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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.

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

May 2017 – Farewell from Mike

Hot border in July
Hot border in July

I’ve had the good fortune to write articles for you for over three years. As I head into retirement this, my hardest yet to write will be my last certainly for a good period of time. In the writing of columns like this, and in our gardens we are but temporary custodians, and we must eventually pass them on to others. Here at Helmsley I have been in the enviable position to be one of a long line of head gardeners and managers going back to the eighteenth century, carrying on the work and the time is right to hand over the baton to another. What went before informs what we do in our gardens but should not constrain us. Nor should we undertake action that constrains those that follow us and once the baton is passed, it must be let go of.

Politicians worry about their legacy, how they will be remembered and what they have changed and achieved. As gardeners, I believe we live in the moment. Yes we need to plan our seed sowing and bulb ordering, (now by the way, is the time to order your summer bulbs) but gardeners live, if not even escape, into the moment. Our minds clear and we focus on the task at hand. We know we will have to return to the busy world we live and work in, but for those precious hours we escape into a place of mindful peace others find elusive.

Those of you who are experienced will know that gardening is a continuous process, it is never finished. In gardening there is an absence of the current linear thinking that assumes you can have a plan with objectives and targets to be achieved, all monitored against a pre-determined timeframe. That is lazy thinking; gardeners immerse themselves in their plots, they become as one with gardens they inhabit.

The evidence would suggest that our climate is changing: however, in the garden the sun will shine and the rain will fall, the snow will lay and the wind will blow, maybe a great deal more of it. But gardeners will still use their skills to grow flowers, vegetables and fruit and others will admire the skills we use and the resilience we demonstrate.

Julie Lawrence has replaced me as manager of Helmsley Walled Garden, Julie comes with considerable experience and success at managing special places of environmental worth and this garden is certainly a special place to many and her custodianship will add to that. Tricia Harris, our Kew-trained gardener has been offered and accepted the opportunity to continue writing articles for you. With a special interest in garden history and the medicinal benefits of gardens and plants you will undoubtedly be amazed and better informed.

For me, I retire to my garden; no great plan, just immersion amongst the plants and wildlife. There to experience the peace and tranquillity I know I will find. To you all I say enjoy your gardening.

Mike I’Anson May 2017

April 2017 – In the Kitchen Garden

Digging in the Kitchen Garden
Digging in the Kitchen Garden

Every quarter I deliver the local church newsletter to about 150 homes and I noticed on this occasion that three homes have either: removed, taped or nailed up their letterbox and placed notices saying that they want no contact with anyone. This saddened me: humans like plants need companionship, we need to socialise and we need to be, and feel, a part of a community. So it is with plants.

Companion planting has a long history. The peoples of America, long before the arrival of Europeans, discovered that you can grow squash, sweetcorn and beans together in a process known as the “three sisters”. The squash helps control weeds, the sweetcorn provides support for the beans and the beans take nitrogen from the air and convert it into a form that then feeds the squash and maize.

Nasturtiums are grown alongside cabbages, broccoli and cauliflower. The leaves act as a distraction or sacrifice plant with the butterfly caterpillar preferring the nasturtium leaves to your brassicas. Onions are regularly planted with carrots; the scent of the onion hiding the scent of the carrot and so deterring the carrot root fly from damaging your crop.

Research has also shown that having a clear row of cabbages, with no other plant around, increases the chances of the cabbage root fly laying eggs at the base of the plant infecting, in this trial, some 36% of the crop. When the cabbages were grown through clover the insect had to make a number of landings before finding the cabbage and infection rates in the study dropped to 7%. The clover would also provide nitrogen to the brassica and could be dug in as a green manure. There is nothing easier for a pest than a row of the same vegetable lined out, easy to find and move along. If you grow in this way then barrier netting will need to be used.

The smell from the foliage of a clump of marigolds can deter aphids; the simple flower structure also attract nectar feeding hoverflies, the larvae of which feed on aphids. The same is true of herbs. Pots of basil in the greenhouse repels whitefly protecting your tomatoes and aubergines. Coriander, chives and dill help repel aphids. Growing the old favourite herbs of rosemary, sage and thyme amongst your vegetables will repel problem moths and flies.

