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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.

September 2019 – Bringing in the Harvest

It has been something of a topsy-turvey summer with the weather cracking the flags one minute and rain of positively Biblical proportions the next. I’ve noticed a big difference in our apple crop this year. There are a lot less for a start.

One reason for that is last year was a bumper crop and trees will look after themselves by limiting the number of fruit they bear in order not to exhaust themselves and to conserve energy for the following year. Called biennial bearing it’s not an unusual sight but I think this year has been exacerbated by the cold, wet snap we had just as the trees blossomed. It meant pollinators weren’t out and about so much. This was followed by an unseasonal warm and dry spell which has resulted in much smaller fruits. Worcester Pearmain, normally a decent sized fruit has got tiny apples this year. More like the size of Spartan only not quite so crimson in colour.

So it has made cropping from our Kitchen Garden a bit interesting. But we are picking every day and I have never made so many courgette and lime cakes so I guess courgettes are cropping as usual.

I love this time of year when the quality of the light changes as summer draw towards its close and we pick tomatoes, aubergines, chillies, herbs and salad leaves from the Salad House and beans, courgettes, sweetcorn and potatoes out in the Kitchen Garden. There does seem to be a healthy crop of plums and damsons and we’ll be starting to pick autumn raspberries very soon.

I grew up in a small seaside town in the north west and I don’t think I truly appreciated harvest time then. Harvest Festival at school was very much a tin of spaghetti or fruit and although we sang the hymn We Plough the Fields and Scatter, it didn’t have any resonance for me. Now I can see and hear the combines working late into the night from my house. Everyone works till all hours to bring the harvest in when the weather is good and frets when it rains. It makes me appreciate all the hours of work that have gone into growing the wheat for my bread and the fruit and vegetables for my dinner amongst many other things.

But of course it doesn’t stop with harvest for farmer or gardener. I’m thinking now about what seeds I will need for the Salad House next year and I will be talking to Mollie who makes all the delicious food in The Vine House Café about what she would like me to produce for her menus. I’ll be taking the opportunity once we close to put heart into soil that has been busy all season by adding organic matter and a helping of manure.

Likewise in the Kitchen Garden, Laura is planning her crop rotation, which beds to manure and obviously planting things like garlic for next year. The colder months are the perfect time to drool over seed catalogues and a lot of that goes on here I can tell you.

But we only have five acres and twenty four hours in a day so common sense must prevail. We really can’t grow five different types of carrot and although there are many lovely salad leaves to choose from, growing two different kinds of rocket is silly when I could grow Mizuna, mustard, chard, spinach not to mention, coriander, dill, flat and curly parsley, basil and so on.

So we may slow down a little but we won’t be stopping as summer ends. Come and watch our progress and enjoy your garden.

Tricia Harris September 2019

August 2019 – Show stopping plants

Talking to visitors about the plants in the garden got me thinking about show stoppers. The sort of plant that make you stop dead in your tracks and say wow. There are definitely some visitor favourites: one would be Lychnis chalcedonica in the Gravel Garden and Hot Border, tall with bright scarlet flowers it catches everyone’s attention and I have a very soft spot for it growing it at home as well as putting new plants into the Hot Border at every opportunity to bulk up the display.

Another of my favourites that visitors ask about is Achillea “Gold Plate” on the Hot Border. It has the familiar umbel of tiny flowers but they are so tightly packed together they form a plate of vibrant yellow. Anyone who follows the gardens social media will know that the annual appearance of this plant is something I post about a lot! Well who could resist, certainly not me.

One fabulous scented showstopper is Rosa “Gertrude Jekyll” in Alison’s Garden. I was about to say that normally I’m not overly keen on pink flowers. But then I remembered the startlingly vibrant pink Achillea “Cerise Queen” I’ve just planted in the Hot Border and then Lychnis coronaria, common name rose campion which is a more deep velvety cerise. Anyway, I digress, Gertrude is an old-fashioned looking rose that was actually bred by David Austin in 1986. An English shrub rose, it’s colour is a deep, deep pink and oh the scent; it will truly take your breath away. Gertrude is a bit thorny but the beauty of her flowers means she should not be missed.

I have great fondness for Kniphofia rooperi or Red Hot Poker, in the West and Hot Borders. It’s a bit of a marmite plant for many people but it is (along with Dicentra formosa) one of the first flowers I can remember. It grew in the garden of my extreme youth and, I don’t know, maybe it was it’s very brashness, tall, slightly angular flowers in the brightest of oranges that made it appeal. Either way I had to plant it in my garden at home and was bereft when it didn’t thrive. When it refused to flower for the third year in a row I dug it up and planted it in my neighbour’s front garden. To my chagrin it flowered profusely from the word go. It obviously prefers it next door and I am still miffed.

One gorgeous perennial that comes along slightly later in the summer is Helenium “Moerheim Beauty”. It has daisy-like flowers with the most striking coppery-red petals and a dark centre. Flowering from late July onwards with dead-heading it goes on and on. H. “Sahin’s Early Flowerer”  as its name suggests flowers earlier but is more yellowy. Equally striking at a height of 50cm – 1 metre high, these two give real continuity to a border making sure the show goes on right through summer.

