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An introduction to Why Women Grow: Alice Vincent

In 2022, garden writer Alice Vincent set off on a mission to unearth stories of the land with inspiring women. With an all-female team, the ‘Why Women Grow’ podcast recorded interviews with guests including Margaret Howell, Sarah Raven, Rukmini Iyer and Poppy Okotcha. Our upcoming free exhibition Why Women Grow, open 20 March – 30 June, explores their gardening stories with audio snippets from the episodes and accompanying photography by Siobhan Watts.

Ahead of the exhibition, Alice introduces how her exploration of why women grow began:

Sometimes writing a book is like pulling on a thread: you start doing it because you’re curious, or bored, or not entirely aware that you’re pulling on it at all. You tease and tug, the thread gets longer. If you’re lucky, you end up with an unravelled jumper and a lot of wool – you’ve alighted on something far bigger than you could have imagined.

It was nearly three years ago that I started pulling on the thread that has come to shape my life – that thread was a question, and the question asked: why do women grow? I’d been wanting to better understand my own desire to garden. I was a kind of horticultural cuckoo: fortunate enough to have been raised feeling comfortable about the outdoors, but undeniably happier inside. And yet when I hit my mid-twenties I became hopelessly addicted to growing things – learning about them, summoning them from the ground, looking at them and writing about them. I was a music journalist living in South London: it didn’t entirely make sense for me to suddenly want to be a gardener.

Alice Vincent, photo by Siobhan Watts

I started to ask other women the question: I realised that not only did I not know why I gardened, but I didn’t know why anyone else did either. Most of the public gardening figures I saw were men, and yet when I did speak to people about why they gardened they often cited the women in their lives. I’m a feminist, and my writing has always tried to tell women’s stories. I decided to go out and listen to women’s stories, to see the allotment plots and balcony gardens and community spaces and parks that meant something to them. I was expecting to talk about plants. What I hadn’t realised was that I’d undergo a crash-course in womanhood.

More than 45 conversations with women aged between 22 and 82 informed Why Women Grow: Stories of Soil, Sisterhood and Survival, the book that I released just under a year ago. But even once I’d travelled across the continent and country and funnelled these invigorating, galvanising and life-affirming conversations into a manuscript, I realised I wasn’t done. There was still more thread to be pulled.

I was very conscious that in writing down these conversations, I’d had the privilege and challenge of holding and presenting them through my own words. But I wanted to create another layer, to further capture the conversations and the gardens that contributed to my understanding of what women gain from the earth. And so I decided to make a podcast.

Margaret Howell, photo by Siobhan Watts

While Why Women Grow upheld the stories of partially anonymised women, the podcast of the same name takes the opportunity to showcase the lesser-known gardening lives of women who are known for entirely other things. Designer Margaret Howell welcomed us into her beautiful Blackheath oasis. Writer and influencer Paula Sutton spoke about grief and legacy in the shadow of her Norfolk home. Chef and bestselling author Rukmini Iyer spoke about growing food as she raised her daughter and novelist Salley Vickers took us to Kew, where she told us about the huge life events she has considered in its grounds.

Paula Sutton, photo by Siobhan Watts

While I hosted the podcast, this was itself a project built on sisterhood: I travelled around the UK during the spring, summer and autumn of 2021 with Holly Fisher, our audio producer, and Siobhan Watts, our photographer. It was an eventful time for the three of us personally, and as we listened to these women’s stories we began to tell our own.

For the past year the Why Women Grow podcast has existed in that most intimate of spaces – our listeners’ ears. But now, for the first time, we are able to give this deeply meaningful project a living, breathing space of its own in the Garden Museum. We’ll be exhibiting Siobhan’s photographs of our guests and their gardens, and you’ll be able to listen to snippets of the episodes as you soak them in. In the process, I hope we can help you answer that curiosity that began this whole project in showing you some of the reasons why women grow.

Why Women Grow is on display 20 March – 30 June, free entry

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