In the Environment section of The Guardian for January 13, a headline reported: Mild Winter Turns Natural World On Its Head. The accompanying photo and caption (reproduced here) caught my eye.
Crocus tommasinianus is flowering at least a month early.
Crocus tommasinianus has been flowering since January 30, at least a month early, in my meadow. When I read that Crocus tommasinianus has also been flowering at least a month early at East Lambrook Manor Gardens, Somerset in England, I wondered what Margery Fish would say.
A contemporary of Vita Sackville-West, Margery Fish created the quintessential English cottage garden at East Lambrook Manor between 1938 and 1969. By observing and experimenting with hardy cottage garden plants, the journalist, who had never previously gardened, became a skilled plantswoman and horticulturist.
Informally designed around her 15th Century cottage, well grown, hardy plants are combined in naturalistic, meadow-like freedom. The cottage gardening style perfected by Margery Fish at East Lambrook Manor artfully conceals the firm hand of an inspired gardener: cottage and garden appear to spring organically from the earth.
After the war, Margery Fish began to share her horticultural enthusiasm, experience, and experiments with readers. In gardening articles and books, she made gardening accessible to all and popularized hardy bulbs like snow crocus and snowdrops as well as durable cottage garden perennials–peonies, hardy geraniums, hellebores, and bearded Iris..
Readers related to her infectious passion for good gardening with hardy, carefree plants and, more importantly, to the scale of her garden. East Lambrook Manor is not Sissinghurst or Hidcote. East Lambrook Manor is not a manor at all; it’s a 15th C. cottage surrounded by less than 2 acres of lush, densely planted, informal gardens and orchard.
A Flower For Every Day (1965) is my favorite Margery Fish book, which I read in the 1990s when my colleague, Shelley Dillard, and I began cottage gardening at the Morris Arboretum with easy perennials, biennials, and roses. Soon we were also teaching a popular cottage gardening class and leading garden tours to England. In 1998, inspired by Margery Fish, we planned a tour of west county gardens in Somerset, Devon, and Cornwall.
So, on a beautiful morning in early summer we took our group to visit the cottage garden at East Lambrook Manor. It was a magical experience—not only because the Margery Fish Garden holds a national collection of hardy geraniums, and I’m a hardy geranium freak—but also because Margery Fish created a gardener’s garden: understated, inspired, hand-painted, full of both rare and common plants–artfully, even effortlessly combined–a bit of paradise. Her spirit lives in every flower.
For 30 years Margery Fish closely observed, described, and selected plants that showed superior and unique variation, which she propagated, along with cottage garden favorites, and sold in her plant nursery. Her successors have continued to select, introduce, and name new Lambrook cultivars including: Pulmonaria ‘Margery Fish,’ Euphorbia ‘Lambrook Gold,’ Astrantia ‘Margery Fish,’ and Artemesia ‘Lambrook Silver.’
Margery Fish never met a snowdrop she could resist. She cultivated 200 species, varieties, and forms of Galanthus. Sometimes a new and distinctive seedling emerges from the Galanthus collection and is selected by the gardener for further observation. Eventually, if its superior or unique characteristics are judged to be worthy, it is named and introduced as a new snowdrop cultivar. One of several Lambrook selections, G. nivalis ‘Margery Fish’ was discovered in the ditch garden by Andrew Norton, a previous owner, in 1987.
In A Flower For Every Day, Margery Fish teaches readers to garden for year round flowers and interest by cultivating a wide range of recommended, “hardy” plants. It’s easier to cultivate flowers year round in English gardens because snowdrops, hellebores, and other ornamentals bloom through moderate winters. “Hardy” is sometimes a limiting factor for Zone 7a and chillier US gardens, so there could be an up side to warming winter trends. If we have to live with climate change, we might as well take advantage of extended winter flowering, which adds interest in the garden.
Margery Fish’s attitude to gardening has always inspired me to greater gardening feats or at least greater gardening aspirations. She also reminds me that even in January, there are suitable days for gardening. At least, she urges, get out, “prowl and peer,” and notice winter features: trees, bark, leaves.
Her in depth discussion of selected genera and species, presented in A Flower For Every Day, opens new possibilities for all gardeners. And as our hardiness zones shift to follow warming trends, we in Zone 7a should be able to grow more of the “hardy” plants Margery Fish recommends.
A changing climate not only brings warming trends, but also cold snaps and severe storms, erratic extremes. Contrast the warm winter of 2012 with record snowfall and freezes in 2011. Gardeners have always weathered climatic extremes in stride. Maybe we need Margery Fish more than ever. How would she face warming and erratic weather events that are turning the natural world on its head, causing snow crocus, Crocus tommasinianus, to flower at least a month early? She’d have to revise her books. I think she’d also do her bit to minimize the damage and live close to the earth: prowling, peering, planting the garden.
Other Margery Fish titles include: We Made a Garden (1956), An All The Year Garden (1958),Cottage Garden Flowers (1961), Gardening in the Shade (1965), Carefree Gardening (1966). Gardening books, even written by Margery Fish, slip out of print. These and other titles are available in reprinted editions.