I think I first stumbled upon We Made a Garden by Margery Fish when it was mentioned in a podcast. When I did, it opened up an entire catalog of charming old gardening books. This book was first published in the 1950s, and as a reader, I had to take that into consideration when reading Fish’s self-deprecating humor and sexist attitudes between her and her husband. (I think she even refers to her husband as “Lord and Master” at one point.) Still, the love between them is obvious, and their mutual joy of gardening is contagious.
Fish begins as an amateur gardener, but quickly grows to love it. I was charmed by her endearing attitude toward her plants, calling them her “babies” and her “children” and referring to certain groupings and cuttings as “cousins,” “nieces,” and “nephews.” I strongly identified with this sentiment. I love my houseplants. I love many animals too, but I find myself reacting to my plants in the same silly, joyful way that people react to their pets in YouTube videos.
We Made a Garden is the perfect book to read in the dead of winter (huge white snowflakes are falling outside as I write this). Fish shares her favorite plants, in a thorough glossary that had me googling late into the night. My outdoor gardening space is limited, and I will probably always been constrained by living in cold zones, but I found myself daydreaming about the possibilities.
Fish works relentlessly at her garden and shares funny and fussy opinions about the proper way of doing things. Last night, on a freezing cold winter’s night, I found my neighbor outside tinkering in her garden, picking up scraps to go out in the yard waste bin the next day. You either get it or you don’t.
Fish’s garden is a kind of wild, informal cottage garden. Clearly years of thought, labor, and love went into it’s making. Today, decades later, visitors can still see the garden. While I don’t know that I’ll ever make the trip, reading the book has inspired me to visit more public gardens and pay even closer attention to the different plants. I’ll also be reading as many of these old gardening books as I can find.
Lines I loved:
“The plants will show their gratitude by giving even better blooms than they did before” (66).
“They come up year after year and I am quite glad to see them” (93).
“[I]t didn’t work out as he had hoped, so gladioli were banished from our garden” (98).
“I often wonder why some zealous gardening relation did not slay me with fork and spade in my unenlightened years” (104).
On Asiatic primulas: “It seem a pity to waste a position so admirably suited to their taste, so I dug out the heavy clay and filled the channel with a good mixture of leaf mould, sand and compost and here the Bartleys, the Postfords, the Millars and their foreign relations enjoy life, with their feet in deep damp earth and their heads in the sun” (118).
“Everyone should have an herb garden–a little oasis of old world plants and delicate fragrance, with clipped hedges of box or lavender, rosemary of santolina” (136).
“Everyone has their own ideas of what they want to grow in a garden” (144).