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Derek J. Fell

Oct 15, 2019

Derek Fell, the acclaimed author of over 100 books dealing with art, gardens, and adventure travel, died at his Bucks County PA home on July 18, 2019, due to complications from colon cancer. He was a Sanibel resident since 2006.

Fell was born in Morecambe, England on September 28, 1939 and was educated both there and in Wilhelmshaven, Germany. He worked for several years as a newspaper reporter in London, then seven years for Hurst, Europe’s largest seed company. His mentors included O.D. Gallagher, a correspondent from the Second World War who taught him how to write; Harry Smith, a horticultural photographer who helped teach him how to photograph gardens; and David Burpee, President of Burpee Seeds, who taught him about how to garden in the United States.

In 1964, Fell was hired by David Burpee to be their Seed Catalog Manager. He held that position for six years until the company was sold. After leaving Burpee, he was the Executive Director of the All-American Selections (the national seed trials) and the National Garden Bureau. Fell then began to write and photograph a series of gardening books. His most popular books include “Vertical Gardening” and “Grow This!”. Fell also wrote and photographed a large number of articles for Architectural Digest, later receiving more awards from the Garden Writers Association than any other person. Fell then wrote and photographed a series of best selling books about the gardens of several Impressionist artists, including Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, and Van Gogh. He more recently wrote a biography called “Van Gogh’s Women” and coauthored the “Monet’s Palate Cookbook” with Aileen Bordman. Fell’s on-line photo library includes over 150,000 images of of plants, gardens, and travel destinations. While on the islands for his daughter’s wedding at ‘Tween Waters, he started looking at real estate. The 13th property his agent showed him in one day was just perfect: ~3/4 acre of tropical vegetation on Cardium Street that looked like a rainforest. The property was “a garden in the making” and Fell planted huge numbers of bromeliads and caladiums to provide a “kaleidoscope of colors”. He called it “Karamea”, a Polynesian name for scent of the lemon grass. He believed a garden needed a water feature, so Fell hired Naples water feature expert, David Wesley, to install a plunge pool with waterfall that Fell designed incorporating ideas learned from researching Frank Lloyd Wright. Fell planted a variety of fruit trees, including three varieties of bananas, mangoes, papaya, avocados, lemon, fig, blood orange, carambola, and pineapple. He also grew macadamia nuts and lychees. His property was featured in the September/October 2017 issue of Florida Gardening.

Fell was briefly a cartoonist for The Sanibel-Captiva Islander years ago, but was criticized for including alligators in too many of his cartoons. When on island, he was a fixture at the Sanibel Public Library, which he considered to be a treasure. He lectured there several times to standing room only audiences, including in 2011 during the Master Gardeners Lecture Series, and in 2016 about his books “Van Gogh’s Women” and “Grow This!”. He also lectured to the Shell Islands Garden Club in 2011 about how he transformed his overgrown property on Cardium Street into a beautifully landscaped haven.

Few Sanibel residents know that Derek Fell saved them thousands of dollars when he fought the City of Sanibel in early 2016 over a code violation about mulch that he believed was wrong. He attended the hearing without an attorney and was supported by witnesses Dr. Philip Marks and Alison Ward. Fell won the case when it was decided that biodegradable bedding mix, such as mulch, was not in violation of the City’s soil elevation code because it could not be considered “fill”.

Derek always believed in the healing properties of Sanibel and enjoyed swimming in the Gulf. In January, after learning that some colon cancer cells had migrated to his liver, he decided to let the disease take its course rather than have chemotherapy. He put his positive energies into drafting a 40,000 word manuscript based upon a suggestion by a retired psychiatrist friend on Sanibel who read his book about “Van Gogh’s Women”. Fell completed the manuscript in May and submitted it to his agent. This fiction novel presumes that, after Van Gogh committed suicide, his brother Theo accused Vincent’s psychiatrist Dr. Gachet of malicious intent and wanting him dead. Writing about the ensuing trial kept Derek busy and focused for many months.

Of all his works, Derek’s favorite was “The Gardens of Frank Lloyd Wright”. He continued to visit the Sanibel Library each time he was on island this year. He was last on Sanibel the end of June, and swam off Donax Beach whenever he could. He was always happy to go to the Farmer’s Market on Sundays, to shop and also to photograph fruits and vegetables for clients.

Derek Fell is survived by family in Bucks County PA, and a brother in England. He also leaves behind many friends on Sanibel.