Women in Horticulture: Penny Woodward

I don’t come from a gardening background. I came at gardening and horticulture from a different angle to most. I knew from an early age that I was interested in natural sciences and at University studied botany and zoology, majoring in botany. After leaving University I took several gap years and over time found that I was most interested in the practical side of plants, how to grow them, their history, their uses.  During my ‘gap years’ when travelling overseas in the 80s, I was lucky to get voluntary work at the Chelsea Physic Garden in London. Here for a couple of months I worked for 6 hours a day, and in return was allowed two hour’s access to their extraordinary library, containing old herbals, many volumes hundreds of years old. The Chelsea Physic Garden was established in 1673, as the Apothecaries’ Garden, with the purpose of training apprentices in identifying plants. It has been in constant use since that time. A couple of years after my brief time there, the garden was opened to the public for the first time. Now seven days a week it’s possible to visit this extraordinary garden and see over 5,000 medicinal herbs growing in the centre of London. My time travelling and at the Chelsea Physic Garden crystallised for me my interest in edible and useful plants, but most specifically in herbs.

Back in Australia I worked for several years to earn enough money to put a deposit on a house in Ballarat. It was here that I established my herb nursery and garden. I found that the fascination of herbs, for me, was that they not only look beautiful in the garden, but they also occupy and stimulate the mind with their fascinating history and numerous uses. For example, to know that when I prune back my bay tree that not only is it an attractive plant in the garden, but also is used in cooking, repels moths inside and can be made into a soothing oil for muscular pain. And legend says that if you plant it in your garden, your house will never be struck by lightning!

This adds immeasurably to my pleasure in the garden. In the nursery I decided that it was not only 17th century apothecaries who needed to be able to identify herbs and see how they grow, who needed to know the size, shape and flower colours of all these plants they were going to use for medicines. So I planted the majority of the nursery as a garden where all the different herbs that I sold were growing and were clearly labeled. Here I discovered and grew plants like madder and woad, ancient dye plants, and experimented with dying my own wool and fabrics. Madder gives a lovely faded red from its roots, woad a superb blue but the process of making it was so arduous and smelly that I never tried again.

The more time I spent with herbs, the more I realised that Australia needed a book that looked at herbs in a more scientific way, that put the emphasis on correct identification, practical growing tips for Australian conditions and sensible uses. This is when the planets aligned for me and I heard of a local publisher who was looking for someone to write a book on herbs.

The end result was An Australian Herbal. This was written in long hand (I didn’t even own a typewriter), the charts and lists were all worked out on pieces of paper and the index compiled on file cards in a long box. I lived in a small old timber house on the double block that was the nursery and garden – the only heating being a wood fired stove. I remember well sitting with the manuscript on my knee making corrections and additions with my feet in the oven, the only way I could keep warm. All the photographs were my own.  I had bought a secondhand Pentax SLR and with no skill and even less experience proceeded to photograph as many herbs as possible. I worked on the principle that if I took lots of slides of each plant that at least one would have to be ok. I have continued to take all my own pictures but now I can take lots of pictures of the same thing, without the extra costs. An Australian Herbal was released in 1986.

This book was followed by 7 more, as well as reprints and new editions.

When I started work on my second book, Garlic and Friends, I was also working on a new edition of An Australian Herbal and just to make things even harder, now also had two small children. I struggled to find time to write, being constantly interrupted by the perfectly legitimate claims of our offspring.  As the babies became toddlers I discovered the merits of bribery. I was driving all over the state visiting garlic, onion and leek growers as well as other gardens, and the children and I had an agreement that for each garden we visited we would spend an equal amount of time at a park, playground or beach. There was also the odd ice cream thrown in.

This worked well into their early teens and sometimes they really benefited from my writing, like the time I did an article on mazes and as part of the research visited nearly every maze in Victoria. They became maze experts and were the final arbiters on which maze was the best in Victoria! During this time I was also working as a freelance, writing articles for several magazines, and had a part-time job in a library. It’s hard to make a good living just from writing.

