Garden Open Today & Tomorrow

One of my favourite garden writers is Beverley Nichols, and the other day I discovered this wonderful quote about him and his work:  If Bertie Wooster and Gertrude Jekyll had a son, surely he would have been Beverley Nichols.  Today’s post is proof of that.

Nichols first published  Down the Garden Path which I wrote about some time ago in 1932. It was to be first of a dozen garden-related books. These were mainly centred around the various gardens he created, and were full of wonderful characters as well as much gardening advice and plant knowledge based on his own hands-on experience.

His last two books were to be different.



All uncredited illustrations are by William McLaren and come from one or other of the two books, & can be found in the on-line copies.

Gilding the lily

Beverley Nichols, by Godfrey Argent, 1969

This is probably because  his whimsical, indeed often camp, approach had led critics to accuse him of  “wandering down garden paths which never really existed,  under pergolas of prose which were wreathed only in the blossoms of my fancy.”  In other words they suggested he was largely making things up.  This he denied emphatically although admitting that  “there may have been moments when one gilded the lily”.

In Garden Open Today published in 1963 and its 1968 follow-up Garden Open Tomorrow,  his last gardening book, Nichols attempted  in his usual entertaining fashion  to distill his thirty years of practical garden-making to prove he was  indeed a “real gardener.”

The two books are the story behind the making of the garden around Sudbrook Cottage on the edge of Ham Common, now in the London Borough of Richmond.  It was the end of a terrace and he had it on a long lease from the crown. In  1968 it was “neither the heart of the country nor the edge of the suburbs.”  The garden was about an acre in size, had light sandy and acidic soil and was surrounded on three sides by brick walls.

Nichols often employed gardeners in his other houses,  but at Sudbrooke  his “gardening assistant” was Kenneth Page   to whom he wrote “the garden and its owner owe a lasting debt.  He dedicated Garden Open Today to Page, probably because “of all the gardeners I have ever had, he is by far the most knowledgeable, with a scholarly understanding of every form of British plant life and a keen inquiring mind.”

So who did the rest of the work?

“Gaskin, my factotum, does the lawns and I do the fiddly bits which nobody else has time for… Deadheading the rhododendrons, weeding the heather beds, disentangling clematis, retying it to the Firethorn et cetera… That is the total labour force, apart from the cats who are tireless in the rearrangement of seedling beds and then daily stripping off the bark from fruit trees.”

Sudbrook “is one of those gardens which has developed like a piece of music, in a series of melodic lines.” But as Nichols  said “when I took possession in the summer of 1958, there was nothing the least melodic about it.”

Sudbrook Cottage is on the end of the terrace


“On the contrary we had to start from scratch. I was faced by a gaunt rectangle so planned that its gauntness was accentuated and so planted that almost everything in the beds had to be torn up and thrown onto the rubbish heap.”


Sudbrook was  the fifth garden he designed, and he was pleased with the result because  in the previous four, “and here you must be prepared for a shameless piece of trumpet blowing… those who have come after me have left them precisely as they found them, for the very simple reason they could not think of  any way of improving them.”  Lest you think he was “a God-given genius” he admits to being “nothing so tiresome” but merely  that he had  “perhaps given more thought to the problems of design than most of [his] contemporaries, even the professionals.”

Garden Open Today begins with something of a diatribe against those critics who complained he was not a real gardener.  The book was not, he thundered “a whimsical compilation; the fingers that wrote it may have been ‘precious’, they were also, more often than not, extremely dirty. Gardening gloves may well be all very well in their way, but in so many tasks, like weeding, one has literally to take the gloves off. Only one’s own nails and fingers can deal, for example, with the sinister little bulbous roots of oxalis, and only naked arms plunging up to the elbows can tickle the slimy, sucking growths that have attached themselves to the sides of the Lily pond by the time that autumn comes. It is not a pleasant job, it is probably bad for one’s Chopin, and there is always the hideous possibility that one’s fingers might inadvertently fasten round a newt; but it is the sort of job that the owner of the garden has to do himself, for the simple reason nobody else will do it.”


