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Gardening with Attitude

We Made a Garden

by Margery Fish,with a foreword by Graham Stuart Thomas
Modern Library Gardening, 129 pp., $11.95 (paper)

The Gardener’s Year

by Karel Capek, with an introduction by Verlyn Klinkenborg
Modern Library Gardening, 117 pp., $11.95 (paper)

My Summer in a Garden

by Charles Dudley Warner, with an introduction by Allan Gurganus
Modern Library Gardening, 100 pp., $11.95 (paper)

An Island Garden

by Celia Thaxter, illustrated by Childe Hassam, with an introduction by Tasha Tudor
Houghton Mifflin, 126 pp., $35.00

In launching his series of gardening classics, Michael Pollan (himself the author of one such classic, Second Nature) explains that he has deliberately excluded reference works and strictly how-to books: “The emphasis is more along the lines of how-to-think-about-it rather than how-to-do-it.” A garden library, if it is to be at all extensive, will have a decent shelf of such volumes. They guide us through the early stages of a craze. They bully or they cajole. They transmit prejudices and enthusiasms, along with their technical know-how, such as it is.

That they are out of date may only add to their charm, for they are nurturers of fantasy. We should like, in a way, to have led something of the life that led their authors to make these observations. Here is Vita Sackville-West on the subject of the herbaceous peony:

Larger than any rose, it has something of the cabbage rose’s voluminous quality; and when it finally drops from the vase, it sheds its vast petticoats with a bump on the table, all in an intact heap, much as a rose will suddenly fall, making us look up from our book or conversation, to notice for one moment the death of what had still appeared to be a living beauty.1

You do not have to covet the tower room in Sissinghurst Castle, you do not have to be wearing jodhpurs, to feel the charm of this thought, that you might be quietly reading or in leisurely conversation, and there might be a vase of peonies nearby, and a flowerhead would fall—and you would notice it, because that’s the kind of beauty-noticing person you would be.

Here is Gertrude Jekyll in a highly influential passage on growing climbing roses into trees:

For spaces between garden and wild, for sloping banks, for broken ground, as of an old gravel pit or other excavation, for all sorts of odds and ends of unclassified places about the home grounds, the rambling and free-growing Roses seem to be offered us by a specially benevolent horticultural providence. A well-prepared hole is all they need at first. About four years after planting, if the best they can do for us is desired, they should be looked to in the way of removing old wood…. When they begin to grow freely among bushes or trees, if it is desired to lead the far-reaching growths one way rather than another, it is easily done with a long forked stick, and a very interesting and pleasant job it is. It is like painting a picture with an immensely long-handled brush, for with a fourteen-foot pole with a forked end one can guide the branches into Yew or Holly or tall Thorn very nearly into such forms of upright spring or downward swag as one pleases.2

Oh give me such a fourteen-foot pole with a forked end and let me loose on this interesting and pleasant work, so that I can catch and guide these freely waving shoots of the old climbing roses, and paint my picture with them—with upright spring! with downward swag!—in the heights of a yew tree, on one of those odds and ends of unclassified places about my home grounds.

Both Jekyll and Sackville-West were serious about their prose, and one is aware that some care has gone into the choice of words and the construction of sentences—in Jekyll’s case the result is inimitable. But many candidates for garden classic status have to be ruled out if all they offer is a somewhat steamy écriture. Others, including the two volumes by Karel Capek and Charles Dudley Warner in Pollan’s new series, interesting though they are to the collector, are really examples of humorous writing of days gone by. Those by Eleanor Perényi and Margery Fish, however, have great interest for the gardener.

Margery Fish, who published eight gardening books in the 1950s and 1960s, was, with Sackville-West and Frances Perry, one of the leading English garden writers of her day. She began late, in her forties, and We Made a Garden tells us how it happened. Horticulturally speaking it is not her most informative work, and the advice given on page 55 for the handling of Iris unguicularis is plain wrong (and contradicted by her elsewhere), but from the point of view of Pollan’s project it is both her best book and an ideal way to start the Modern Library gardening series, for what grips us is not so much the theme (the finding of a nice house in Somerset and the making of a garden from scratch) as the countermelody: How I outlived a brute of a husband and began to find myself and make sense of my garden and my life.

The original mooted title had been Gardening with Walter. A friend of mine who knew Mrs. Fish suggested that We Made a Mess of Our Marriage would have summed up the subject better. I never know, when I turn to this book, whether to be more shocked by the odiousness of Walter Fish or by the cunning artlessness of Margery’s appeal for our sympathy over what she has been through. Walter himself was news editor and later editor of the London Daily Mail. Margery had been secretary to the paper’s proprietor, Lord Northcliffe, so she knew all about living with and working for bullies. She must have been good at rolling with the punches, but when Walter was safely dead and out of the way she wrote this book.