A hedge or line of cordon fruit trees can provide shelter from the weather creating a micro-climate within your garden, allowing for more tender plants to be grown.

We trust in the companionship of our staff and volunteers. Individuals come to us not only to garden but to also socialise, make new friends, share experiences and laugh. We help some come to understand that the world is not a scary place to remove yourself from but one in which every individual is valued and makes a positive contribution. I am still contemplating how to get this message across to those households that have closed themselves off from the rest of us.

Mike I’Anson April 2017

March 2017 – Sowing seed

Helen sowing seed
Helen sowing seed

In March, gardeners spend time watching the weather. One day spring is here; only to be followed the next by a cold eastern blast and we appear to be back in winter. Our preparations usually revolve around the condition of the soil.

If we can walk on the plot without clumps sticking to our boots then the soil can be worked. This condition is often found after two or three days of drying wind. If the weather is kind then some primary digging can be completed to turn the soil over. If very good conditions and dry enough an attempt can be made at secondary digging which involves the further breaking down of the large clods produced from primary digging. This secondary digging will involve the use of a fork or even a rotavator. The intention at this stage is not yet to knock the soil down to a fine tilth for direct seed sowing but a soil structure where no clod is larger than an egg in size.

Now that the majority of the winter rain has passed it is also a time to apply a general fertiliser in powder or granular form. I use blood, fish and bone, which gives a good all round application that can break down in the soil over the coming months and be available to the plants as they exhaust their natural seed reserve or if pot ground the nutrients in the compost.

If the weather is bad, or the soil too wet, then it’s into the greenhouse and potting shed to prepare for seed sowing. It is important to use sterile equipment and materials. I spread any of last years’ remaining multipurpose compost around the garden and start afresh. New compost bags are brought into the shed or greenhouse. If left outside and a cold spell arrives then the compost can become too cold to use or even freeze. Inside, the bags will come up to a temperature around 5C or 6C.

There is a temptation on a warm day to sow readily but the weather of March can extend into April and you can be caught out having to give heat to your plants. However, this could mean they grow too early and have to stay in pots or trays for longer than they should. This can lead to exhaustion of the nutrients and check their progress. What we are looking to achieve is steady growth from seed germination through to harvest. In early March I sow broad beans and sweet peas in pots in the greenhouse. For me full seed sowing does not start until we start British summertime.

In bad weather take the opportunity to clean and tidy pots or seed trays; and clean and maintain tools. You need only use a household detergent, but I do miss the old tar-based detergents. Not only did they sterilise, but at the coming end of winter they cleared your nasal passages. Today we’re left with an unseasonal soft lemon scent.

Mike I’Anson March 2017

February 2017 – Building a compost bin

Bella and the compost bins
Bella and the compost bins

‘Mike can headless mice go on to the compost heap?’ my wife calls. Bella our new garden cat has come through her probationary period with flying colours, bringing a mouse to our door almost every day. We congratulate her, but now our compost heap is in need of replacement. I operate a system known as a New Zealand Triple. The system uses three compost bins each approximately a cubic metre and placed in line. You fill the left bin first and, when that’s full, you turn the contents into the second bin. When the first bin is full again, you turn the second into the third, the first into the second and continue filling the first which of course means that your compost get regularly turned. It rots down all the sooner and is taken away for use in the garden from the third bin. All very commendable but when you get busy, you forget to turn them, so the garden waste goes into which ever bin is available. Eventually, as happened to me, you end up with three bins all needing emptying at the same time, particularly relevant now that the bins have come to the end of their useful life.

Compost bins can also harbour vermin. So how do you break down an old compost bin? Over the period of a week, I emptied half a bin at a time, spreading the compost around the garden and when empty, removed the remnants of the bin. This would give any vermin the chance to move on before emptying the next bin. As it happened I had no vermin and the site was soon cleared.

