Trevor’s Cottage Garden Blog

From Trevor Nottle

Where do cottage gardens come from? And who was this rather severe looking woman? Cottage gardens come from the land of dreams that’s where. Dreams that were fostered by a very highly coloured view of cottage garden life that was promoted by the well-off and well fed members of the 19thC Arts & Crafts Movement in Merrie Olde Englande.

 Without exploring the cottagers lifestyle as a tenant dependent on his lords whim for housing, housing repairs, sanitation, education and employment these high minded moralists decided that the cottage life was admirable – remember TOAD OF TOAD HALL and its idealised cute rural civility? The reality was that most cottagers worked extremely long and arduous hours as farm labourers and shepherds and had no time to stand at their cottage gate sucking on a long clay pipe alongside dreamy hollyhock spires. That mistaken view was propagated by a number of English water-colour painters. Later the erroneous concept was adopted by several garden writers. Prominent among them was Marjery Fish.



Deciding in 1937 that war was highly likely MR Fish took his wife to live in the comparative safety of the countryside. Mrs Fish describes Mr Fish as wise, knowing, generous in making his decisions and ordering their lives. Oh, Dear! However, things turned out rather well for the Fishes. They liked village life and were well accepted; they fitted in well and mixed in polite society, accepted by the landed gentry and farmers but a cut or three above the cotters and farm hands. In time Mrs Fish became very well known as a gardener and collector of antique plants. People came to see her garden and she was asked to speak about it. Being the lady-like person she was Marjery opened her garden for charity, and as the wife of the former Editor of the Daily Mail she had little trouble in becoming a gardening journalist for Amateur Gardening magazine. During her 20 year career as a writer she produced two books: WE MADE A GARDEN and An All the Year Garden. Of these WE MADE A GARDEN was the best, and it was a run-away success following its publication in England and the USA 1956.

She claimed her style of mixed planting was a ‘typical cottage garden’. Made at a time when most English home owners were Digging for Victory and planting spuds and onions it is difficult to accept her garden was typical at all. It seems like it was more likely an indulgence, perhaps having more to do with providing an antidote to the nastiness of Hilter’s Nazism and the war than to gardens made by those who dwelled in cottages. Still, her style of mixed planting and treasuring old-fashioned plants struck a deep chord among gardeners on both sides of the Atlantic though not without criticism for the manner in which it glossed over the realities of 19thC cottage life: a heavy burden of work, poor health, poor food and little education or chance for improvement.

Given the on-going criticism by garden historians of her revisionist approach to her subject it was perhaps prescient of her to look so dour when her photograph was taken for the cover of her book. Were she alive today she’d not have much reason to smile.

Mrs Fish’s garden at East Lambrook Manor, East Lambrook, Sussex can still be visited today