, how to make it look right, rather than grow it perfectly. This had the effect of shifting gardening into a much more aesthetic territory, making it more attractive to many women, but less so to many men. Gardening, in some senses, became 'girly'. There is nothing guaranteed more to put a lot of men off. Particularly in making career choices.

The huge boom in vegetable growing has helped bring more, and younger, men back into gardening. Part of the reason I am sure is that it is about craft and skill rather than looks. Many of these veggie gardeners will end up growing ornamentals, especially since there is now so much of a focus on the importance pollinator plants and bee populations. I certainly hope that this will happen.

I write this blog unpaid (of course) and try to do two postings a month, to try to provide the garden, wildflower and plant-loving community with information, inspiration and ideas. Keeping it coming is not always easy to fit into a busy working life. I would very much appreciate it if readers would 'chip in' (as we say in England) and provide a little financial support. After all, you pay for magazines and books, and it is only for historical reasons that the internet is free. Some money coming in will help me to improve quality and frequency, and to start to provide more coherent access to hard information, which I know is what a lot of you really want. So – please donate now!! You can do this through PayPal using email address:
Thank you!
And thank you too to the folk who have contributed so far.

If you like this blog, why not check out my e-books, which are round-ups of some writing I did for Hortus magazine back in the early 2000s, along with an interview with the amazing Beth Chatto. You can read them on Kindle, or Kindle packages for smartphones or the computer. You can find them on my Amazon page here. You will also find my soap opera for gardeners - currently running at eight episodes.


Roger Brook - No Dig Gardener said...

I really enjoyed your article today! I have lectured to amateur groups for 55 years now and have noticed the transition to almost all female audiences - with a few very honourable exceptions. There has always tendency to a preponderance of ladies who seem to enjoy the sociability of gardening whilst we men tend to be more solitary - and of course allotmenteers were their own all male community although there are now lady participants pepping things up!
The other change in gardening clubs is to the older generation! Again there are exceptions and I have talked to several vibrant young groups in Scotland.
I find gardening groups thrive or decline dependant on having a handful of enthusiastic organisers - sometimes just a single 'couple'.
Best of luck getting some donations - you are worth it,

Pots and Polytunnels said...

There is sadly still a gender discrimination between what is 'man's work' and 'women's work'. In my 10+ years in horticulture retail it has almost always been the woman who organises the plants, while the man pushes the trolley. There is often a perception that mowing, hedge trimming and heavy digging are man's work, while the 'nice jobs' go to the women. I think it probably harks back to a time when gardening was labourious; double digging, heaping manure onto rose beds, and operating much heavier garden machinery. This 'grunt' work was seen as inappropriate for women, and this attitude has hung on in people's perceptions. Garden clubs are more 'intellectual gardening' and could be seen as 'women's work', so men stay at home. Sadly this discriminatory attitude is one I've come across in professional horticulture too....

Anonymous said...

Arh but if you go to an Alpine Garden Society meeting you will find the opposite. I think men are generally more interested in the competitive side of things, although that is a sweeping statement.

I also think many women become involved in ornamental gardening when their children have moved out and they are looking for something to fill the hole.

Saying that at the HPS group I go to there is a good turn out by men and they arent all husbands of members!!

Marsha said...

I agree with patient gardener. The various "specific plant organizations' such as the hosta society or the daylily society might show gender heavy which means men might be interested in specific plants. I know loads of men that attend symposiums and tours and they aren't with their spouse. I will omit, the men seem to be in the minority. Thanks for your article.

Anonymous said...

Intriguing really. As a woman I feel often a little intimidated when hiring plumbers, electricians or constructors. Even though I am not shy to solder pipes together myself, or put some wiring in,
I would love to be able to hire a woman bricklayer for example.
But it isn't really about plants, or horticulture, or bricklaying.
You see the shifting happening in education and some medical professions as well. Maybe we need this shift in balance for a while, before things can even out.
Our gardens are big enough for all kind of workers; those with callused hands and the hobbyists. Gardens need intellectuals, and simple do-ers. Gardens welcome adults, kids, and even animals, to enter and participate.
I can't think of a workplace as inclusive and welcoming by nature.

Susan in the Pink Hat said...

In the western U.S. it is still a bit feminine-heavy, but I see a lot of men gardening. I think it has to do with the plants themselves, actually. Desert/steppe plants have a harsher aesthetic than traditional gardening plants from more mesic environs and that appeals to men. I have a dryland/cactus garden in front of my house and I have more men in the neighborhood express interest in it than women by far. Also, the majority of the gardeners I associate with in various plant societies are all men.

Anne Wareham said...

The men have all gone off to become celebrity garden designers and to lecture women at the Society of Garden Designers conferences....

alistair said...

Ah, very interesting. I love my gardening so much I wanted to write about it and share it with others. A blog I thought, well its good fun and I have to admit those that I correspond with are mainly women, which kind of makes me feel out on a limb at times.

