Bless Timber Press for having the good taste to persist in their reprints of the works of Beverley Nichols (1898-1993). My hunch is that very few people are aware of Nichols’s witty, passionate, and knowledgeable books on gardens and gardening. Most of them are technically chronicles of his own gardening efforts at various locations in England, but every chapter contains plenty of observations and opinions on general gardening topics, as well as comments on human—and cat—nature. Nichols was a political writer, playwright, and novelist who published from the twenties through the eighties; his work deserves to be as widely known in America as it is in Britain.
The most recent reprint, Green Grows the City (first published in 1939) is an often-hilarious account of Nichols’s efforts to create a gracious verdant retreat in an unpromising Heathstead triangular plot. Along the way, Nichols devotes whole chapters to the uses of such plants as ferns and cactus in the domestic landscape.
From his search for appropriate plants:
Did you know there were nurseries in London? Stretching for acres and acres, unsuspected, behind the most unpromising facades? No? Well, there are. But I won’t tell you where they are, because I like to prowl about them alone. Muttering.
To his comments on certain garden ornaments:
… Somewhere, we may be sure, in one of the suburbs of Purgatory, there is an arid garden where dwell all those misshapen creatures who have been decorating so many gardens for so many years. In this strange hell the traveler will see bloated cupids, staggering with leaden feet … They will see fearsome plaster girls who, as they pass by, spout a mouthful of water from between their cracked lips. …..
… Nichols’s prose is characteristically tart and finely tuned. True, he mentions a lot of plants (Siberian wallflowers? Aquiglia discolor? Lilium kikak?) I’ve never heard of and don’t ever expect to see, but I don’t read Nichols for gardening advice. Rather, his fervent devotion—albeit with touches of acerbic humor—to plants and the creation of gardens is inspiring and heartening. It’s also encouraging that he lived well into his eighties. Must have been all that gardening.
If you’ve been looking for the M.F.K. Fisher of gardening, this is as close as you’re ever going to get.