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Gardening Blog

In the garden with Tricia Harris

Welcome to our gardening blog. Month by month, the articles now written by Tricia Harris, marketing manager at the Garden for the Gazette and Herald will appear here. You’ll get seasonal advice on what tasks to be doing in your garden and Tricia’s thoughts as she reflects on the changing seasons and life here at the Garden. She splits her time between marketing the Garden to a wider audience and getting outside to do some actual gardening. We hope you will enjoy following what happens in Helmsley Walled Garden. Happy gardening.

March 2018 – Pruning dogwoods

Well things are really hotting up here, everywhere I look someone is cutting back old herbaceous growth, someone is jet washing benches. The sound of clipping comes from the Garden as all the hedges are trimmed back. I can hear the tapping of a hammer as someone else makes some lovely new planters for the entrance. New trees are being planted, I’ve cut back and tied in all the clematis and ordered some new ones for planting next week and am moving on to sorting out the Physic Garden and the Garden of Contemplation.

There is an extra air of urgency as this year we open on Monday 26th March, a little earlier than normal but as Easter is also early we wanted to have all the fun of welcoming you to the Garden over that weekend.

One job I must get done at home as well as here is pruning back the dogwoods (Cornus sp.) next to the Physic Garden. I’ll cut out any dead, diseased or damaged wood, followed by the oldest, thickest stems. You can of course coppice the whole bush if you wish. Coppicing is when you cut the woody stems of the plant right down to the ground and is a traditional way of harvesting plants such as willow and hazel. You get really fresh, vibrant stems that way and they make a fabulous display of colour in the rather monochrome months of winter.

Traditionally, shrubby Cornus were pruned in February or March but now recent studies have shown that pruning annually in late March to mid-April (as the new growth is just beginning to develop) is preferable. This later pruning allows the winter display to be enjoyed, but doesn’t seem to have any negative consequences for the bush from bleeding or the cutting off of some of the new growth.

These types of Cornus species are not fussy about soil conditions and can take moist soil in full sun or partial shade. It is a good idea not to prune too frequently if the growing conditions are poor. Every two to three years is often enough if conditions are very shady. Newly planted Cornus should not be pruned for the first two or three years whilst they get established. Start to prune once it’s clear they are growing away strongly.

If you really want to make a splash in the winter garden the following cultivars are good. Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ has bright red stems in winter, red autumn leaves. C. alba ‘Kesselringii’ has dark purple-black stems in winter and purple foliage year-round.

C. sericea 'Flaviramea'C. sericea ‘Flaviramea’ has lime green winter stems and we have a good stand of them next to the Physic Garden. Or try C. sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ which has yellow-orange-red winter stems. They all make great bases for Christmas wreaths as the stems are quite bendy when they’re first pruned.

So even though this winter hasn’t quite let us out of its grip, think ahead to making next winter more colourful and plant one or two of these beauties in your garden.

Tricia Harris March 2018

February 2018 – Pruning Your Apple Trees

Well hopefully we’ve seen the last of the snow here although it has been useful to have some cold weather. Some plants, including apple trees, need a spell of cold weather to go into dormancy and later to kick-start their flowering process, this is called vernalization. Plants with vernalization requirements need a certain number of days of cold temperatures below a certain threshold. The required temperatures and lengths of chilling differ according to the plant species and variety. Without it they can’t prepare properly for the following year and may not flower or produce fruit.

We are busy pruning our apple trees now because it’s easy to see the shape as the branches are bare. We prune out the three d’s: dead, diseased and damaged wood with the aim of opening up the centre of the tree to allow free air circulation, keeping the tree healthy and free from disease and damage.

The aim of pruning is to promote the formation of fruit buds. But it is also a chance to look at the tree to see if it is having any problems. Are there any ominous looking sunken dark spots with shrinking and cracking in concentric rings? Or are there any bright coral or orange raised pustules appearing on dead wood in the tree?

