We Made a Gardenby Fish, Henry Boyd-Carpenter
First published in Britain in 1956 and never before available in America, We Made a Garden is the classic story of a unique and enduring English country garden. One of Britain’s most esteemed gardening writers recounts how she and her husband set about creating an exemplary cottage garden from unpromising beginnings on the site of the former farmyard and rubbish heap that surround their newly purchased home in the countryside of Somerset, England. Each imbued with a strong set of horticultural opinions and passions, Mr. and Mrs. Fish negotiate the terrain of their garden, by turns separately and together, often with humorous collisions. From the secret to cultivating the smoothest lawn to the art of lifting and replanting tulip bulbs to the landscaping possibilities of evergreens, the diverse elements of successful gardening—and delightful writing—are bound together by Mr. and Mrs. Fish’s aspiration to cultivate that most precious and slow-growing quality—the fundamental character of a good garden.
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The house was long and low, in the shape of an L, built of honey-coloured Somerset stone. At one time it must have been thatched but, unfortunately, that had been discarded long ago and old red tiles used instead. It stood right in the middle of a little Somerset village, and made the corner where a very minor road turned off from the main street. There was only a narrow strip of garden in front, and not very much behind, but we bought an orchard and outbuildings beyond so that we had about two acres in all. A high stone wall screened us from the village street, and there was a cottage and another orchard on the other side.
You can't make a garden in a hurry, particularly one belonging to an old house. House and garden must look as if they had grown up together and the only way to do this is to live in the house, get the feel of it, and then by degrees the idea of the garden will grow.
We didn't start work outside for nearly a year, and by that time we felt we belonged to the place and it belonged to us and we had some ideas of what we wanted to do with it.
It was on a warm September day when we first saw the house but it was such a wreck that Walter refused to go further than the hall, in spite of the great jutting chimney that buttressed the front. Then the long roof was patched with corrugated iron, the little front garden was a jungle of rusty old laurels and inside an overpowering smell of creosote, newly applied, fought with the dank, grave-like smell of an unlived-in house. "Full of dry rot," said Walter, "not at any price," and turned on his heel.
For three months we tried to find what we wanted. We looked at cottages and villas, gaunt Victorian houses perched uneasily on hilltops, and snug little homes wedged in forgotten valleys. Some were too big and most too small, some hadn't enough garden and others too much. Some were too isolated, others so mixed up with other houses that privacy would have been impossible. We lost our way and had bitter arguments, but we did discover what we didn't want. I couldn't see Walter in a four-roomed cottage with a kitchen tacked on to one end and a bathroom at the other, and I had no intention of landing myself with a barn of a place that would require several servants to keep it clean.
We were still hunting in November when our way took us very near the old house so summarily dismissed in September, so we turned down the lane which said "East Lambrook one mile," just to see what had been happening during those three months.
Quite a lot had happened. The front garden had been cleared of its laurels and the house looked much better. Old tiles had replaced the corrugated iron on the roof, and inside the walls had been washed with cream and the woodwork with glossy paint.
It is one of those typical Somerset houses with a central passage and a door at each end, so very attractive to look at and so very draughty for living. That day we thought only the artistic angle. It was late afternoon and the sun was nearly setting. Both doors were open and through them we caught a glimpse of a tree and a green background against the sunlight.
That day I got Walter further than the flagged passage, and we explored the old bakehouse, with its enormous inglenook and open fireplace, low beamed ceiling and stone floor, and a gay little parlour beyond. On the other side was another large room with stone floor and an even bigger fireplace, and at the far end a lovely room with wonderful panelling. We both knew that our search had ended, we had come home.
I cannot remember just what happened after that but I shall never forget the day when the surveyor came to make his report. It was one of those awful days in early winter of cold, penetrating rain. The house was dark and very cold, and the grave-like dankness was back, in spite of all the new paint and distemper. The surveyor, poor man, had just lost his wife, and was as depressed-
naturally-as the weather. Nor shall I forget Walter's indignation with the report when it did come in. The house, while sound in wind and limb, was described as being of "no character." We didn't think then that it had anything but character, rather sinister perhaps, but definitely character. Since then I have discovered that the house has a kindly disposition; I never come home without feeling I am welcome.
Having got our house we then had to give it up again so that it could be made habitable. For many months it was in the hands of the builders and all we could do was to pay hurried visits to see how things were going, and turn our eyes from the derelict waste that was to be the garden. Sometimes I escaped from the consultations for brief moments and frenziedly pulled up groundsel for as long as I was allowed. Walter never wanted to stay a moment longer than business required and it worried me to go off and leave tracts of outsize groundsel going to seed with prodigal abandon. My few snatched efforts made very little impression on the wilderness, but they made me feel better.
Meet the Author
Margery Fish was one of Britain’s leading gardeners. Named a classic gardening writer by the Royal Horticultural Society, she published six other gardening books and was a regular contributor to the British periodicals Amateur Gardening and The Field. Many thousands of visitors come each year to East Lambrook Manor, her Somerset garden.
Michael Pollan is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Botany of Desire and Second Nature, named one of the best gardening books of the twentieth century by the American Horticultural Society. He is a contributing editor to Harper’s magazine and a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine. Pollan chose the books for the Modern Library Gardening series because, as he writes, “these writers are some of the great talkers in the rich, provocative, and frequently uproarious conversation that, metaphorically at least, has been taking place over the back fence of our gardens at least since the time of Pliny.”
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