I build my compost bins using pressure treated wood also known as tanalised. The wood is readily available from any of our large farm stores as the elements are all fencing material. Check that the timber is pressure treated; as some wood is sold as ‘treated’ which may mean it has simply been painted with preserving chemicals. Pressure treatment makes sure the preservative is absorbed into the wood. Pressure treated timber will last 20 years; ‘treated’ will last only three. The main supporting uprights of my compost bins are 100mm x100mmx 1800mm fence posts cut lengthwise in half. The sides, back and front are 150mm x 20mmx 1200mm fence boards, cut down to 1000mm in length. The rail system to carry the front boards and the lids are made from 35mm x35mm dahlia stakes. All are fixed together using galvanised nails. Steel or iron nails will last about 10 years, the galvanised will last the life of the pressure treated wood. You will need to build in situ as the final unit is of some considerable weight.

My first attempt at compost bin building was to use pallets but being ‘treated’ they subsequently rotted with their contents. They also create space between their rails for our long-tailed ‘friends’ to take up residence. As for headless mice…. no, they do not go on the compost heap. Ours go in the hedge bottom.

Mike I’Anson February 2017

January 2017 – Planning for the year ahead

Mike's vegetable patch
Mike’s vegetable patch

It has been 20 years since I created my garden at home. In that time the native hedgerow I planted with hawthorn and hazel has reached 4 metres high and whilst it has given me considerable privacy and a wealth of wildlife, I have over the past couple of years, seen a decline in light levels in various parts of the garden, particularly on my vegetable plot.

So my winter project is to increase light levels and find a new location for vegetable growing. First the light levels: hazel has a dense canopy but responds well to coppicing so I have cut it to the ground. The thicker stems have gone to my neighbour for firewood and I will use the straighter narrower stems to support sweet peas and beans. The hawthorn canopy is more open but I’ll open it up more by removing a few selective branches. There are also some field maple and fruit trees and these I have pruned by a technique called raising the crown. Here the lower branches are cut off leaving more headroom under the tree and allowing light to enter the garden under the trees. This will improve light levels but not sufficiently for vegetable growing so I have moved my rhubarb, gooseberries and black currants into the old vegetable patch.

This year I’m going to grow vegetables in the ornamental area of my garden. The intention is that the vegetables will grow alongside and amongst the ornamentals. There are benefits to be had here; pests find it harder to find the vegetables, some vegetable varieties now are decorative as well as tasty and it allows me more freedom having areas of ground that can be alternated between vegetables, annuals and bulbs. A complex but more robust form of crop rotation.

So how am I going to achieve the additional space within the ornamentals? I’m taking out the hardy geraniums, they are good plants for shade but produce too much leaf in more open areas. Phlox does well and I have repeat clumps around the garden so I will reduce them to one clump per variety. The same will happen with other repeats. I have removed the Mahonia which whilst it gave good yellow flower colour in the depth of winter, suckers all too easily. Taking it out has created around three square metres of usable space sufficient for a wigwam of climbing French beans. Strawberries which love full sun will replace some summer annuals in pots on the patio. Small cherry tomatoes will replace lobelia. Ornamentation will be maintained by using vegetables such as purple-flowered broad beans. Rainbow Swiss chard will occupy another newly freed up area. There’ll till be annuals, I just won’t repeat them so many times. My Brussels sprouts will create a feature in the middle of the border and maybe a flowering cauliflower at the front? All this will take several months to do and I’ll let you know how it goes.

Mike I’Anson January 2017

December 2016 – Not much to do in winter?

Eric and Mike digging
Eric and Mike digging

‘Ah the doors are closed, it’ll be a quiet time for you in the garden now, not much to do’ is a comment I receive almost daily but nothing could be further from the truth. So here is a typical winter week in the garden.

Eric, our 70+ year old garden volunteer  is busy primary digging the cottage garden. I join him as often as I can but it will take us another month to complete the work. We want to finish before the hard weather comes and we can allow the frost to break up the clods for us. When the weather is bad we are reducing the height of the hedges.  Amanda has completed the pruning of the cherries, turning her attention to our loganberries next before dealing with the gooseberries and blackcurrants. Ann, Susanne, Helen, Sarah, Clare and Valma are busy working their way down our Long Border cutting back last year’s growth and removing weeds. They’re followed by Tricia reducing the size of some of the perennial clumps: we want to create space to put in some new plants including a Korean Spindleberry mentioned in last month article.