These books were followed by Pest Repellent Plants (1997) with a new edition in 2007. In researching the original edition I discovered that southern wood and English lavender repel mosquitoes, tansy and pennyroyal repel ants and tomato leaves can be made into a spray to kill aphids, and Allocasuarina leaves, because of their high silica content can be made into a spray to prevent fungal and bacterial attack.

Asian Herbs and Vegetables was released in 2000. Grow Your Own Herbal Remedies in 2003 and Community Gardens in 2005. This was probably the most ambitious project and as much work went into applying for funding as actually went into the writing. My co-author Pam Vardy of 3CR Radio fame (and so much more) were privileged to meet so many fascinating and amazing people. Pam did the interviews and collected and tested all the recipes. I took all the photos, transcribed the interviews and wrote the book. During this time I discovered plants like purple rice plant (Peristrophe speciosa) and stem lettuce (Lactuca sativa var. asparagina) and we were lucky enough to win an HMA award for best gardening book in the last two years.

Then in 2008 came another new edition of An Australian Herbal, but this time under the new title Herbs for Australian Gardens. This was updated with new illustrations by the wonderful Fran Gilbert, and lots of new information. Growing Easy Herbs (2009) was an introductory book to herbs, and had superb water colour illustrations by Fran Gilbert.

Finally in 2014 there was the new garlic book, which was just about garlic, not the whole Allium family. Garlic, an organic guide to knowing, growing and using garlic. And this was followed in 2018 with Tomato know sow grow feast. The last was a huge departure for me because it was self-published. With my wonderful co-author and friend Karen Sutherland, and extraordinary writer and cook Janice Sutton, we produced a glorious book that has won two major awards and sold thousands of copies.

But despite so many books and so long writing, it is still really hard to make money from writing books. You do if for love of what you do, and you do get royalties, and public and educational lending rights payments, and even some copyright payments. But on its own it’s not enough to live on. Over the years the Australian Society of Authors (ASA) has been a tremendous help. And the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) has just produced a Freelance Journalists Charter of Rights. Anyone embarking on a writing career would be wise to look at both of these organisations.

Fortunately while writing these books I was also working as a freelance writer and photographer for ABC’s Organic Gardener Magazine, their Essential Guides and their Diaries and Calendars and their website. Now I’m also their horticultural editor for the magazine. This regular income makes a difference and gives me a chance to write about a whole range of unexpected things from unusual plants and the environment, to electric mowers.

I’m also a regular on the 3CR Radio gardening show which is a lovely way to stay in touch with gardeners, and until COVID I did regular talks to gardeners in many parts of Australia. By doing talks I got to meet so many wonderful people, travel around Australia to new places and constantly learn new things. One of the wonderful things I’ve found is that gardeners are lovely people: it is such a good community to be involved in.

I also run my own website www.pennywoodward.com.au  and my garlic website www.australiangarlic.net.au . I’m also on Facebook , Twitter and Instagram, although all of these have not had much attention in the last few years as my world has more important things than social media. And those two small children who were bribed to visit gardens have come into their own. While they are both working full-time following their passions, one also helps out with my social media when needed, while the other designed and set up both my websites and helps with any ongoing issues. It’s a great joy to me that they are also now both gardeners!

Today, there are so many other ways of writing and combining it with images. But if you want to devote your life to it, it still boils down to whether you can make a living out of it. In the end I did – by combining the books with the magazine-writing and the talks. It has never been a good living, just enough to get us by. But I love what I do, I’m learning new things all the time.

So where do I see the future? Gardening and small farming is becoming increasingly important due to our fractured supply chains. With climate change there’s the whole movement to reduce our global footprint, and growing our own food plays an integral part in this. There are also our soils that we need to work with to store carbon and increase biodiversity.  And we must also look to our gardens as an oasis for our native wildlife from the tiniest insects, to native bees and beetles, to frogs, lizards, birds, bats and larger mammals. To do this we also need to grow indigenous plants, both to preserve these plants, but also to provide homes and food for our native fauna. Can we do all this in every garden? Probably not, but we can try.

I have now reached the point where I should probably be thinking about retiring. But I love what I do, and want to preserve as much of our natural world as I can. So I will keep trying to influence my readers in this way, encouraging them to grow their own food, and care for the planet.

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