A gardener of wit and passion
Beverley Nichols, British author, still charms readers with his enthusiasm.
I know that there are gardeners who while away the winters by poring over seed catalogs and diagramming new garden beds, who arrange and rearrange plants – in their heads, if not on paper – and who use their enforced hibernation to good purpose.
Alas, I am not one of them. When I look out the window and see my garden covered with snow, any signs of life buried beneath the frozen ground, it's hard for me to remember what it looks like the rest of the year. The halcyon days of summer seem too distant to dwell upon, and I can't seem to bring myself to think about what should go where, when it will be months before I can do anything about it, anyway.
I've discovered, though, that while I can't think about my own garden in winter, I'm happy to think about other people's gardens. For the past few winters, the gardens I've thought about were those that belonged to the British writer Beverley Nichols.
In his lifetime, Nichols was the author of 60-some books – novels, mysteries, children's books, memoirs, and political commentary. Now, more than 25 years after his death, Nichols is mainly remembered for his gardening books, all of which have been handsomely reprinted.
He wrote nine in all, chronicling the various gardens he established during 50 years. My current favorites are the three books he wrote about his 10 years living and gardening at a Georgian mansion called Merry Hall, which he bought soon after World War II, when it was crumbling and neglected. He claims he decided to buy it, practically on the spot, for its row of magnificent regale lilies.
I have no idea if I would have liked Beverley Nichols in real life, but in his books, he is witty and charming, simultaneously opinionated, knowledgeable, and self-deprecating. This was a man who loved his gardens with passion and devotion, even if he was not the one who performed much of the hard labor. (He inherited a genius of a gardener when he bought Merry Hall, and his valet, Gaskin, seemed to have a magical ability to conjure up hordes of workers – whom Nichols always refers to as "Men" – to do the heaviest and most complicated jobs.)
Merry Hall had a kitchen garden, a water garden, and a greenhouse. There were orchards and fields, meadows, and woods.
Some of my favorite passages involve Nichols dashing around the British countryside in search of plants, dirt (he hauls dirt from Wales in his car to counteract the chalk in Merry Hall's own soil), and garden ornaments. At one point, he goes off to buy a sundial and returns having purchased an enormous stone balustrade from an estate auction.
The arrival of the balustrade involves multiple truckloads of rubble being dumped on his lawn, after blocking local traffic for hours. (Nichols had conveniently escaped to London upon hearing of its imminent arrival.) Eventually, though – with the help of Gaskin's Men – the balustrade surrounds the pool of his water garden, giving him great pleasure.
My life and gardens have absolutely nothing in common with Nichols'. I live in an old farmhouse on the side of a small mountain in Massachusetts. I have no orchards or fields or meadows; no genius gardener at my disposal. My kitchen garden and flower garden are one and the same. Even if I knew where to find a balustrade, there's no place for it here. It will be a triumph if, at some point, I am able to purchase an appropriate garden bench. My garden is on an entirely different scale from Nichols'.
But I don't read Beverley Nichols for guidance, although his actual gardening advice is sound. I don't even read him for inspiration. I read him for his witty companionship but also for his sheer enthusiasm. He was a man who loved his gardens deeply and for a lifetime. His biggest regret about leaving Merry Hall – after 10 years, the cost of the taxes and repairs got the better of him – was not being able to see his garden to full fruition.
The days are getting longer now, and the blanket of snow in my yard has receded. The first crocuses and daffodils are making their appearance. The timing is perfect, as I'm nearly done with my second read of "Sunlight on the Lawn," the final book of the Merry Hall trilogy. The season may be ending for Beverley Nichols and his garden at Merry Hall, but for me, here on the side of my little mountain, it's just beginning.
As if I'm coming out of hibernation, I find myself thinking about seeds and plants, and about getting outside again and starting to see what's what.