Apple CankerThese cheery sounding conditions are some of the more common problems for apple trees. Apple Canker – the sunken pits in the bark, is caused by the fungus Nectria galligena . This is spread by wind-borne spores getting into the tree through wounds in the bark from pruning, cracks and leaf scars (where the leaf has fallen) to name but a few. If you find it, using clean tools, prune out the spur or branch in its entirety. For bigger branches or on the trunk, carefully pare away all diseased bark and wood, cutting back into clean wood and then painting with a protective wound paint, available from your local garden centre. Don’t compost prunings, dispose of them at your local recycling centre or burn. Improving the growing conditions also helps, if the tree is a bit underfed or in wet conditions this will make it more vulnerable. Give it a good mulch and a balanced feed to help it get back to full strength.

 

Coral Spot FungusCoral spot is the small bright orange pustules you see on dead wood and is frequently a sign that the tree is struggling. This is caused by the fungus Nectria cinnabarina, spores are dispersed by water splash, usually by rain or irrigation and the fungus enters the bark via a wound. Prune out all the dead and dying stems you can see and burn them. Clear fallen leaves and any other plant debris that may be giving a home to the fungus and as per Apple canker give the tree a bit of tlc with a feed and a mulch.

So it’s all about keeping an eye out and catching things as soon as you spot them. Fingers crossed for a bumper crop for us all.

Tricia Harris February 2018

January 2018 – Early rhubarb

Forcing rhubarb - Helmsley Walled GardenSo here we are, new year ahead of us full of possibilities for the garden. In the Garden, we are manuring and digging and pruning apple and pear trees, of which we have over one hundred. We are also cleaning out our terracotta pots and cleansing the greenhouses with sulphur candles to try and get them as pest free as possible.

We used to have terrible trouble with whitefly and aphids in the Orchid House. However, it’s now pretty much clear due to the cleaning regime and also good plant hygiene.

Over in the Vine House we have spent the past few months pruning the vines back whilst the sap was low and stripping back the old bark on the vine rods. Mealy bug and scale insects love to burrow under the old bark to lay their eggs so in order to clear them out before they hatch, we peel the old bark off. It’s a slow and painstaking job but worth the effort in terms of plant health.

So there is still much to do. One thing we might try here if we have a bit of time is to force some rhubarb.

We have some traditional terracotta forcing pots but you can use a bucket or a big pot. Stems grow more quickly if you can be sure you have excluded all light. So you can either put some black masking tape (efficient but not very elegant) to tape over cracks or holes. Or you can just encase the whole thing in bubble wrap, carpet or even straw as long as it is firmly anchored round the pot to act as a layer of insulation and a barrier against light.

Before that, dig round the stems and add some well-rotted manure or maybe some good garden compost. Make sure you remove any weeds as they will compete with the rhubarb for nutrients and you want to make sure the plant gets everything.

Generally it will take around eight weeks to get stems ready to be harvested (they should be about ten to twelve inches or 20-30cm tall) but in a colder winter it might take a bit longer. The stems will be pale pink, thin and very sweet. Harvest them as usual and enjoy the champagne like flavour of early home-grown rhubarb.

One important thing to remember is do not harvest from any plants you’ve used for forcing either this summer or the following year. Forcing takes a lot of energy from the rhubarb crown and it needs time to rebuild its strength. It’s also more susceptible to disease so keep an eye on it and if it looks sickly as the year progresses you can try giving it another good feed come winter. Or you can remove and replace it although best to avoid the same spot for replanting. You might want to try growing some new plants from seed. So have some fun and enjoy an early rhubarb crumble. My mouth is watering just thinking about it!

Tricia Harris January 2018

December 2017 – Tidying the Garden

Newly tidied Long Border - Helmsley Walled GardenWell the wind and the rain and the frost have all duly arrived. The dahlias, cut down by the first frost are all now lifted and being washed and wrapped up ready for overwintering in the Orchid House. Leaves are wet underfoot and plants are dying back, ready to reappear next spring. Although my personal plant of the month, Hesperantha coccinea (formerly Schizostylis coccinea or Crimson flag lily) is still flowering away in the Long Border.

So it is a huge temptation to tidy the garden within an inch of its life and get rid of the old foliage and leaves. Here at the Garden, work goes on chopping down the Hot Border and I have worked steadily to completely overhaul one half of the Long Border. But, and I take a deep breath here, we do this because we are a Garden open to the public and we need to be ready for them when we open again next April. We are gardening throughout the year so that we can provide a show from April through to October.

