Excerpts from Garden Open Tomorrow

The walnut tree is the second largest tree in my garden and a most beautiful tree it is, especially on a clear winter's morning, when the strong musical design of the branches seems to sing against the cold blue sky. The pale grey bark, from a distance, has the quality of the skin of some gigantic serpent. According to the experts the tree is about 160 years old, and last year a wood merchant offered me 100 pounds for it. I informed him that since the cottage was Crown Property we were not allowed to cut down any trees without the permission of the Queen, that if we did so we should be promptly clapped in the Tower, and that one of us, at least, would deserve to go there.

However, the walnut tree is not only beautiful but fruitful. In the first year it produced so many walnuts — small but very sweet — that our wrists ached with cracking them. But that was the only year in which we had any walnuts to eat. The word got round, the jungle telephone began to ring, and by the following summer the squirrels had realized that they were on to a good thing. They came from far and wide, and they have been coming up ever since. They appear with uncanny regularity at the beginning of the second week in July, usually on a Sunday morning. One comes home from church, helps oneself to a glass of sherry, and steps into the garden, filled with amiable intentions, one's mind echoing to the magnificent phrases of the Benedicite. 'O ye Whales and all that move in the Waters, bless ye the Lord.' This is my favourite verse; it conjures up a vision of schools and whales with balloons spouting out of their noses. On each balloon is written a pious injunction. The larger whales have quite a lot written on their balloons, the smaller whales have something short and simple, like 'Hosanna'. Let us hope that God has time to read them.

And then, straight from the heavens, there flutters a small and sinister object ... a fragment of the green skin of a walnut. It lands on the path, telling its story all too clearly. The squirrels have arrived, precisely on time. It is really quite extraordinary, as though they kept diaries in which they wrote: 'Sunday, July 9. Call on B.N. and inspect walnut trees.' At the moment there are only two of them, a sort of advance guard, flicking their tails in the swaying branches; and since they have not yet realized their strength, and still have some of the innate timidity of wild creatures, they scamper away at a clap of a hand, streaking from the walnut into the deeper recesses of the copper-beech, and from there into the pear tree, whence they disappear into one of the neighbouring gardens. But they will be back tomorrow, and the day after, in ever increasing numbers, and for weeks the lawns and the paths will be littered with scraps of shells and broken nuts, and the whole garden will look like Hampstead Heath after an exceptionally rowdy bank holiday.

Why this sends me almost mad with irritation I do not know. We have no real need of the walnuts, and though it is a bore to be woken up at dawn by a fusillade of hard objects clattering on to the roof of the woodshed one gets used to it in time. Perhaps the real reason for these feelings is hidden in some hard primitive residue of masculine aggressiveness and general beastliness. Some part of the subconscious is probably outraged by the realization that for once in a way the animals have the upper hand. They ignore the shouts and hand-clappings, they shrug off the windfalls that one throws into the branches, and they sit there, bobbing up and down in the breeze, so completely impervious to reproof that from time to time they seem to be aiming the nuts directly at one's head.

"Practical Note: Every year, in thousands of gardens all over the country, valuable plants are hacked down and dug up and chucked on to the rubbish heap because their owners are under the mistaken impression that they are dead when, in fact, they are very much alive. This tragedy could be averted if gardeners, instead of using the familiar technique of scratching the bark to see if it shows green underneath, would simply bend down and tug, and go on tugging ... The moral: Never give up hope until you have proof positive that a plant is dead, even if you have to wait through most of the year. And go on tugging."

"A garden without cats, it will be generally agreed, can scarcely deserve to be called a garden at all."

"The practical mood is wearing off. In a moment we will recapture it, but first I would like to indulge in the luxury of explaining one of the many reasons why rhododendrons have, for me, so unique an enchantment. We all know — or ought to know — that as the flowers fade and die they must be nipped off at the base in order to stimulate next year's growth. This nipping, of course, is known as 'dead-heading'. But sometimes I slightly anticipate the process by shaking the branches, so that some of the petals fall to the ground before their time. If one does this, one immediately steps into a realm of magic."

