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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.

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

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