I have a massive number of garden books: New, old, second-hand, review copies and gifts. The are rows of books devoted to Japanese gardens, stone and water gardens, garden design and flower arranging, horticultural history and art. The book-buying rule in our house is one book must go out to make room when a new book comes in. Typically I do my horticultural house cleaning in spring, putting together a bag of books to donate to Olbrich Botanical Gardens' annual book sale that happens in conjunction with their plant sale. Margery Fish is one of those on the way out.
Some books stay on the shelf for years before I finally get around to reading them. Such is the case with "We Made a Garden," Margery Fish's slender little volume about the creation of her famed garden at East Lambrook Manor. I bought a paperback copy when it was re-issued in 2002 as part of The Modern Library's Gardening Series with a new forward by Michael Pollan.
Since Mark and I were creating a garden together, I wanted to read about another gardening couple besides Vita and Harold. The two of us literally spent years learning to appreciate each other's skills and ideas. But it was only with mutual trust and respect that we were able to make a garden that is "ours." If I had been married to Margery Fish's husband, divorce would have been the first step in making a garden. It really only is the death of her husband that gave Fish's ideas and imagination the free reign that resulted in her noteworthy garden.
That book has been sitting on the shelf waiting for me to read it for 14 years. It may be a classic but not to me. It mostly fell flat, due in large part because I had trouble picturing what she was talking about. A great many plants were also unfamiliar because we can't grow them here. I have a feeling Fish might have had more of a positive influence on me if I'd read her book back in the 70s when I was reading Vita, whose books were available in the U.S. years before Fish's. Also in the intervening years I've read about the gardens created by Mirabel and Michael Osler, and my favorites, Sarah and Monty Don.
Much more to my taste is "Margery Fish Country Gardening" by Timothy Clark. First, it has the most important thing a good garden tome needs: A drawing of the garden at East Lambrook Manor with all the sections named. The only way I could figure out what Fish was talking about in her book, was to look at this one repeatedly.
Clark's book is more on the lines of a garden-themed biography of Fish. He gives us her history and the beginnings of the garden and then devotes chapters to her themed books. But his voice adds context and commentary that certainly helped me to understand Fish's place in the garden world. Clark also looks at some of the influences on Fish like Mrs. C.W. Earle and Eleanor Sinclair Rhode. This book is also full of pictures, old and new, in full color and not. For me, it's proven to be a much better introduction to Margery Fish that just reading her own works.
While I was ploughing through Fish, I pulled Roy Diblik's 2014 book, "The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden," off the shelf. I'm making a very quirky pairing of garden writers here because Diblik — like Fish — is equally concerned as to how a single gardener can manage the garden they've created. Both Fish and Diblik come to some similar conclusions; namely using hardy plants that fend for themselves.
Diblik's philosophy stresses that knowing your plants means less work. He is the nurseryman who grew many of the plants that Piet Oudolf required to create Lurie Garden in Chicago. Diblik's Northwind Perennial Farm and display gardens (photo above and below) are well-known to most southern Wisconsin gardeners. Diblik uses a community of plants that need the same conditions and that are grown closely together to smother weeds. His book focuses on 74 plants and offers 62 garden plans using various matrixes of those plants to create endlessly inspiring juxtapositions.
It's a planning and planting concept that is innovative yet easy to understand. There are options for sun and shade and the gardens use famous paintings as inspiration. All the plans are based on a grid of 10 feet by 14 feet with the number and location of each plant clearly indicated. It's a system that lets you scale up or down depending on the size of your garden. Having seen what some of Diblik's matrix plantings look like in Chicago, at Northwind and at Olbrich in Madison, I'm a believer. A valuable book no matter how you look at it and one that will stay on my shelf — except for the frequent times I'll be pulling it off for reference.
One of Roy Diblik's plantings at The Art Institue of Chicago/Timber Press.
DIBLIK IN MADISON: Roy Diblik will be speaking at this year's Garden Expo at 2:15 on Saturday in the Mendota 8 Room. His topic is "Perennial Plant Communities: "The Know Maintenance Approach." Diblik's presentation is sponsored by the Wisconsin Hardy Plant Society.
I am a member of the WHPS and received a review copy of Roy's book from Timber Press. The fact that it's taken me two years to get around to reviewing it should tell you that I did not receive any other remuneration and that my opinions are my own.