The Weekend Telegram's 20 Questions

Danette Dooley
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Wilf Nicholls came to Newfoundland 12 years ago, when the opportunity arose to head the Memorial University Botanical Garden. Photo by Danette Dooley/The Telegram

Having worked at the University of British Columbia's Botanical Garden and Centre for Plant Research for more than a decade, Wilf Nicholls couldn't pass an offer to take over the helm of Memorial University's Botanical Garden when the job became vacant 12 years ago.
It didn't matter to the Englishman that he'd never been to Newfoundland before, he says.
"When you're working in a botanical garden, you're always thinking, 'Wow! If only I was in charge.' There are only about 12 botanical gardens in Canada and I was offered the opportunity to be in charge of one of them," Nicholls says.
Nicholls holds a botany degree from the University College of Wales in Aberystwyth, on the west coast of Wales, and a PhD in botany from the University of British Columbia.
He joined the staff of the University of British Columbia's garden in the mid-1980s, where he worked until accepting the position at Memorial.
Now in existence for more than three decades, Memorial University's Botanical Garden displays not only plants native to this province, but cultivated plants suitable to the local climate.
The garden, which is a haven to plant researchers, also provides numerous habitats through its trail system.
No longer dubbed one of Newfoundland's best-kept secrets, both groups and individuals can often be found strolling through the garden or taking part in the educational sessions aimed at both children and adults.
Since his arrival in Newfoundland, Nicholls has played a vital role in the garden, horticulture and the community.
A Queen's Jubilee Medal recipient, he is on the board of directors of the American Public Gardens Association.

He is also founder of the garden's potato festival, which takes place every other year, if funding is available.
This year's festival is scheduled for Sept. 26.
The event will include a potato-peeling contest, potato tasting and other fun activities throughout the day, Nicholls says.
"Admission to the festival is a donation to the food bank, and you can buy a Jigg's dinner for five bucks."
The festival is in memory of Ken Proudfoot, who passed away April 3, 2009.
Proudfoot was a potato breeder, research scientist and great friend of the garden.
Nicholls says he's pleased with how the garden has grown over the past decade.
He and his staff are working to continue that growth, he says, and to make the garden more sustainable.
"We've got a board that's really onboard at looking at the future of this garden. They're taking this responsibility very seriously. And hats off to them."

What is your full name?
Weirdly enough, it's not Wilf. It's Kevin William Nicholls.

Where and when were you born?
May 1951 in Wood Green, North London.

Where is home today?
St. John's.

What is your greatest indulgence?
People think I'm always gardening. But what I really like to do is sit down in a garden with a newspaper, the dogs (Bailey and Jasper) or my wife (Joyce Nicholls-Goudsmid) and just enjoy my surroundings.

What was one act of rebellion
you committed as a youth?
I could have gone to a university close to home. I loved my parents. But I got out of London and went to the west coast of Wales just for a new experience. I'd just turned 18.

What do you like to cook?
I think I'm a darn good cook (laughs). I cook cod that would melt in your mouth. However, I can't do anything with pastry.

What was your favourite year?
I've had some great years. The year that I met Joyce (1984) was an amazing year.

What is your greatest regret?
I don't have anything that I really regret. But, if you ask me if there's anything I would have done slightly different, I would say I would have liked to have been motivated by teachers and self-motivated enough to learn languages when I was at school. I had an opportunity to do that, but I didn't. I'm frustrated now because I love travelling and you feel idiotic when you can't get much out of your mouth in terms of communicating on their terms.

Who would play you in a movie
about your life?
Pierce Brosnan or someone like that. I'm told he's easy on the eyes (laughs).

What is your greatest fear?
I have this huge fear of heights. I like being in the high floor of a hotel. I can look out. But I can't go to the window and look down. I'm not sure if you could pay me enough to bungee jump.

Where is your favourite vacation spot?
We love Cuba … walking on a beach in the sunshine with our feet in the water.

What are you reading at the moment?
Garth Stein's "The Art of Racing in the Rain."

What is your personal motto?
Strive to do the best you can.

Do you have any hidden talents?
I don't know if it's much of a talent, but I used to do some acting years ago.

What bugs you?
Rude, impolite people.
What are your best and worst qualities?
I think I'm passionate and committed to anything that I do. But I over commit myself and try to keep too many balls in the air. Every once in awhile you drop a ball and I hate to do that.

Who inspires you?
My dad inspired me. He was, to my mind, the best milkman and the best postman in the world. Whatever he did, he did to the best of his ability. And I learned a lot from him.

Who would you least like to be stuck in an
elevator with?
A loud- mouth racist bigot.

What would you do if you won
the lottery?
It sounds so bloody altruistic and I hate to sound so saintly, but we'd probably buy a nice place on some Caribbean island and live in Atlantic Canada for many months of the year. I'd really love to have a nice big garden where I'd grow flowers and food to give away to food banks.

If you were premier of the province, what's one thing you'd try to do?
We've got species here that are found nowhere else on Earth and they need to be saved. I'd like to see the government have a really strong environmental mandate. They say they do. We need to see that.


danette@nl.rogers.com

Organizations: University College of Wales, University of British Columbia, Botanical Garden Plant Research Queen's American Public Gardens Association

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Atlantic Canada, Wales Aberystwyth London Wood Green St. John's Cuba Caribbean island

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