There are a lot of beautiful perennial Rudbeckias such as “Goldsturm” or R. fulgida, but the one that has a special place in my heart is annual R. “Cherry Brandy”. It has deep, dark crimson petals that look almost the colour of chocolate they are so deep and rich, again with a dark centre. Annuals they may be but they flower for ages. They do need to be sown under cover and not put out until all danger of front has passed.

I hope you’ll try out one or two of these and maybe, if you see me in a flower bed here, come and tell me some of your favourites. Enjoy your garden.

Tricia Harris August 2019

July 2019 – Working in the White Garden

It’s all hands to the pump here as we swing into July. Our head gardener is unwell so I have had to step into her shoes. Mind you with a diminutive shoe size 3, I find it hard to fill anyone’s shoes but I’ll always have a go.

This is the most exciting time to be in the Garden as everything is putting on leaf and colour and the Hot Border in particular is gearing up for its summer extravaganza. But for anyone who is waiting for me to phone or email in my capacity of marketing manager, I can only give you my sincere apologies and say I will be in touch as soon as I can.

One of the joys of escaping my desk and putting my assistant head gardener hat firmly on my head, is the chance to work in parts of the garden I don’t normally.

For the past week I have been deep in the White Garden batting the Coltsfoot and Pink Fumitory. Coltsfoot is a thug of a wild flower with deep roots and a pretty yellow daisy-like flower. It’s a medicinal plant; its Latin name Tussilago farfara indicates that it is very good for soothing sore throats and bronchial complaints. But it is very invasive and so far I haven’t dared plant it in the physic garden. People make a tea or tisane with the leaves as well as Coltsfoot jelly. Does anyone make Coltsfoot jelly anymore? It seemed to be something fed to invalids in Victorian novels; I bet it was made out of that pig of a root. Anything that goes that deep just has to be medicinal.

I have replaced it with the beautiful pure white Scabiosa perfecta alba, Astilbe x arendsi and one of my favourite spring plants, the delightful Brunnera macrophylla “Betty Bowring”. I’ve mentioned her to you before, such a well-behaved girl with a pure white flower. Every garden should have her in a shady spot somewhere.

Whilst I have a think about what else I’d like to plant I’ve been putting in a few annuals. Now, at the risk of being convicted of crimes against annuals I have to confess I’m not their biggest fan. Unless I can direct sow, I struggle to fit with their timetable. They need pricking out and potting on when they need it not when I’m able to do it. Result, leggy etiolated plants that never really get away properly and don’t look as good as they should. I know I should be able to plan for them but I sometimes struggle to juggle everything I’m doing.

However, for one or two I am prepared to make an exception. One is Nicotiana affinis, a real surprise to me. I’m not noted for my love of the tobacco plant but its lovely plate-like rosette of basal leaves and tall stem with beautiful trumpet-shaped brilliant white flowers with just a hint of baby-pink blush on the underside truly took my breath away. Another would be zinnias. I’m putting “Polar Bear” in here but there are many beautiful shades of this overlooked flower. But enough, I’ll leave my passion and proselytising for zinnias for another day.

I hope you’ll be able to come and spend some time sitting in the White Garden and admire some of these lovely plants along with all the different shades of their foliage this summer. Enjoy your garden.

Tricia Harris July 2019

June 2019 – Iris germanica

I got a lovely surprise when I went into the Physic Garden the other day. Iris germanica, otherwise known as Orris Root in physic was flowering. Now that may not sound very exciting or unusual. It is the time for iris to flower after all but what was exciting was that it is hasn’t flowered in years.

Now the reason for that is it had got congested and needed a bit of TLC. Over time irises spread outward through their rhizomes, a bulbous sometimes fleshy storage organ providing energy for growth and storing that same energy over winter ready for next year. Over time the central rhizomes die and the plant spreads outwards with a unsightly hole developing in the middle of the clump.

This is easily dealt with by digging the whole thing up after the plants have flowered and selecting the newest rhizomes (those on the outside of the clump) to replant. Generally this is done mid- to late-summer when gardeners have the time to attend to such a task.

In an act of rashness, the sort of thing that makes television presenters say “do not try this at home” I dug them up and replanted in the lovely warm spell we had in April. This really is not recommended but I was desperate. I never (and I mean NEVER) have the time in summer to go back to what can be quite a labour intensive task in July or August. I’m either deadheading, weeding or pruning in my role as assistant head gardener or as marketing manager I’m writing, talking to journalists, editing our website or a host of other things that need doing in the promotion of the garden to our visitors.

As a result poor old Iris germanica had become very congested and sad looking. So, armed with a spade and determination I jumped into the bed (it’s a raised bed at the back of the Physic Garden) and prepared for battle. I dug and chopped and sweated – not a pretty sight – and slowly got the whole plant out and selected my rhizomes for replanting.