However, I don’t do this at home in my own garden and I’d like to make a plea to you all not to be overly rigorous in the tidying department either. Leaving plant stems standing, or heaps of leaves at the back of borders or perhaps making a bug hotel (more of that later) can help wildlife to make it through the winter. Hedgehogs hibernate under clumps of leaves or in compost heaps over winter. I had a surprise one year clearing up leaf debris in the Hot Border when said clump started to move and grunt! I put the leaves back and apologised and no more was said.

Ladybirds, lacewings and other useful insects shelter in hollow stems and under bark over winter so leaving plants uncut over winter provides valuable habitat. Or you could build a bug hotel from offcuts of wood. We have one on the wall here at the Garden and as you can see they are easy to make and you can let your imagination run riot. If you need help then a quick trawl through the internet will give you plenty of ideas and know how.

Even your compost heap has a part to play, providing shelter for hedgehogs, toads and maybe slow worms. So take care if you are turning it or perhaps leave turning it till spring. If you can, leave a part of your garden wild and tussocky , or plant it with some native wild flowers and grasses such as foxtail, cock’s-foot, yarrow, oxeye daisy and lesser knapweed. This provides great habitat for invertebrates such as beetles, butterflies and dragonflies. Carder bumblebees will make their home in an area like this and leaving the clover in your lawn will provide a rich source of nectar for all bees.

This is just a tiny selection of things you can do to support diversity in your garden. So instead of going outside in the cold, why not put your feet up with a cuppa and a seed or bulb catalogue safe in the knowledge that by doing nothing you are keeping your garden rich in wildlife. Happy Christmas.

Tricia Harris December 2017

November 2017 – Still busy in the Garden

Dipping pond dahlias - Helmsley Walled GardenThere’s a bit of an idea that things slowdown in the garden as we go into November. Well I don’t know who suggested this but it certainly isn’t true. There’s still lots to do and we are out at Helmsley every day we can get on the soil. It was pretty wet at the end of October but we work where we can, from the edge of the border if that’s all we can do. We don’t want to stand on the wet soil as it ruins its structure. Soil has a crumb structure; open spaces between soil particles that allow free movement of oxygen. Treading on it compresses it. Soil that has been heavily compressed can become completely waterlogged, and anaerobic. This means the amount of oxygen used exceeds the amount of oxygen available and the soil becomes smelly and well, rancid. It’s a poor growing environment and needs to be avoided.

But there’s no shortage of other jobs to get on with. Pruning and training the currant bushes against the south wall (note to self, bushes at home need pruning too), pruning back the climbing roses on the walls, getting on with pruning the apple trees and perhaps one of my favourite activities of this time of the year, getting stuck into seed and bulb catalogues.

Here at the Garden we are thinking about next spring and summer now. The displays you see in the Orchid House and the bedding around the Dipping Pond and in front of The Vine House Café need planning now so that we can order the seed and bulbs required. For some parts of the garden, such as the Kitchen Garden or the Cut Flower Border we might sow seed of Sweet william now to have a good early display next year.

So we sit in the office and make up mood boards of the different plants that catch our eye. Exclamations of delight – and sometimes of disgust if a plant doesn’t meet the exacting requirements of the garden team – can be heard as all the catalogues are pored over. We have ordered up our tulips for the Orchid House and are now onto thinking about the bedding. For those of you who have been to the Garden this year, the mixture of Dahlia ‘Purple Haze’ and Nicotiana ‘Whisper Mix’ has been a winning combination. One of my favourites around the Dipping Pond has been Dahlia ‘David Howard’. Whopping flowers of the most beautiful bronzy gold and yellow. It looks fabulous en masse in sunshine, but perhaps better still at this time of year it glows on dark days and lifts my heart every time I see it.

So if you haven’t before, why not think of getting some bulbs or maybe growing something from seed for your garden next year. Or just try something new. There’s lots to choose from and lots of advice available. And make sure you come and tell us how you get on. Enjoy your garden.

