“We Made a Garden”, Margery Fish entitled her first gardening book in 1956. Her husband had died nine years previously which is perhaps why she was able to document the battles they had over their garden at East Lambrook Manor in Somerset. Margery won – not only in longevity but in the garden style that has earned her a place in history.
Cottage gardening. In this country there is a distinct shortage of cute cottages to act as the centrepiece but many people do not let that get in the way of attempting this style of informal gardening, founded on principles of mingling plants and allowing them to seed down. It is not as easy as it looks.
I was raised in a series of cottage gardens. It is what my mother did and that is not surprising, given that she started gardening in post WW2 Britain. It is a genre anchored in that time. WW1 saw a dramatic change from wealthy estates employing legions of gardening staff – they all disappeared off to fight and most either failed to return or did not return to the servitude of the estate system. But it was the second world war that saw the evolution of the DIY garden in a process of democratisation. Gardening was no longer the preserve of the landed gentry, nor confined to war time food production. The domestic garden came of age.
Margery Fish wanted an informal garden full of flowers all year round that she could maintain herself. She favoured simpler flowers which have a closer allegiance to wildflowers than to the Victorian vulgarity of bedding plants. To this day, her garden remains full of flowery froth and dominated by pastel colours. It has remained in private hands, with several different owners but these days it also has both staff (though few in number, I understand) and volunteers (greater numerically) to keep it as an historic garden open to the public.
Unexpectedly, the current owner was kind enough to give us a tour of the house, parts of which date back to the 14th century. The oppressive weight of responsibility that goes with owning an historic building weighed me down but it was certainly fascinating. And it was this house, seen as mellow and unpretentious, that motivated the style of garden Margery Fish pioneered in the surrounding two acres.
Looking at this and other examples, we discussed the fact that wildflowers and seeding down means something different overseas where plants are often native. Too many become invasive weeds here.
It is not too difficult to create a lovely cottage garden that looks great for three weeks of the year. I have done it, as will have many readers. It is how you keep it equally good for the other 49 weeks that is difficult. A good cottage garden does not have bare patches. It treads a fine line between free form and relaxed maintenance while not permitting weeds to spiral out of control. Plant thugs are restrained or removed before they become a major problem and choke out the more modest growing companions.
It is never all self-seeded – that is meadow style. In a good cottage garden, considerable thought and effort will go into managing plant combinations, creating contrast and harmony with foliage, not just flowers. Even knowing what to weed out and when to trim takes experience. There is usually some underpinning structure to give form – whether in modest hard landscaping or permanent shrubs. The clipped “pudding trees” (just Chamaecyparis lawsoniana) and a bit of hedging are used at Lambrook for this purpose.
The mistake is to tackle this type of gardening under the illusion that it is low maintenance and it does not require much skill, let alone plant knowledge. It is only a year that separates a pretty cottage garden from an out of control weedy wilderness in our climate.
First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.