After such a start he asked rhetorically “is there anything else before we begin?”  The answer was obviously  “yes”, because he wanted to say “a word about ‘experts’ from the Royal Horticultural Society downwards”: with whom he was “in frequent conflict.”   The book is full of situations where he had pushed the accepted rules on location, hardiness or soil conditions, sometimes failing hopelessly but at other succeeding against the expected odds. He was, he said “all for abiding by the rules” after all  “it is foolish not to read the directions on the packet, but if ever there was a place where rules were made to be broken, it is in the garden.”

Nichols goes on to outline his three main principles of garden design which had emerged during his 30 years of breaking and refining those rules, although like all principles they were inevitably “quite arbitrary.”

The first was that “a garden without water is not a garden at all.”  Secondly “you double the size of a garden by cutting it in half,”  and thirdly “the beauty of the square garden begins with the creation of curves and the beauty of a circular or irregular garden begins with the creation of squares and rectangles. It is a question of the harmonious blending of the two.”

The next chapters are his attempts to describe how these principles are put into practice. Of course, as the book’s cover points out, “Experts may cavil at the application of the word ‘practical’ to this little book. For Mr Nichols—being incurably Mr Nichols—is apt at any moment to interrupt a serious practical discussion with a light-hearted recollection of some of the characters who have contributed to the gaiety of his gardening life. But these diversions do not obscure the hard core of knowledge and experience. And to those [who] dismiss him as an airy theorist, Mr Nichols has issued an impressive challenge: if they doubt his word, they are at liberty to inspect his garden and ‘see for themselves’.”


Each chapter has a description of the task or feature under discussion – often written in his usual rather flowery language but each chapter also includes a section headed “Practical Note” under which he added “this title, not for the first time, is inserted for the benefit of those readers who feel that they have no time for the ecstasies and only want hard facts.”

He explains, amongst many other things, the construction of a pond, the restricting and enhancement of a copper beech, the joys and difficulties of growing snowdrops, why primulas must be grown from fresh seed, the diversity of daffodils, the value of fragrance and the joys of blue flowers and then white, and thats just for starters.  It’s not a book for reading cover to cover non-stop, or  even necessarily in the order printed because “this is not a book in which a storyline is really demanded.”  Instead it is a string of mini-essays on all sorts of aspects of gardening with lots of anecdotes and stories which are sometimes amusing, and sometimes make you realise what a charmed life he had, but almost always which show his deep understanding of plants and garden-making and leave you with something to ponder on.

His favourite plants are revealed, family by family, often to my surprise because they show how taste and fashion in plants has altered.  His top choice if he were only allowed a single flowering plant in the garden would be the rhododendron  “—for their grandeur and their delicacy; their fantastic range of colour, from almost black to glistening white; for their exquisite variety of design, [and] even for their fragrance. One of my annual pilgrimages is to the cool house at Kew, to stand alone by the Rhododendron ‘Fragrantissimum’, which fills the whole house with the perfume of frozen incense. But he admitted he was  “aware that some people do not ‘get’ them. Even as sensitive a spirit as John Betjeman once described them to me as a ‘stockbrokers’ flower. If this is indeed the case, the stockbrokers are to be felicitated.”

Another unexpected, at least by me, choice were heathers which had one ” bleak December afternoon” given him “the first, and maybe the greatest, thrill of my whole gardening career— the sight of the rosy spikes of winter heather thrusting through the snow. That was one of those moments in life when one felt that God had indeed been a loving Father, sending the flowers with the snow, and giving one eyes to see them, and fingers to touch them, as one bent down and very gently flicked away the snow from the petals. The afternoon was unearthly quiet, and I can still hear the ghostly tinkle of those heather bells across the years, and the soft sigh of the snow as it fell to earth.” He returned to the subject of gardening with heathers in Garden Open Tomorrow.

Another surprising love was for eucalyptus which back in the 1960s were not that common. He had visited a nursery by chance and come  away, as he often seemed to do, with lots of plants he hadn’t intend to buy. On this occasion he bought not only more rhododendrons, but azaleas, camellias and to his later surprise a collection of a dozen eucalyptus which were later delivered “pale and forlorn.” In November three years later one of them, Eucalyptus cordata stood 18ft tall “with leaves of the palest grey, covered with creamy flowers shaped like miniature powder puffs” and with “one or two bewildered and misguided bees…wondering if summer had come again.”  Nichols realised this was unusual and contacted Kew.  A Mr Soster, the head of the Temperate House visited because “he had never before encountered the cordata flourishing out of doors in this part of the world”.  Thereafter Nichols wanted to “make England eucalytpus-conscious.”