Alistair said...

Ah, very interesting. I love my gardening so much I wanted to write about it and share it with others. A blog I thought, well its good fun and I have to admit those that I correspond with are mainly women, which kind of makes me feel out on a limb at times.

Paul Steer said...

I'm a Welshman from a working class background living in a valley town and I don't grow vegetables and I'm not competitive - does this mean I'm girly ?

Anneli A said...

This is a very interesting blog. I am new in the blog world, therefore it is fascinating to follow other blogs. I published my garden blog only a few weeks ago. I come from Finland.

Sarah Smith said...

It seems odd to bemoan the lack of male gardeners when you acknowledge that your profession is dominated by them, especially at the top, where people make the most money and fame out of it. Men always keep women out of arenas where there are benefits and rewards to be had. This hasn't yet changed.

Gardening probably became less female dominated when women were pushed off the common land during the enclosures and were then trapped by men in the home in the Victorian era. If you want to grow you need somewhere to do it and the land has generally been grabbed by men when ownership became an issue. Growing has always been a women's occupation - 2/3 of the world's farmers are women. Women grow food to feed their families in many parts of the world, although we are seeing the equivalent of the enclosures happening there too.

The men in my own allotment association say that too many women have plots now apparently (we don't even make up half the plot holders). I think you're focusing on the wrong problem here.

hamsternator said...

I agree with Sarah, you are focusing on the wrong thing - accessibility is the issue. You need to be looking at forum and format, as well as audience.
Take my attendance at what is in all likelihood the last bastion of male dominated working class culture- the Trade Union conference. Despite desperately trying to be more female - inclusive, such gatherings are notable for the in-house football banter, which may act as some form of male bonding/ ice breaker/gateway for the speaker to get -invariably- his message across. But it is much to the exasperation of any female who happens to be in the audience (especially if she is there for the full conference week); assuming they weren't put off in the first place. And that is the point- the forum needs to feels inclusive.

Take your Rabbit's Eye View workshop to WFGA as an example - as it stands currently, of course your workshop will be dominated by women. Although men can join, initially it was set up for and by women; a male equivalent wasn't needed at the time because men had other routes to education and experience that were denied to women.

If you have identified the lack of men at talks and workshops as an issue, you are in a unique position to find out how far across the board this stretches - what is the gender ratio in your colleagues university courses? Which then leads on to the target audience and their skill level.

In the age of the digital revolution, U-tube and online study, either sex has more opportunities to access information appropriate to their skill/ interest level and continue to build their knowledge base should they so desire, instead of limiting it because they don't know where to go/ look / learn next. If something has piqued your interest a little, you can use U-tube to find out more and/or enroll on a short course that fits in with your lifestyle. This level of accessibility couldn't have happened before.

And I'm afraid that if the sight of a audience filled with female faces depresses you, then you are looking at it the wrong way too - Where were they before? As a tutor and a writer I'm surprised at your response. You are broadcasting your message to an audience that had previously been or felt excluded. And they are eager to learn. And they will pass your message on- to their friends, neighbours, anyone who will listen (and even to those who aren't interested in the case of my other half) but perhaps most importantly to their children - who may well become the top designers of tomorrow (being a novice, Christopher Lloyd and his mother it what comes to my mind).
As an ecologist, you are increasing the bio-diversity. Look to the long term.

lifebetweentheflowers said...

There are a few of us still around in the gardening scene (men that is). It is true men seem to be much more into competition that is to say 'who can grow the biggest potatoes at the village show'. I'm much more of a comprehensive gardener my self. Great Blog, Simon

Unknown said...

Noel,can you be a bit less politically correct in your comments? Describing your dad as a victorian throwback with his views on gender will no doubt endear you to liberals but it wont to me! I am uterly sick of getting a PC blast when Im not on a political site.

The most important point is that women have changed modern gardening because they now view the garden as an extension of the lounge with the same interior design skills being required.This puts off men,who like myself just enjoy growing plants.
I have enjoyed gardening since my childhood in the 1960"s and do the grunt work and the nice stuff.I particularly enjoy growing pelargoniums and in the past,vegetables.But I dont go in for the exterior design stuff and wouldent attend a gardening course with that bias.

Unknown said...

What is happening in gardening these days is that it is being feminised as more and more women go into it. The focus then shifts away from traditional growing skills towards design skills.

But women arent having things entirely their own way.

I work in the Care sector,which is female dominated. but it is a rapidly expanding sector and more and more men are going into it.I work with men with complex needs, and with an all male staff team. We are,(as far as the rules allow) MASCULINISING the sector in the areas were we outnumber the women.Our approach to the clients emotional wellbeing,the hobbies he does,and the way we communicate and prioritise are very different to the all female teams.
And there are some well paid jobs in care which women have been sitting on for decades so its about time us men took some of those jobs.
So its not really whether the profession as such is for women or for men ,its about whether it is being masculinised or feminised.