Margery Fish gardened at East Lambrook Manor in Somerset between the late 1930s and 1969. She had come to gardening late, having followed a career in publishing (which was considered to be very unusual for a girl from a conventional family). As the threat of war loomed she and her husband Walter (Editor of the Daily Mail) bought the dilapidated manor house, a former chicken farm, as a retreat and set about making it habitable and creating a garden. Her first book, We Made a Garden (published in 1956), describes in lively style her successes and mistakes and became an instant classic. It was originally entitled Gardening with Walter but was rewritten after Mrs Fish was told there was ‘too little gardening and too much Walter!’ Nonetheless its charm is not just in the gardening tips she shared as she learnt to garden but in the interaction with her husband who had very firm and old-fashioned views. On the making of compost for example, she wrote:
Walter made a great fuss about the eggshells, he disliked them so and contended that it was silly to bother about them when I could get all the lime I wanted for a few pence. But I think my plants enjoy a mixed diet and I would not deny them little tit-bits of shell, but I did see that they were crushed very finely so that they did not intrude too forcibly on my lord’s eye.
But it is not just for her charming and direct writing style that Margery Fish is remembered. She came to gardening at a time when labour was scarce after the war, and nostalgia for old cottage gardens and a traditional way of life was increasing. She recognised a need to preserve old garden plants, and to follow the ideas of natural gardening advocated by William Robinson (lately championed by Beth Chatto as ‘Right Plant, Right Place’). The garden at East Lambrook Manor was made in the cottage garden tradition, but unlike those other great gardens, Hidcote and Sissinghurst, it was small and intimate, on a domestic scale that people with their own gardens could relate to. She was also an early advocate of all-the-year-round garden with mixed borders to provide continual interest:
My borders combine all aspects of gardening – shrubs, bulbs, foliage plants, even little patches of annuals to fill any bare spaces. Quite unorthodox, perhaps, but being a greedy woman I want something of everything, and in this way there is always something in bloom. My husband deplored this habit of mine and could not understand the real excitement of finding something unexpected coming into flower when everything had gone to sleep.
In the closing words of We Made a Garden Mrs Fish writes ‘I could go on and on. But that is just what gardening is, going on and on. My philistine of a husband often told with amusement how a cousin when asked when he expected to finish his garden replied ‘Never, I hope’. And that, I think, applies to all true gardeners.’