"In the bright moonlight the garden was like the setting for a winter ballet when the stage is deserted, the dancers have gone home, and the music has echoed into silence. But even now there was a faint music, for a thaw was setting in, and from underneath the branches of the copper beech came a ghostly tinkle of sharps and trebles, as the drops fell gently on the frozen leaves. By noon tomorrow most of the snow would have gone.

And yet, over in the distance, there was still a thick drift of it dazzling white beneath the moon. I wondered why it had stayed there; maybe because of the lie of the land, or because Page had been protecting something with a wattle fence. I stepped over to investigate, and then, as I drew closer, I saw that this whiteness was not the whiteness of snow but of blossom. The whole bank was ablaze with winter heather, flowering as it had never flowered before."

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"It has taken me over thirty years of tireless experiment to discover the glory of grey in the garden, to reach the stage where I can write that it now seems to me as important as any of the colours on the gardener's palette, and maybe even more important. However, as this is one of those statements which is calculated to produce cries of 'Question!', and even faint hisses from the gallery, I should mention that the colour 'grey' is here intended to include all the variations cited in our old friend Roget's Thesaurus, which mentions 'silver, steel, slate, ivory, pearl, frost, cream and alabaster'. To which we might perhaps add our own contributions of 'oyster-shell, magnolia, jade-grey, and Atlantic foam', with the accent on 'foam'."

"Although the principal task of the garden writer, unless he is to become an intolerable bore, must be to describe the pleasures of his craft, he would scarcely be worth his salt if he did not also, however reluctantly, describe the pains."

"The walnut tree is the second largest tree in my garden and a most beautiful tree it is, especially on a clear winter's morning, when the strong musical design of the branches seems to sing against the cold blue sky."

"We must keep a sense of proportion, and admit, however reluctantly, that there are some wild flowers so virile and so prolific that we must beware of them, in spite of their beauty, for the simple reason that if we admit them they will end up by eating us out of house and home."

"As a frustrated composer I have always regarded gardens in terms of music, and it is perhaps significant that the people who have been kindest about the few gardens I have been able to design have been musicians. When the Late Sir Thomas Beecham stepped on to the lawn at Merry Hall and walked towards the water garden, on a magical evening in June when the balustrades were garlanded in white roses, he exclaimed, 'This is sheer Mozart!' which was charming of him, but somewhat flattering. For there was a lot of blight on the roses, and it will be generally agreed that there was never much blight on Mozart."

"I can imagine no more pleasing profession than that of the landscape gardener — always providing that one's employer was a millionaire of a docile temperament, who would guarantee to leave the country for at least three years while one was getting on with the job, and would give an undertaking, on his return, to refrain from changing the disposition of a single leaf."

"It is quite impossible to design anything of any value with people breathing down one's neck. One needs total solitude to arrange even a bunch of flowers."

"When all is said and done the greatest designer of any garden, once the main outline has been established, is Nature herself."

"How is it possible to assess the value — in shape, and colour, and general aesthetic significance — of a single branch of a single tree unless one has viewed it from every conceivable angle, in every condition of light and shade, at every time of the year?

"Pause for a Thought about Bees. I have always been mystified by the strange behaviour of bees who keep on bumbling into flowers that must obviously have been drained dry of honey, or pollen, or whatever it is that bees are going after. If you have an hour to spare on a summer afternoon, sit on the lawn in front of a cluster of Canterbury Bells and you will see what I mean ... Not for the first time one wishes that Darwin was by one's side to explain it all.

Whatever the explanation, it would doubtless be strange and beautiful and in tune with the mysterious rhythms of the wind on the meadow."

"I shall continue to plant not only the hyacinths but the tulip-trees. They may not flower for me in this world; but — stranger things have happened — they may flower for me in the next.

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