General views of The Ditch carpeted with snowdrops

Margery Fish’s remarkable snowdrops at East Lambrook Manor

Margery Fish is best known for her books on creating her garden at East Lambrook Manor but, as designer Isabel Bannerman discovers, she was also an early galanthophile who filled the garden with snowdrops Words Isabel Bannerman, photographs Jason Ingram

When we moved back to Somerset earlier this year, not ten miles from East Lambrook Manor, a return to this legendary garden of the prolific garden writer Margery Fish was high on the to-do list. The eight books she wrote between 1956 and her death in 1969 were formative to our parents’ generation. She was the queen of the middle-sized cottage garden – ‘as modest and unpretentious as the house’.

Galanthus plicatus ‘Sarah Dumont’
© Jason Ingram

Margery comes across as the epitome of modest and unpretentious. Her ‘look’ is very familiar and currently very unfashionable; crazy paving with alpine planting; silver and variegated shrubs along with signature blue conifers; loose herbaceous perennials. An absolute joy in later winter are the naturalised bulbs. The garden, and hence her writing, was about manageable ambitions: Margery gardened her own garden, and for that reason her advice is always reasonable, practical and still valid to those of us gardening away today. Our return was infused with some considerable nostalgia: Julian and I had originally visited when we were first together in 1983.

Margery Fish’s snowdrops at East Lambrook Manor (1 to 10)

Margery’s real heart shines out in her winter and spring world; her green hellebores; her ferns galore; her liberal use of her strain of Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii ‘Lambrook Gold, ’which has long been
a top plant of mine – silver-edges may not find favour with me but everyone likes a bit of gold. Snowdrops followed by scillas swamp the Ditch, which was her miracle invention, a rock garden without being a construct, a sunken garden that splits the space in two. She loved wintersweet and winter-flowering Algerian irises, cyclamen, violets and the unsurpassable spring luminosity of primroses. Bulbs and naturalising she really understood. Tulipa sprengeri spring everywhere – an ambition to take home and nurture.
General views of The Ditch carpeted with snowdrops
General views of The Ditch at East Lambrook Manor carpeted with snowdrops
© Jason Ingram

Mike Werkmeister and his wife Gail are the current owners and curators of this Grade I-listed garden. They came, like Margery and Walter Fish, after a busy life in London. But they have never worked harder, keeping the flame burning along with Mark Stainer, their inherited head gardener, who has been at East Lambrook for more than 40 years. Mike’s idea to have a snowdrop festival for the first time last year has put considerable life into their February opening. Galanthophilia has caught fire among this nation of gardeners. Who would have thought it?

Well, Margery Fish of course. Margery liked green flowers, especially the green-marked snowdrops. She championed the doubles, such as Galanthus ‘Ophelia’, because they open even in dim light. She loved Galanthus ‘Magnet’ with its wiry pedicels, the pearls dancing ‘en tremblant’ like jewellery. She was not a fan of the rare and pricey yellow ones, although she kept Galanthus nivalis f. pleniflorus ‘Lady Elphinstone’ in a trough on the sunny side of the Malthouse. Seedlings abound in the garden: Galanthus  ‘Dodo Norton’ is a seedling identified in the Ditch, a remarkable snowdrop: thick, short, and with an opaqueness of white akin to sun-block.

Margery Fish’s snowdrops at East Lambrook Manor (11 to 20)