Sixty-two years ago, an unlikely expert burst onto the gardening scene with a book she began this way: “When in 1937, my husband decided there was a likelihood of war, and we made up our minds to buy a house in the country, all our friends thought we’d choose a respectable house in good repair complete with garden, and nicely laid out and ready to walk into.” At the time, Margery Fish was a 64-year-old widow. She had long toiled in the shadows of great men–titans in London’s newspaper business—working as an assistant to the founder of a flourishing publishing empire, and later to Walter Fish, Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Mail. The same Fish who would give her his last name when they married. Walter was eighteen years older and seemingly bestowed with a strong sense of “I know best.” He did, his wife acknowledged, know some things best, but she managed to write We Made a Garden all by herself, a book that’s become a timeless classic.
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that Margery and Walter didn’t buy the kind of country house their friends were expecting. “And when, instead, we chose a poor battered old house that had to be gutted to be livable, and a wilderness instead of a garden, they were really sorry for us,” she wrote. In no time at all—and with Walter six feet under–Margery Fish became synonymous with English Cottage-style Gardening, in constant demand as a writer and lecturer until her death in 1969. She wrote eight books in total, and, today, the garden made famous by her debut effort attracts visitors from around the world and inspires even those who have never set foot there. Which brings me to the tale of another unlikely gardener and his even more unlikely garden plot. Fast forward to the summer of 2018.
It’s close to sunset when I park next to the cottage. The hydrangea border is new and in thriving full bloom. I’ve always loved hydrangeas, ever since my parents took me and my brother to visit Cape Cod when we were kids. The blooms there were blue and violet, but these are white—the better to “pop” when the sky darkens. A few feet away the front garden is a frothy mix of pretty colors, shapes and heights, and the rolling green lawn looks lusher than ever. Margery Fish is with me in spirit, and I extract We Made a Garden from my suitcase. The book was recommended by a friend, and while I love the story and the way it’s written, gardening is not one of my pastimes. But it’s one of Jeff’s. This book is for him. Against all odds and against all sought-after and unsought-after advice—my cousin Jeff, he made a garden.
Depending on where you live, you may have never visited the Adirondack mountains in upstate New York. It’s a cold place. Winter temperatures frequently dip below zero, and snow in May is not uncommon. Summer—when it cooperates—is a glorious season. Too hot is rare and going to sleep with a blanket is advised, as overnight temps can easily drop to the 40s and 50s. When Jeff decided to get serious about his garden, he had to get real about the fact he’d be planting in one of the coldest climates in the U.S. And one with the shortest growing season. Flowers don’t go into the ground before June 1st. Gardening for most is a windowsill box or two of sprouting colors.
Before Jeff got serious, there was a girl. And a bouquet. The bouquet got her attention and several months later, in the summer, he invited her down from Boston to the family place in the Adirondacks. There were countless trees and a pretty lake but little blooming color. Recalling the bouquet that had first captured her attention, he suggested they plant some flowers. They had no idea what they were doing, and even if they had, they weren’t there long enough to see the soft petals wither and die before summer’s end.
By the time he got serious a decade later, Jeff had won a number of hearts and broken quite a few. He lived on the opposite coast, but his work allowed him to spend the summer months in the Adirondacks, in the town where he grew up. As a boy, he and his three brothers had loved their outdoor life risking life and limbs, but, as an adult, Jeff toils in his summer garden and watches enthralled as it grows.
Jeff and I settle into a couple of chairs overlooking the property. He opens We Made a Garden and begins to read some of the passages out loud. The words catch in his throat. Margery is speaking to him across the decades, even though her name and her book were unknown to him before now. Like her, he knew nothing when he started. He’s made some of the same mistakes. He’s learned—like Margery—that a great lawn is more important to the garden than you might think—along with good paths and well-trimmed borders and hedges.
Husband Walter often told Margery that flowers didn’t really matter. “No matter how beautiful they are,” she recounts his advice in her book, “if the surroundings are unkempt, the flowers would give no pleasure.”
That may be true, but the flowers give enormous pleasure. To the gardener, when he or she gets it right. And to non-gardeners like me as well. The well-tended garden is a living, breathing work of art. Unlike a painting or a book or a film, a garden is never finished: to stop work would be to guarantee its death. Jeff vows to make the garden even better next year. Like Margery did in her day. She didn’t invent English cottage-style gardening, but she showed ordinary people that they could build a beautiful garden at home—no gardening staff or castle-sized grounds required.