As far as Chapter Two she retains her pose of deference (“I think Walter was very wise in being so firm with me. The only way to get jobs done is to be ruthless and definite”), but that pose is wobbling by page 20:

I cannot stress too much the importance of well-cut grass, good paths and well-trimmed hedges. With wifely stubbornness I am afraid I used to argue the point in my husband’s lifetime, resenting his oft-repeated assertion that my part of the garden—the flowers—didn’t really matter. I know now that he was right when he said that the four essentials of a good garden are….

Right, perhaps, but dead. Walter Fish is, at the time of writing, dead, and Margery, by contrast, is alive. So, to be perfectly brutal about it (as Walter would have been), it doesn’t really matter what he thought. Margery is in charge and free to develop her own style of gardening (for which she is still celebrated in England), which was all to do with flowers, and very little to do with Walter’s four essentials of “perfect lawns, paths, hedges and walls.” Walter calls Margery’s habit of tucking alpine plants into dry-stone walls “poking belly-crawlers into rat-holes,” and he will not allow her to try the same trick (one of her future signature methods) with her paths:

I should have preferred to fill our cracks with a mixture of sand and fine soil so that tiny green plants would creep along the stones but this was one of the things that Walter would not have at any price. I was allowed a very few small holes, in which I planted thymes and Dresden China daisies, and the effect was far too neat and tidy. Time has improved things and a lot of Somerset cement has become loosened, some of it helped, I admit, by a crowbar, and now I have little plants crawling in and out of nearly every crevice.

In other words, her husband died, and she went at his perfect path with a crowbar—a brutality picked up from Walter who, we learn on page 44 (and this is where we come to detest him), had methods of getting his own way:

Another of his [previous] gardeners had my sympathy, and I think there was a moral for me in the tale of his undoing. This man had one joy in life and that was to grow wonderful chrysanthemums in pots to bring into the house in the winter. According to Walter he used to stroke and fondle his chrysanthemums so much that he was neglecting the rest of the garden. Remonstrances had no effect so one day Walter took a knife and slashed off all those pampered darlings at ground level. It was by remembering this episode that I learnt to have a sense of proportion and fairness in my gardening, and not to devote too much time to things I like best at the expense of the rest of the garden.

This is what shocks me about Margery Fish: I am meek, she says, and I have learned the lesson my husband taught me. But she is by no means meek, and she is describing a husband over whom she has triumphed. She reminds me very much of characters in Agatha Christie, and there are many handy murder weapons littering this narrative (the crowbar has already been mentioned). Could she have put one of them to good use?

The kind of gardening Walter represents is associated with Agatha Christie mansions in stockbroker Tudor: freshly raked gravel which must not be sullied by weed or soil, paths edged with rope-topped tiles, geometric beds cut in lawns holding hybrid tea roses above bare earth scattered with clumps of old manure, shrubberies, bedding plants, dahlias. The Fishes are conventional. They dress every evening for dinner as a matter of course. Long gowns and satin shoes are mentioned. Even in a Somerset village, there is frosted glass in the pantry window, to shield the visitor from the unsightly vision of the maid washing the dishes.

But Walter’s style is classic Edwardian Thames Valley: wherever there is a body in the library, there will be a garden like his outside. What Margery is working toward, if only Walter will let her, is an interpretation of the cottage garden style, a style which is itself something of a representation of a fictional past, but which involves a pretty profusion of flowers, natural materials (local stone rough-hewn) for the paths, tiny plants living happily with giants, perennials given preference to annuals (or at least to the traditional bedding plants), attention paid to self-seeders, and allowance given to natural spreading habits—a garden in which not only is there no bare earth, there is no bare crack in the paths or in the all-important walls, both the boundary walls and the retaining terraces.

It is a style that goes well with plantsmanship, a word which to detractors means only a kind of one-upmanship and obscurantism (indeed a kind of snobbery, the besetting sin of the gardener), but which in its positive sense connotes a delight in diversity and a desire to explore genus and species to the fullest. Rarity and curiousness are more at a premium in the plantswoman’s garden than showiness. Colors are “subtle.” A premium is put on handsome foliage, and it is not enough (at the most rarefied heights of plantsmanship) to have an example of an interesting species—one should have a particularly fine form of that species, preferably one either collected from the wild or acquired from a celebrated plant-hunter or gardener.

  1. 1

    V. Sackville-West’s Garden Book, edited by Philippa Nicolson (Atheneum, 1979), p. 98.

  2. 2

    Gertrude Jekyll and Edward Mawley, Roses for English Gardens, introduced and revised by Graham Stuart Thomas (London: Country Life; George Newnes, 1902; reissued by Penguin, 1983).

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