Michele, Joy, Grace, John and Peter are cutting back the Cut Flower border, gathering seed from the sweet peas to save for next year.  Tristan is collecting all the cut material in his trolley to take away and compost. Heather and Fiona T. are researching herbs to grow and sell next year. In the morning we placed the order for 100+ bags of compost, moss and wreath rings for Christmas. They arrive within four hours and have to be unloaded from the lorry. Fiona H. is guiding our students from Welburn Hall school around the garden collecting the windfall apples. Erica has collected apples from the trees and joined by Pat and Sam, washing and preparing  the apples for juicing. Juicing takes two days a week for about two months.

Now the first frost has arrived Helen is lifting and storing the dahlias ready for next year. Belinda who pauses from steam cleaning the toilets has ventured into Duncombe Park as our cat Molly has been missing for a week. She finds her so I dash out with the basket and my van to collect them both. Molly is cold, wet and hungry: everyone fusses her and we bed her down in a greenhouse for a long sleep. Steve and Richard have stripped the café toilets down: we are replacing all the mechanisms and decorating throughout. Ann has boxed up all the files in our office as we prepare to decorate. Tricia is working her way through the group bookings which are now coming in fast. She escapes every now and then to finish weeding in the fruit tree nursery bed. The trustee meeting has just concluded and we have agreed a new 30 year lease with the estate and the need to create a new business plan. I’ve just found insurance cover that allows us to do all the above activities. Not much to do in winter? I think not.

Mike I’Anson December 2016

November 2016 – Discovering the Korean spindleberry

Spindleberry
Spindleberry

I recently visited an arboretum and discovered a Korean spindleberry (Euonymus oxyphyllus), the name of which brought a flashback of my life prior to gardening when I would attend management seminars and training events where you introduced yourself suggesting which TV character would best describe you. I always chose ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce, the surgeon who worked in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital or MASH unit during the Korean War. An individual committed to achieving his role but with little respect for managerial orthodoxy or hierarchical authority.

This Korean spindleberry with its winged seed pods and bright orange seeds was an open multi-stemmed tree which I think is ideally suited for the garden situation. The specimen I was viewing was some 20 years old and barely 3 metres tall by a similar width but it had a lovely open structure whereby you could grow spring flowering herbaceous plants such as hellebores, epimediums, dog tooth violets along with spring bulbs underneath it.

This tree is very slow growing, eventually reaching a maximum height of 4 metres. In May it has white flowers often with a purple tinge, complementing such understorey planting such as I mentioned earlier. In autumn, depending on the weather its leaves will have rich autumn colours. The only down side I could find was that the berries if eaten in quantity can cause sickness and diarrhoea or convulsions. For growing conditions the tree will grow in any general loamy soil that is free-draining and ideally acidic. In any soil add a generous amount of garden compost or bonemeal. For location the tree will grow in full sun but prefers some sheltered shade, perhaps reflecting its native location as a forest edge plant so either a west or east facing border would be ideal.

This is not a common plant that you are likely to find in the local garden centre. But some searching on the internet helped me locate a number of suppliers selling young plants at under £20. The tree is deciduous and usually grown in the ground not in a pot. When dormant between November and March they are lifted and sold bare-rooted. Prepare the ground before you buy as the tree will need planting within a week of arrival. If the ground freezes before you can plant then they can be temporarily potted up in a plant pot. This small tree will certainly find a place here in Helmsley.

I discovered that M.A.S.H. is being reshown on TV and I have caught a number of episodes and now find Hawkeye somewhat irritating as he fails to see that some organisational structure has to be endured to achieve your aims. What I have found is Colonel Sherman Potter the officer in charge hugely entertaining and in his own way as successful at securing the well-being of the injured soldiers. I know it is fictitious but perhaps Colonel Potter as a young officer was once a Hawkeye Pierce. Note to self, visit more gardens and no more management training events.

Mike I’Anson November 2016

October 2016 – Autumn turf maintenance

Getting the thatch out
Getting the thatch out

Recently I received a call from a Mr Dunn who had visited the garden the day before and had seen an old reclaimed garden rake and wished he had purchased it. Could we send it to him in Portsmouth? Old tools are very popular, some believe the quality is better or that old wood handles or that the tools are better balanced. For Mr Dunn the rake reminded him of the rake he would fetch from the garden shed for his mother as a child.

