Time Travel Back to the 60s

I have a peculiar tendency with hardback books of trying to make them last for ever.  I presume that this is my frugal nature trying to eek out a book that cost probably twice as much as its paperback version.  I also very rarely buy fiction books in hardcover but non-fiction are OK as these are books that I will come back to again and again I hope. The only problem is that over the last year I have purchased and acquired quite a number of books and gardening magazines and there are growing piles appearing like chickenpox spots all over the place.  In order to take control of the situation I have banned myself from the local library until the problem is sorted so I doubt I will enter its lofty  portals again this decade.

So far my plan is working, the pile of magazines is decreasing quicker than the new ones from my monthly subscriptions are arriving.  I have now started to tackle some of the books and the first one to have been read from cover to cover and to have a place on the bookshelf is Beverley Nichols Garden Open Tomorrow. I bought this well over a year ago and have been dipping in from time to time but I have now got to the end of it.

For those who haven’t heard of Beverley Nichols (and I hadn’t) he wrote widely on gardening back in the day as they say.  However he is most remembered for his gardening books including Down the Garden Path (1932), Merry Hall (1951) and Garden Open Today (1963).  As you can see we are not talking about up to date modern gardening books and the one I have just read was first published in 1968.

Nichols’ style is very conversational and anecdotal.  There are overtures of Christopher Lloyd’s style.  I found it easy to read in this sense but a little challenging as the book is so much of its time that I struggled to relate to some of the ideas.  Beginning a child of the 60s I wasn’t surprised to encounter large sections extolling the virtues of heather beds, which I loathe, and then a section recommending the use of Cupressocyparis Leylandii,  or what we would refer to as Leyland cypress, as a way of screening unsightly neighbours.  Hindsight is a wonderful thing and I was almost laughing out loud at sentences such as “The Leyland cypress,…is God’s gift to screeners, and only God knows why it is so seldom used.” I have lived in a number of houses that have ‘benefitted’ from a Leyland hedge and I could tell Mr Nichols a thing or two about what a nightmare they can be.

The other thing that really interested me, which I suppose follows on from the observation above, is how much things have changed in the gardening world during my lifetime.  There is a section devoted to Camellias which are considered to be only just hardy and really should be protected in a greenhouse during their first winter.Other plants are mentioned as challenging and difficult which we grow easily – no doubt this is partly due to climate change but also I think to an increased understanding of plants and where in the world they originate from.

However, towards the end of the book I was quite amazed to discover Nichols referring to what we would now call an organic approach to gardening, way before the likes of Geoff Hamilton. He is quite critical of those that use chemicals in their gardens, explaining how we need to balance nature to keep the weeds at bay.  He blames the scientists completely “we should all be a great deal better off if the scientists did a brisk about-turn, lowered their telescopes, ceased to scan the skies of the future, and reopened the pages of the past.”  I have to agree with him.  He goes on to extol the virtues of water and how this can be used to deal with many pests and how instead of fumigating greenhouses with chemicals we should use oak-leaves, there are too many other examples to list here. I suspect he was a lone voice at the time the book was published but I was thrilled to see this kind of sentiment in a book of the 60s, an era that is always portrayed as being the bringer of all things bad.

So my overall opinion of the book is that it was an interesting snapshot of gardening at the time of its original publication.  I didn’t learn anything new in fact I disagreed with quite a few things but this isn’t surprising given how much things have changed.  I find myself wondering whether the changes in gardening practices in the last 40/50 years have been as rapid as they were in the Victorian era when they were discovering plants all over the world – I think they are but we just don’t realise it.

6 Comments on “Time Travel Back to the 60s

  1. I expect Mr Nichols lived in gardens where you would need a telescope to find the boundary hedge – no wonder he thought the Leylandii was such a great discovery!

  2. About Blooming Friday – Follow the link to Katrinas website (Roses and Stuff) at the bottom of my BF post. She posts the following week’s theme at the end of her post.

  3. How fascinating – I’ve read this, and I’m in the middle of re-reading it. I also have Garden Open Today. I find Beverly Nichols very entertaining in a terribly camp sort of way that occasionally verges on being anti-women (especially in Garden Open Today). But just when you’re getting cross with him, he’ll say something really jaw-dropping, like advocating the organic approach, as you mention, or saying all the money for bombs should be put towards gardens instead. And the illustrations are wonderful, aren’t they?

  4. I’ve read several of Mr Nicols books and have enjoyed them, especially one (can’t remember which) in which he explains to his readers what an avocado is!

  5. I have the same title lurking in the unread pile for more than a year I’m ashamed to say Helen and I’m still venturing into my local library. Will have to adopt your restraint. Thanks muchly for the review which may send me in the right direction of making a start on the unreads 🙂

  6. There was a Beverley Nichols book on the shelves at our holiday cottage in Norfolk last year, so I was glad to have the opportunity to ‘discover’ this well known garden writer. Whilst I enjoyed the book overall (I forget which one it was), I found myself both irritated and delighted in turn. It definitely was a window onto gardening ideas and culture of my grand parents time.

    Then later on in the holiday we visited Bressingham – pioneering home to the conifer/heather planting style. Many of the heathers there are being replaced with grasses.

    Definitely a holiday with lots of retro elements!

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