I’m reading a book I found at a flea market vintage book stall. It is marvelous. It’s called We Made a Garden, and right on the cover it defies me—defies me—“not to find pleasure, encouragement, and profit” from this book. That’s a dare, people, so obviously, I bought it.
Written by British gardener Margery Fish and originally published in 1956, the book contains, as promised, a slew of delightful horticultural gems. Margery tells the tale of buying a ramshackle farmhouse with her husband Walter after World War II, and working together to turn what used to be a farmyard into a sloping, terraced garden. I have learned a lot about planting, composting, watering, and so on, but the biggest takeaway is that Walter was, once upon a long-ago time, an obsessive, hyper-controlling Mr. Bossy-Pants.
How do I know? Well, what’s fun is that Margery wrote this book after Walter died, so she gets to rip into him with impunity. She recounts many of their fights with hilarious passive aggression, admitting that she was in the wrong while painting Walter as the true villain.
For example, Walter loved gardening and took extraordinary care with their lawn and vegetable beds, of that there was no doubt. “Walter would no more have left his grass uncut or the edges untrimmed than he would have neglected to shave,” wrote Margery. But Walter was a man’s man, and wanted very little to do with the feminine side of gardening, so he left the flower beds to Margery.
“Do not think that he did not like flowers,” Margery warns her reader. “He did very much, if they were properly grown and the setting was good. But he always looked at a garden as a whole, and the perfection of one plant did not compensate for neglect elsewhere.”
And Margery would have been happy with this arrangement if only Walter could have left well enough alone. The problem was that her staking technique was all wrong, and so naturally Walter found it wanting and had no choice but to get involved.
“When it came to staking, I came to grief quite badly,” she wrote. “In the first place I did not stake early enough, and quite a lot of handsome heads of flowers were condemned by my mentor [Walter] because they were crooked by the time I did tie them up. Nothing will straighten a plant that has grown crooked. And when I did stake I was accused of doing it too loosely.”
She added, “I admit it wasn’t satisfactory because the wind blew the flowers about mercilessly in my little enclosures and they got tangled and bent.”
Due to Margery’s incompetence, Walter had to deign to show interest in the flowers in order to save them from his hapless wife. “So Walter taught me a lesson. He got stout stakes (mine were slight because I didn’t want them to show too much) and he drove them into the ground with a mallet. Then he took those poor unsuspecting flowers, put a rope around their necks, and tied them so tightly to the stake that they looked throttled.”
As household projects often do, this garden adventure seemed intent on driving Margery and Walter straight to divorce court, but in the mid-1900s, that simply wasn’t the done thing, and so we have Margery’s therapy journal, I mean this lovely horticultural how-to book, to judge and enjoy. Oh, and also to learn about gardens and planting things.
Next time, we’ll talk about Walter’s firm ideas about what makes a garden beautiful and revisit a fun and lively fight about how best to sprinkle composted manure. Until then, I’m off to the garden!