Tricia Harris November 2017

October 2017 – Amazing apples

Helmsley Walled Garden apple juice line upDid you know that apples float because they are 25% air? Or that in Ancient Greece tossing an apple to a girl was a proposal of marriage and catching it was a response of ‘yes’?

Many such myths and stories about apples exist. In Ancient Rome, Pomona was the Goddess of fruit trees, especially of apple trees, and was also known as the “Apple Mother”.

In more modern times it’s said that if you want to ensure true happiness in your relationship, you should cut an apple in half and share it with your loved one. A great reason if ever there was one to eat an apple.

However, there are far more varieties of apple than you ever see in the supermarket. Here at Helmsley Walled Garden we have over a hundred apple trees and 92 named varieties.

Many have wonderful names such as Dogsnout, Catshead, Flower of the Town, Khoroshavka Alaya and Bloody Ploughman; so named because the ploughman was shot for stealing apples. The bag of apples he’d collected were given to his widow. It’s said that in disgust she threw them on to the rubbish heap and the first tree sprouted from there. If you cut a Bloody Ploughman open the flesh inside is streaked with red.

We’ve chosen to train some of our trees in traditional fan shapes against the Garden walls. When this was the Kitchen Garden for Duncombe Park the walls would have been similarly clothed.

Helmsley Walled Garden isn’t a faithful reproduction of a Victorian kitchen garden but we like to keep some of the old traditions going. It shows how the old gardeners used every bit of productive space, gardening up the walls as well as along them. They even used some of the space outside the walls. On the outside of the north wall was a pineapple pit in which was grown this very expensive fruit. It was the aristocratic version of keeping up with the Joneses to be able to offer pineapple to your dinner guests.

Helmsley Walled Garden Orchard and Vine HouseWe have an apple orchard as well as espaliers, cordons and step overs as we want to be able to show visitors all the ways in which apple trees can be trained, some of which take up very little room. So unless you have only a balcony most of us can fit an apple or two in our gardens.

If you are thinking about maybe getting an apple tree you could do no better than to come to our Amazing Apples Day on Saturday October 21st. We will have workshops on training and pruning along with apple juice tasting. Our good friends from R V Roger Nurseries will be on hand to give advice on the best tree for your garden. We will have an apple-themed trail and apple bobbing for children and there will be apple dishes in The Vine House Café. So do come and share in our celebration of amazing apples and enjoy this wonderful fruit.

Happy gardening.

Tricia Harris October 2017

September 2017 – Border colour for autumn

Helsmley Walled Garden Border 96 dpiYou could be forgiven for thinking I am border obsessed and at this time of year I am a bit. I go and look at the Hot Border here every day to see how it is changing. At home too, I stand in my garden and look at the gaps and think what could I plant to make sure I have colour in autumn and beyond?

Fortunately for me there are plenty of tips to take away from the Hot Border which both pleases and amazes me. How can you translate plantings from a two hundred and fifty metre border into an average size garden? Well somehow you just can. For me that is one of the joys of the Garden; despite its size it’s still intimate enough to get ideas from. So here’s some I pinched earlier!

I want colour until the last possible moment and bright too, none of the subtle tones of winter, I’m looking for yellow and red and orange and purple. Luckily for me there are plenty of goodies that will flower their hearts out until early November if there isn’t an sharp frost.

Erigeron ‘Dignity’ (H50cm) looks like a Michaelmas daisy but isn’t. I’ve got it next door to Coreopsis verticillata ‘Zagreb’ (Tickseed) (H30-45cm). Both have repaid me by flowering their hearts out since July and showing absolutely zero sign of stopping even though the books say Erigeron (Fleabane) is a summer-flowering plant. Deadhead to prolong flowering.

These go well with Heleniums (sneezeweed). ‘Moerheim Beauty’ is a beautiful rich orangey-red and flowers from early July onwards. Helenium ‘Rubinzwerg’ is a darkly dramatic red whilst ‘Kanaria’ is bright lemon-yellow. They all grow to around 80cm tall and are a good accompaniment for my next plant.

