The wit and wisdom of Beverley Nichols


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.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. In fact, I would love to meet the M.F.K Fisher of gardening, so I will certainly make a detour to Amazon and look this guy up. Having worked side-by-side with Henry Mitchell at the Washington Post back in the day, I know that poets in the gardening arena are few and far between, just as they are in the food arena. We need you to be scouting for these great reads, and for the latest incarnatin of Beverly Nichols who may be struggling to get published. (Or maybe he/she is just bloggin and needs a wider audience?)

  2. As a man Beverly Nichols was not the greatest, to put it mildly. Let’s just say he fully shared some of the very worst prejudices of his era and was not especially truthful to boot. As a writer, he was a pro and can be vey amusing, but — a word to the wise. He fell into obscurity for very good reasons.

    I much prefer the Reverend E A Bowles, Margery Fish, and countless others, who were also plants people.

  3. Timber Press also publishes an excellent biography of Nichols, by Bryan Connan. While it’s true he didn’t lead the most exemplary of lives, the life he did lead is strangely fascinating, if you can accept him for who he was instead of who you think he ought to have been.

    His novels tend toward a sentimentality that put them out of date even in their time, but his garden writing scintillates. He longed for greatness and regretted that his “light” fare, his garden and cat books, were his most famous works, but his writing seems most suited for them. Me, I would have been happy with that.

  4. I have been reading more and more garden writers from the first part of the 20th century. Thank you for introducing me to another!

  5. Beverley Nichols is one of my favorite writers because of his sense of fun and because he wrote so eloquently about the things I love most in life: cats, gardens and old houses, not necessarily in that order.:-)

    Around 1987 I stumbled purely by accident over one of his books and have been hooked ever since.

    I’m glad that Timber Press has been reprinting many of Beverleys books, they deserve a wider audience.

    About the man himself: without sin, cast, first stone. Nuff said!

  6. I just discovered Beverly Nichols a few days ago and am thrilled. I’m guessing that some of the “negative” is his prejudice, but that was typical of his time, and I forgive him. I’m interested in hearing anything about him.

  7. I want to buy ‘Green Grows the City’, but don’t know the price, and also need to know if it’s in Aus. dollars or some other.
    Please help.

    Janet Cheriton

  8. Lovers of Beverly Nichols may be interested in hunting down the books of another English garden writer, Marion Cran.
    I found two in English 2nd hand book shops and am still searching for others. The ones I chanced on are The Garden of Ignorance and Garden Talks. They were published in 1917 & 1927 respectively.
    Sometimes you could imagine you are reading Nichols so alike are their styles. Cran however is dedicated to gardening and there are no whimsical, fictitious characters lurking in the herbaceous borders.
    I do recommend though, her lucid and charming prose. Reading Cran is like making visit to another England which is already lost.

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