Marion Owen

Through Jane Webb’s 1841 classic, “Practical Instructions in Gardening for Ladies,” which described in great detail many tasks such as how to use a shovel, many women took up gardening as a form of recreation. (Marion Owen photo)

Between 1750 and 1850, dedicated plant hunters fanned out across the world, looking for plants they could sell. They found wondrous new species by the score: the azalea, aster, rhododendron, and wild cherry, as well as many types of ferns, shrubs, trees, and vines. It was a risky business, fraught with dangers. If it wasn’t malaria or yellow fever, one could succumb to starvation or get trampled by a wild bull.

One plant hunter, Robert Fortune, traveled around China disguised as a native, to discover how tea was produced. His introduction of tea growing to India is said to have saved the British Empire. The dramatic story is documented in the book, “For All the Tea in China.”

From today’s botanists and horticulturists, to home gardeners tending a plot of sweet peas and tomatoes, these daring men and scores of others like them are considered heroes. During that century of exploration, the number of plants available to English gardeners soared amazingly, from about 1,000 to 20,000 species. Bedding plants became a huge industry, which happened to complement the new breed of suburbanites taking an interest in gardening.

But my historical garden hero isn’t a brawny man who sought adventure and fortune. Her name is Jane Webb who, in 1841 wrote “Practical Instructions in Gardening for Ladies.” It was the first book of any kind ever to encourage women of the upper class to get their hands dirty.

“Gardening for Ladies,” says author Bill Bryson, in his bestseller, “At Home,” “bravely insisted that women could manage gardening independent of male supervision if they simply observed a few sensible precautions — working steadily but not too vigorously, using only light tools, never standing on damp ground because of the unhealthful emanations that would rise up through their skirts.”

Jane Webb’s description of how to use a shovel is brilliant: “The operation of digging, as performed by a gardener, consists of thrusting the iron part of the spade, which acts as a wedge, perpendicularly into the ground by the application of the foot, and then using the long handle as a lever, to raise up the loosened earth and turn it over.”

But going into such detail has its limits, and Jane’s book describes in almost painful detail the most mundane and obvious actions. The book would never have made the New York Times bestseller list. Still, it did accomplish one very important thing. It talked about gardening as a form of recreation and it gave women “permission to go outside and do something,” said Bryson.

“In 1841, middle-class women everywhere were bored out of their skulls by the rigidities of life and grateful for any suggestion of diversion.”

And it really did encourage them to get their hands dirty. The second chapter was devoted to manure.

On that note, let’s go over a few spring chores:

First, give your houseplants a spin. I mean, give them a quarter turn every few days. The light is really happening now, and we’re not the only creatures affected by it.

For those of you starting seedlings, hop to it. Local retailers have their seed racks installed and stocked up. Sutliff’s is carrying selections from two top-drawer companies: Ed Hume Seeds, from the Pacific Northwest, and Johnny’s Selected Seeds from Maine. This is your chance to find hand-picked varieties ideal for Kodiak’s climate: Hakurei turnips (my favorite), golden Swiss chard, and many kinds of kale, carrots, lettuce and broccoli. Large packets of peas, beans and spinach are available, too. At the Johnny’s rack you’ll find one of my favorite tools: a seeder that fits in the palm of your hand. Just fill it with seeds, adjust the “turret” for the seed diameter and tap out seeds. It’s perfect for hard-to-corral carrot seeds.

Seeds to start: parsley (be patient, they can take two weeks to germinate), celery, mint, poppies, thyme, oregano (to make your own oregano tea), petunia, malva, viola, snapdragons, bulbing onions, alyssum. Hoophouse growers: broccoli, kale (as seedlings); arugula, cress, mustard greens, carrots (direct sow).

Rhubarb “knuckles” are stating to show: For a boost, pad them with a 3-inch layer of kelp, old manure or compost.

If you didn’t take care of it last fall, prune raspberry canes that fore fruit last summer. Also, now is when plants are as dormant as hibernating bears (ast least most bears) so it’s the ideal time to prune what are called “bleeders.” In warmer periods, fruit trees, maples and many shrubs leak sap when you cut into them. But in winter you can achieve cuts into the slumbering wood without worry of causing shock. So pour a thermos of hot tea or coffee and head outside to take advantage of the fact that we aren’t yet in the frenzy of spring chores. Planting, mulching, weeding, transplanting seedlings aren’t on your front burner yet. Just remember, “pruning is an art,” says Cass Turnbull, founder of Plant Amnesty, “and like any other, takes time and thought.”

Time and thought, like Jane Webb’s book, “Gardening for Ladies.” If she hadn’t taken the time to write it, I might have ended up eating store-bought carrots and broccoli the rest of my life. You think?

Marion Owen’s 5-week organic gardening class starts March 27 at Kodiak College. Register online: Connect with local gardeners on the Kodiak Growers or the Sustainable Kodiak Facebook page. Archived copies of Marion’s columns are posted at Contact Marion at

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