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The RHS honours two notable female gardeners

Sarah Wain and Linda Phillips are the latest woman gardeners to be awarded the esteemed Associates of Honour status
Sarah Wain and Linda Phillips are the latest woman gardeners to be awarded the esteemed Associates of Honour status Credit:  Ben Birchall

Sarah Wain and Linda Phillips formed a lifelong friendship after first meeting as students in the temperate pit at Kew Gardens. A few weeks ago, they were elected RHS Associates of Honour together at the RHS People Awards ceremony at Lindley Hall in Vincent Square. This award, established in 1930, is presented to those who have distinguished themselves in the horticultural world during their working lives.

There are no more than 100 holders at any one time – the great and good from national bodies, botanic gardens, plant collection holders and all-round horticultural good eggs. Of those associates, only 13 are women, so it’s particularly appropriate that, from among the thousands of female gardeners, two particularly talented plantswomen have been singled out and honoured this year.

Sarah Wain has just retired as co-head gardener of West Dean Gardens in Sussex, which she and her husband, Jim Buckland, restored from semi-dereliction. They redeveloped the walled gardens, restored the impressive glasshouses, replanted the arboretum and generally brought the garden into the 21st century.

They describe their working partnership as a joint passion. “Jim was the broad brush and I took care of the finer detail, working among the veg in the Victorian walled garden and in the 14 restored Edwardian glasshouses. I’ve always been passionate about encouraging people into the gardening profession,” says Wain.

I asked Phillips why she thought Wain was a worthy recipient of this award. She told me: “She’s an outstanding horticulturist, with huge technical knowledge. And she shares it, through her writing in The Garden magazine; through her blog on the Alitex website and her advice to visitors; and through her general enthusiasm. She inspires me. Her use of colour especially. She and Jim have just written a book, At West Dean, to inspire others”.

Phillips went from Kew to set up Roots and Shoots for the Lady Margaret Hall Settlement in Lambeth. She turned a derelict and polluted site into a Unesco prize-winning green space and wildlife garden where, for 37 years, disadvantaged young people have been taught vocational gardening skills and helped to change their lives for the better. “My students have often experienced abuse, hardship and rejection, but leave here a year later with their heads held high, having learnt skills for work and life,” she says.

Linda Phillips (left) and Sarah Wain (right) Credit: Marc Hankin; Rachel Warne

In 2012, she was appointed MBE for services to young people. So why did Wain think Phillips was awarded this particular accolade from the RHS?

“She has been an inspiration to so many young people who fall through the net,” she says. “Linda picks them up and gives them purpose. She’s the kindest, most nurturing person – she always helped me at Kew. It’s not the easiest of jobs, running Roots and Shoots: there are battles to be fought in every direction, but she fights on brilliantly.”

Although Wain’s and Phillips’s gardening lives have taken them in different directions, their training and love of horticulture underpins everything they do. Both are passionate plantswomen and allotmenteers who share an interest in people and the power of gardening to change lives for the better, and both have carried out the initial aims of RHS founders Joseph Banks and John Wedgwood: to encourage and improve horticultural science, art and practice.

Women Associates of Honour

Sibylle Kreutzberger: Joint head gardener at Sissinghurst from 1959 to 1990, under both Vita Sackville-West and the National Trust.

Elizabeth Strangman: Ran Washfield Nursery in Kent. Perfected and marketed many new strains of hellebore. Co-author of The Gardener’s Guide to Growing Hellebores with Graham Rice.

Susan Smith: Manager of Bournemouth Parks, judge for Britain in Bloom. Jennifer 
Adams OBE The first woman to be appointed superintendent of London’s Central Royal Parks.

Diana Miller: Keeper of the RHS Herbarium in Wisley, a horticultural botanist, secretary for the Hardy Woody Plant Committee, garden writer and author of a book on pelargoniums.

Lynette Randall: Head of the Savill Garden at Windsor Great Park, member 
of the Royal Victorian Order.

Valerie Anderson: 
Head gardener and teacher at Antony House, Cornwall for the National Trust.

Sara Eberle: Landscape designer with eight Chelsea gold medals, design director of Hillier Landscapes.

Mary Spiller: Horticulturist and teacher at Waterperry School of Horticulture. First woman presenter of Gardeners’ World.

Sarah Cook: Former head gardener at Sissinghurst. Holder of the National Collection of Irises bred by 
Sir Cedric Morris.

Sally Kington: Former RHS International Daffodil Registrar; compiled a major reference work on daffodil names.