Anyone who follows the Helmsley Walled Garden Twitter account (@HelmsleyWalledG) or our Facebook page will know I have a deep and abiding love for Achillea filipendulina ‘Gold Plate’. It’s one of the tallest yarrows at up to 1.2m, statuesque and brilliant yellow, turning a dusky-tawny brown over October. It can start to lean a bit so I plant other tallish perennials next to it as I hate ugly staking. Or just let it lean.

The red-hot poker (Kniphofia rooperi) is a stonker of a plant. At 1.2m it’s tall, has beautiful rich burnt-orange flower heads and only starts flowering here at Helmsley in late September and goes on and on.

I must mention Rudbeckia fulgida (Black-eyed Susan) (H up to 1m)and its cultivars, all bright yellow. Or Echinacea purpurea (Coneflower)(H up to 70cm), perhaps not as long lasting as some of the others on this page but has lovely pointy seed heads that last until the birds eat them. The humble Ice plant Sedum spectabile (H45cm) lasts well into autumn and when the seed heads finally go brown remain perfect through winter and make a lovely addition to any floral wreath you make for your front door.

I could go on but I’m running out of space. I hope I’ve whetted your appetite enough to find an extra corner to plant up one or more of these beauties. You won’t regret it.

Tricia Harris September 2017

August 2017 – Successional sowing and planting

Ammi majus Well the dahlias are in and the Hot Border is providing a fire cracker of a display. Courgettes and cabbages are coming in thick and fast from the Kitchen Garden and the beans and beetroot are not far behind.

But when you have cropped your courgettes or your beetroot or your spring bulbs are over in your borders what do you do? Do you have plants that grow out to fill the space or do things look a bit scrappy. Well fear, not because the solution is to successionally sow or plant depending on the size of your garden and the amount of effort you are able to make.

In the kitchen garden of old, the vegetable beds would have been productive throughout the year. None of us can replicate that kind of intensity but you can have fresh salad leaves throughout summer by sowing every two weeks to ensure lovey baby leaves. Good choices would be Rocket, Mizuna and Mustard.

You can also resow herbs such as dill, sorrel, coriander and parsley as any spring sowings will be flowering and going to seed. If you want to get into growing salad leaves year round, I can heartily recommend Charles Dowding’s book ‘Salad Leaves for All Seasons’. There’s advice on everything from getting the best yields, indoor and outdoor sowing, pests and best flavours.

On your borders, you can, if you are feeling adventurous drop in some truly exotic plants like canna lilies (Indian Shot plant ). Canna ‘General Eisenhower’ has dark red leaves and bright red flowers, can be planted out any time after the end of June and will be in full flower from September, making a display until cut down by frost.

Treat like dahlias, lifting the tuberous rhizomes and storing them somewhere cool, dark and frost-free (the shed is fine. Put them in crates in old potting compost, watered maybe once every two to three weeks to keep them from shrivelling and then giving them a bit more light once they start to show signs of activity in spring. Harden off and plant out again in July, splitting them if the clumps have grown too big.

Or with a little forethought, you can plant perennials that will grow in a timely fashion to hide the dying foliage of spring bulbs such as alliums and tulips. Great plants for this are big leaved salvias such as Salvia sclarea var. turkestanica which gets up to a full height of 2m(6ft) thus providing ample camouflage for any scrappy bulb foliage. Others include hostas, day lilies and oriental poppies. If you love seed sowing and want to think about next year, you can start some plants off now to get ahead of the game. Sow biennials such as sweet william, foxgloves, wallflowers such as the bright orange Erysimum x marshallii, or gorgeous hardy annuals like the lacy Bishops’ flower, Ammi majus or the shorter Ammi viznaga, to get good sized plants earlier.

This is just a flavour of what you can do, so experiment a little and have fun this year and next.

Tricia Harris August 2017

July 2017 – Looking at weeds

Ground Elder Aegopodium PodagrariaHeavy rain followed by lots of sunshine has flipped the Garden into summer mode. The Hot Border is filling up with colour and the Rose Arch is really starting to zing with the blooms of Rosa ‘American Pillar’. But along with the flowers come the weeds and we are hard at work weeding across the Garden as well as getting in the last of the annuals and the dahlias.

