Helena Rutherfurd Ely was one of the most influential garden writers of the early 20th century. One of her key accomplishments was the writing of A Woman’s Hardy Garden (1903), a book widely recognized amongst her contemporaries and present day scholars as the most influential practical garden book written by an American woman at the turn of the century.
A Woman’s Hardy Garden filled a need that had not previously been met. It advocated for the use of hardy plant material and continuous bloom at a time when the concept was unfamiliar in American home gardens. It offered detailed, yet easy to follow practical advice in a manner that was accessible and unintimidating for the beginning gardener, drawing on personal experience in her garden. Furthermore, it was authored by a woman of prominent New York society who saw gardening as a common language all women might turn to to improve their own lives and society as a whole. She set an example for women gardeners throughout the country, her book was an inspiration for aspiring writers, and her garden at Meadowburn was a model for thousands of American home gardens.
In 1920, Elizabeth Martin, the founding president of the Garden Club of America, wrote of Ely’s early influence:
“Nearly sixteen years ago there swept across this Country a rage for gardening. Helena Rutherfurd Ely, one of the first Vice-Presidents of the Garden Club of America, had in the Woman’s Hardy Garden inspired and bidden women to care for and work in their gardens. The call was answered, and bedding-out plants (the joy of the professional gardener) disappeared, and in their places came Delphinium, Columbine, Fox-glove and hundred of other charming plants which had once blossomed in our grandmother’s gardens but had long been neglected or forgotten. With our hands we sowed the seeds and planted the tiny seedling in permanent border, and had the joy of seeing them bloom; then we lived among the beauty of these new found friends.”
-Elizabeth Martin, Founding President of the Garden Club of America, The Bulletin, 1920