Rachel de Thame is in the gardens of glorious Hever Castle in Kent, pondering a book with the unpromising title Instructions in Gardening for Ladies. Twee, certainly. Patronising, quite possibly. In fact, this piece of literary Victoriana, first published in 1840, was pivotal in encouraging women to pick up a trowel and get gardening – which is why de Thame is here today making a film about the book’s author, Jane Loudon, for BBC2’s RHS Hampton Court Flower Show coverage.
“She was a pioneer,” says de Thame. “She had no knowledge of plants, but she had trained as a botanical illustrator, her husband John Loudon was a writer about gardening and her interest and enthusiasm took over. There was nothing to attract women to gardening back then, but she was bright and clever and made gardening accessible. She turned it into a world that women could be part of.”
Like Loudon, 53-year-old de Thame didn’t originally train as a gardener. She started out as a dancer, attending the Royal Ballet School between the ages of ten and 19.
“I loved dancing, but it didn’t work out,” she says. A modelling career beckoned, which in turn led to a brief spell of acting. During this time she had two children (Lauren, now 26, and Joe, 23) with her first husband, Stephen Colover. She went on to have two more daughters, Emma, 11, and Olivia, nine, with her second husband, Gerard de Thame, who directs adverts.
“I knew it would eventually end and I wanted to do something else,” she says of her modelling days. She decided to become a gardener and spent two years training at the English Gardening School.
“I spent every waking moment visiting gardens and making notes. It is just my passion. I became obsessed with it.” After qualifying she auditioned for a presenting slot on BBC2’s flagship series Gardeners’ World, which hired her virtually on the spot.
De Thame with the Gardeners’ World team
So, 175 years after Loudon’s book was published, have women found parity in the garden? De Thame offers a qualified “yes”.
“I absolutely think women and men are equal in the world of horticulture and design, though there was one occasion when I was filming at the Chelsea Flower Show and I wasn’t allowed to breast-feed! I’m an earth mother. I liked being pregnant and giving birth and breast-feeding. Up until that point, the job I was doing was working really well with juggling the kids, but not then!”
She pauses. “Actually, having said there are as many opportunities for men as there are for women, I did notice that there weren’t many show gardens designed by women this year at Chelsea and I am not sure what that’s about. Maybe the same issues that affect women working in other spheres do affect women in horticulture. We have babies. We are not available for full-time work.
“It’s tricky but we definitely need both male and female designers in order to get balance. For me, women and men see things differently. Our eyes are made of rods and cones and men have more rods, which means they are prone to see structure etc. Women have more cones, which means we see and remember more colours and colour schemes. We definitely see things differently.”
De Thame doesn’t see herself as a garden designer. “I do a bit,” she says. “I did one for Chelsea a while back [her silver-medal-winning urban garden in 2008] and I design and plant my own. We’ve just bought a house in Gloucestershire and I’m having a great time planning that.”
She’s also preparing for the arrival of her second grandchild. “Lauren is about to have her second child, so I’m enjoying being a granny.” Her son Joe is in a rock band.
In Victorian times, it was almost unheard of for a woman to be a gardener as a vocation, yet all these decades on, Rachel de Thame has managed it, as have many others. “Well, I work at it,” she says. “People think of me wafting around smelling the roses, but I’m not like that at all. I’m a tomboy. I had three younger brothers and, yes, I mothered them, but I’m tough really.
“In terms of my career, I never felt good enough as a model. I thought it would give me up in the end. I don’t feel that way about gardening. I know I will be doing it until I drop.”
The RHS Hampton Court Flower Show begins tonight (Monday 29th June) at 9.30pm