The rake is a very useful tool at this time of year in carrying out autumn lawn maintenance. After completing the final cut, usually around the end of October, use the rake to make a drawing action across the grass producing a pile of ‘thatch’. This is the remains of grass cuttings, detritus from other plants along with any moss. If the thatch becomes too deep, the lawn deteriorates as grass starts to grow in the thatch and not the soil. Raking is hard work but the benefits are numerous; it allows space for grass to grow and the action damages the grass rhizomes in a useful way by splitting and breaking them up. At each break, new grass shoots develop, thickening up your grass. The drawing of the tines across the surface also helps to break up the hard pan on the surface. Remove the thatch and dispose of it in the compost bin. If you like to make your own Christmas wreath then keep a quantity and put it in a clear plastic bag, seal and leave in the light. The material will survive until Christmas and provide a good base for your wreath.

This process of removing the thatch is called scarifying and after completing it the next thing to do is to aerate the lawn. This is done by using a garden fork and treading the tines into the lawn. Some merely prick the surface or spike the fork tines into the lawn. But for the best result, tread the tines as deeply as you can and then rock the fork backwards until the lawn lifts or cracks from the sub-soil. This action improves drainage down through the tine holes and also along the sub-soil level. Initially it may look a little unsightly but the lawn will soon settle down again.

Some advocate applying winter feeds but I prefer to wait until spring and then apply a weed and feed type dual fertiliser. In the spring the grass and weeds are getting ready to grow strongly whereas in the autumn they are slowing down and aren’t as receptive. If you have moss in your grass it’s a sign of poor drainage. Scarifying and aerating will help improve drainage and reduce the moss. I don’t know if Mr Dunn will use his rake to improve the condition of his lawn or to ask his grandchildren to retrieve it for him, either is a powerful way to use this humble rake.

Mike I’Anson October 2016

Gazette and Herald September 2016

Helmsley Walled Garden Pruning ShotEarlier this year I celebrated my sixtieth birthday: since then the NHS has taken a particular interest in my health with a postal bowel cancer test and a Well-man Clinic. Essentially they have given me a health MOT. In the garden we also have plants that have reached the age when we need to do something with them. Looking at hardy perennials first, as the plant grows up, we can see the centre is looking tired and good strong growth is at the furthermost edge of the plant. Now is the time to dig up these plants.

First dig the plant out and shake of the majority of the soil. In sections, dig out the whole plant retaining some of the younger outside growth and discard the solid wooden centre. If replanting back in the same position, you will need to add some well-rotted compost or a bag of soil conditioner. It would also be advisable to add a good general powder fertiliser to the area. The new growth should be divided into manageable sizes and replanted. You may also find that you have sufficient new material to share with another gardener, or you could plant up an empty patch in your borders. You can then improve the area of the old plant as per above and next year plant annuals in their place. This gives you the opportunity to remove any perennial weeds that have popped up in the knowledge that all the annuals will be removed at the end of next year. At the end of next year you can plant up this area with more divided perennials so the border can be continually managed and improved without the need to consider rejuvenating the whole border.

Elderly shrubs also get congested and overgrown and these can be rejuvenated by what at first appears a harsh approach. Cut the whole shrub down to around six inches (15cm) in a process known as coppicing. Most shrubs will respond by sending out vigorous new growth than can be thinned out as it grows away. Should the technique fail, and sometimes it does, then see it as an opportunity to replant with a new shrub. Again whether you coppice or replace, take the opportunity to improve and feed the soil. Roses in particular just get old with poor shows of flowers and either straggly stems or old rotten wood, the kindest action is to replace them. Replant in a different part of the border. With roses I would never plant a single plant in one place: for greater effect try planting three roses of the same variety no more than 300mm away from each other. The three will grow and look like one plant and the scale of flowering will not disappoint. As for my health MOT I received an advisory, when I need a snack I should replace the award-winning Helmsley pork pie with some dried fruit and nuts. I will try, honest!

Mike I’Anson September 2016