Nichols was a man of very decided, and usually equally very fixed, views.

As we all know there is a tendency for plant breeders to seek out and develop plants with extreme qualities in size, shape or colour. He railed against such “giantism” and hated, for example “overbred modern Gladiolus brobdingnagia” arguing that when you compare it with with the original wild gladiolus, “you realize all that we have lost in the onward march of progress.”

A similar cry went up about trends in delphiniums, which were then at the height of their fame. “At the last Chelsea Show there were delphiniums taller than guardsmen. They had been forced and cosseted and interbred until they no longer looked like delphiniums at all. They were rather frightening, staring out at the crowds with blank blue eyes as big as saucers—flowers from a world of science fiction. I cannot believe that the average gardener welcomes this trend. It is all very well if you are a dowager duchess of stately stature, with a large retinue of slaves and borders fifteen feet deep. But such ladies, alas, are few and far between; most of us have to do with very little space.”  Instead, going back to his practical streak,  he recommended using 3 species of delphiniums all under 15″ tall, although to my mind that rather defeats the reason for growing delphiniums in the first place.

It transpires that in disliking the breeding of ever larger varieties of many garden plants he preferred and indeed encouraged readers to move to miniature varieties, including even  sweet peas. But in all this debate about favourite and least liked flowers, particularly those that are not well known to the general public, Nichols wanted to know the practicalities rather than merely  abstract descriptions  “where they are growing, in what sort of soil, in what aspect, and who looks after them, for how many days of the week.”…

Constance Spry

This concentration on plants rather than the characters who dominated his earlier gardening books continues into Garden Open Tomorrow, but not exclusively.  He also introduces the real Constance Spry in Garden Open Today, while  in Garden Open Tomorrow we also get to meet  Sir Eric Savill [indeed we get an account of Savill Garden at Windsor, one of Nichols favourites], Lanning Roper, Sir Frederick Stern of Highdown and  Jim Russell, the nurseryman.  Mind you, the living creatures that dominate the book, including having a chapter all to themselves, are the cats.




The final touch which really show that he’s a real gardener rather than merely someone who gilds the lily comes in the appendix to each book. In Gardens Open Today it included the lists names and addresses of the various nurseryman who had supplied the flowers, shrubs and horticultural miscellanea described in the book, giving little asides, for example,  telling the reader that at Russells of Windlesham  they would be  “welcomed like a Duke even if you’ve only come to buy a few yards of privet,” whilst also warning them that “the firms with the greatest reputations are not always the firms with the best goods.”

He emphasised too the “paramount importance to every gardener of equipping himself with an adequate collection of commercial catalogues.”  Indeed if he were “beginning a garden career on a limited income and were offered the choice between £10 worth of books on “how to garden” and a collection of nurseryman’s catalogues at half a crown apiece, post free, I would unhesitatingly choose the catalogues.” Jackmans in particular is praised because it offers some of the best prose now being written in the English language. Clean, strong, and delicate. Somebody at Jackman’s seems to have missed his vacation. I hope he continues to miss it.”

“So ends our little book. I am very aware of its inadequacies but I hope it may have helped a few gardeners and given them some new ideas. As I once wrote, many years ago, in Down the Garden Path, a garden is “the only mistress who never fades, who never fails.”

“One last word to those who would like to come and see the flowers I have celebrated, growing in the domestic setting…. The best idea … would be to write to the secretary, Sudbrook Cottage, … But since stamps will probably be nine points apiece by the time these words are printed, it would only be humane to enclose a stamped addressed envelope. If hundreds of people write all at once, I cannot imagine what will happen; if nobody writes at all, I shall be deeply pained. Altogether, it seems an explosive situation, but it might… just conceivably might… be fun.”

I don’t think Sudbrook Cottage is open to the public although it has been in the past for the National Gardens Scheme. There are some photos from 2012 at Ham Life.

On-line copies off the books can be found at Garden Open Today   and Garden Open Tomorrow,

For more information see  Beverley Nichols: A Life, by Bryan Connon, which is now available on-line at  courtesy of Indian Public Libraries, and ,  His archive, including diaries, letters, and photos  is now in the University of Delaware Library and has not yet been digitised, although there is a small online exhibition about the conservation of some of his photographs. 

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