As I was having a good weed down at the bottom of the Hot Border yesterday, making a place for dahlias to be planted, it got me thinking about how we define a weed. One definition is a weed is a flower in the wrong place. Another definition is that a weed is a plant that can grow, flower and set seed (often thousands at one flowering) more than once in a year, often in inhospitable locations. Moreover, such seed can survive a long time and germinate at the slightest hint of cultivation. So something that looks gorgeous anywhere like Echium vulgare (Viper’s bugloss) currently flowering in our annual meadow is definitely a wild flower but Stellaria media (Chickweed), a single plant of which can generate seventy thousand seed in one go, is a weed.

That led me on to thinking that surely plants that are so efficient in what they do must have some sort of purpose other than just being irritating to us. The ubiquitous Chickweed is reputed to have medicinal purposes, used for everything from coughs to constipation. It was also one of the weeds that quickly colonised bomb sites along with Willowherb (Chamerion angustifolium) in London and other cities after the Blitz. Its leaves can be added to salad and it is a tasty meal for hens, hence its common name.

Ragwort is another interesting example. It is the most common cause of poisoning in farm animals and horses. It is also a food plant for over forty species of insect, including 29 for which it is the only food source. What’s also interesting is that most animals will avoid it whist it’s growing but will can’t differentiate it once cut down and will eat it dry in hay or wilted and dry after being sprayed with herbicide (it’s as poisonous dead as alive). Even my two pet hates Cleavers (Galium aparine)and Ground Elder (Aegopodium podagraria) have their purpose. Cleavers has always been said to be good for the treatment of bad cuts and burns and modern clinical trials have borne this out. It’s also apparently good to eat as a wilted green. Ground Elder was said by the Romans to cure gout and it is edible, having a lemony taste.

So even weeds which we might see as a nuisance or even a threat have their purpose. Whether it has a medicinal purpose, is food for us or other species or it just looks lovely; even the most irritating are good for something other than annoying us. Food for thought!

Tricia Harris July 2017

June 2017 – Hello to Tricia

Turning soil over
Turning soil over

It is with a certain amount of trepidation that I follow in the footsteps of Mike I’Anson to write this column. I’ve loved gardening all my life but only became a professional horticulturalist twelve years ago when I left my job at a national charity managing some of their marketing activities and their information database.

I was lucky enough to be part of the trainee programme at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and spent three years working my way through the different departments, spending time in such iconic buildings and locations as the Palm House, the Japanese Gateway garden and Cambridge Cottage garden. After training I stayed on and worked in the Tropical Nursery for two years with responsibility for propagating plants for the Temperate House displays. I loved every minute of it but my husband and I really wanted to move away from London and we had fallen in love with North Yorkshire after coming on holiday here in 2005.

I’d already discovered Helmsley Walled Garden whilst on holiday and knew I wanted to be a part of the team. Lucky me, I was taken on, first as a part-time gardener and later as both gardener and Marketing Manager, making use of skills from my previous working life. I can’t think of any other job I’d rather be doing. As Mike mentioned in his last column I’m interested in medicinal plants and look after the physic garden here as well as having a more general interest in garden history and hope to share a bit of that with you.

But I also love plants which is probably the main reason I became a gardener. There’s nothing better than planning, planting and watching grow a bed or border, seeing what works and what doesn’t, blending colour and foliage, tall and short; plants for movement like grasses and plants that act as the main event in a bed like a big swathe of Helenium or Anthemis. So I’m hoping you’ll enjoy sharing in my part of the work that goes on here at Helmsley Walled Garden and also some of my successes and failures in my own garden.

One thing I’ll be doing a lot this year in my own garden is taking pictures. I had a bit of bulb planting spree last autumn but by the time it came to planting I couldn’t remember exactly where I’d planned to put them. Fortunately for me, the spaces I did put them in worked rather well and I had a great burst of colour that is still there. I’ll be ordering lots more for next spring and this time I’ll be really organised, taking pictures now so, even when the garden is fuller in autumn I will know where to plant the glorious bursts of red, yellow and orange I’m planning.

I hope we’ll see you at Helmsley Walled Garden this summer, if you see me working in the garden, come and say hello. Enjoy your gardening.

Tricia Harris June 2017