Out of darkness

29 May 2015

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IN RACHEL COOKE's book Her Brilliant Career: Ten extraordinary women of the Fifties,each personality inexorably exerts her right to freedom from traditional roles. Chapter 4, "In the garden", celebrates the life of Margery Fish as a feminist icon. It focuses on Fish's first book, published in 1956, We Made a Garden.

Her husband, Walter, was 18 years her senior. The book starts with his prediction of war, and his decision, in 1937, that they should move to the country. They eventually arrive at East Lambrook Manor, in Somerset. And so began the garden-making; but the "we" in the title encompasses grudging compromise, concessions, and a domestic war

After Walter's death, in 1947, Fish can begin to flourish, and so, too, does her garden. Dahlias are ditched, and borders encroach on his lawn. She even takes a crowbar to Walter's suburban-style paving. As Cooke puts it: "A tiny part of you begins to wonder if she didn't, in the end, bump him off, burying him in the dead of night beneath the nearest holly bush."

If We Made a Garden is actually about a dysfunctional relationship, Fish's best book (in my opinion), Gardening in the Shade, is truly about plants. Published in 1964, when East Lambrook had become the cottage garden crammed with plants which Fish had always wanted, it can still help us to view shade as an asset to be celebrated.

Walking round my garden, I encounter many of her favourites. I grow the white-flowered form of the hardy begonia Begonia grandis ssp. evansiana, with striking crimson stems and crinkled, red-backed leaves. A bell-flower with leaves that look like a stinging nettle, Campanula trachelium thrives in a gloomy spot, and may be blue- or white-flowered single or double. I also see new planting opportunities. A new shed has brought another north-facing wall. Maturing trees and shrubs create pockets of shade.

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In this shade-positive mindset, I came across a contemporary source of inspiration at the RHS Malvern spring show, in the form of a show-garden, "Out of Darkness", by Lisa Burchill and Robin Ideson - two young designers with the same message: to highlight the wonderful array of shade-tolerant plants.

The budget had been strict, but there was showmanship to draw you in. On the back wall, innovative moss graffiti in the shape of a stylised tree image reminded me of a henna-tattoo detail. On the patio, three moss-covered cubes picked up the moss theme and anchored the design. But the surrounding beds would be easy to replicate.

Skimmias and sarcococcas gave some evergreen backdrop to camassias with flower spikes in shades of violet-blue, brunneras with a haze of forget-me-not-like flowers, and tiarellas creating a drift of light with their fluffy little pokers.

One plant really caught my eye with its shiny grey- and dark-green leaves with a creamy-white margin. I was told that it was Euonymus japonicus "President Gauthier", a versatile evergreen. It can be kept small by clipping; grown in containers; or used for hedging up to six foot.

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