By this stage I was working more in hope than expectation that the plant would recover. This is Yorkshire and Iris is a plant that has its origins on the plains of central Asia, very hot and dry in summer and very cold in winter. Also the soil is rocky and not that fertile, hence the rhizome. So by giving it such serious punishment I was shall we say, a bit on the anxious side.

Anyway, the job was done, the rhizomes back in with just the very top of them showing above the surface and I crossed my fingers and said a fervent prayer to the gardening gods to look favourably on my labours.

Well, clearly they must have heard because when I went to look the other day there was one beautiful yellow flower in bud. I danced with joy round the garden. I’ve been away a few days at a funeral so I need to go back today to see if any more have come out but I was thrilled that my gamble had paid off.

Now you might say, why didn’t you just buy another? Well, I could but a) I’m a professional gardener and I’m supposed to be able to grow things and b) plants cost money and we are perennially cash-strapped here. It costs £700 a day to keep the garden running before we so much as move a muscle so if I don’t have to spend money replacing plants I’ve managed to murder then that can only be a good thing.

So really all I can say is that calculated gambles can pay off but I’ll be trying not to make a habit of it. Enjoy your garden.

Tricia Harris June 2019

May 2019 – Laburnum and the bees

As I write this, it’s lovely and sunny but we still live with the potential threat of frost turning up just as you think you are safe. We‘ve been bold and planted out our sunflowers in the cut flower border and I’ve been busy bulking up some of the display in the Physic Garden, things like Mugwort, Aquilegia, Agrimony and Parsley. In the sixteenth Century, Nicholas Culpepper gave it to patients to help with kidney function and getting rid of kidney stones and herbalists still use it to treat kidney ailments today.

But however busy I am (and it is pretty well crazy in the garden until the end of June getting everything into the ground) I always make time towards the end of May to make time to stand under the Laburnum Arch. There are many reasons to do this, one would be the delicate but heavenly scent, another would be to admire the rich gold of the flowers. But the best reason is to watch and listen to the bees. Standing there first thing before we open to visitors, the only thing I can hear is a prolonged buzz as bees of all varieties bounce from flower to flower, collecting pollen and nectar. For me it’s one of life’s pleasures to watch those industrious little creatures collecting as fast as they can, and it goes without saying that I am a big fan of honey.

We have kept bees in here at the Garden in previous years. Our last colonies went to Fountains Abbey when Mike, our last garden manager retired. I took the sad but realistic decision that with everything else I just couldn’t look after them on my own so we waved them goodbye as they went to their illustrious new home.

I’d really like to have bee hives back in the Garden at some time in the future as apart from being fabulous pollinators (and of course keeping me in the amounts of honey I wish always to be accustomed to) their outlook on life – if one can say a bee has an outlook – is something we humans could learn from.

Everything they do, they do for the colony from the minute they are born. The instant they emerge from their cell the first thing they do is turn around and clean it so the Queen can lay a new egg in it. Imagine if you could train teenagers to do that!

After that they are nurse bees, then guard bees, working at the entrance to the hive to check the bees coming in belong and there are no intruders trying to steal their honey supplies. Finally they become foragers, going out to find pollen and nectar and, if they find a good supply, coming back and telling other foragers exactly where the nectar source is by dancing. Sounds strange but they perform a complicated waggle dance which tells the other bees how far away it is and in which direction.

I should at this point mention that it is only the girls that do all this. Any males, called drones, born in the hive are there simply to mate with the Queen on her virgin flight. Once that’s done they sit around the hive until autumn arrives when they are thrown out to die as the colony contracts for winter. It’s a tough life being a male bee!

Do come and admire the Laburnum and the bees and maybe next time you spread honey on toast, think of those industrious girls who made it for you. Enjoy your garden.

Tricia Harris May 2019

April 2019 – medicine old and new

Pulsatilla vulgarisSpring has sprung and it is such an exciting time of year when everything really starts into growth and the change is palpable by the day. I was in the Physic Garden the other day and I could see the Pasque flowers (Pulsatilla vulgaris) were shooting up and Bears Breeches (Acanthus mollis) were spouting up everywhere. Note to self, NEVER plant that anywhere again, it is an absolute thug. Its use as a treatment for sores and wounds is so historic it’s mentioned in the Bible, but it’s an absolute heathen when it comes to taking over one’s garden.

Pulsatilla vulgaris also has a long history of use as a cure for amongst other things coughs and bronchial spasms and for period pains and the menopause. Interestingly modern herbalists and homeopaths still use it for these things today showing that the ancients knew a thing or two about plants and healing. We’ll gloss over the cure for the plague which needed a unicorn’s liver!

Digitalis_purpureaIt is fair to say that plants have a long and noble history of use in medicine, ancient and modern. Herbalists of old knew that Digitalis, derived from foxgloves could be used to treat ‘congestion of the heart’ as they would have known it. Or that salicin (the active ingredient of aspirin), extracted from the bark of the willow tree eased aches and pains including headaches. Both are still used today but they are now manufactured using synthetic active ingredients (although you can still buy willow bark tea from health food shops).

The first herbals came from ancient Greece with the works of Galen and Dioscorides making their way into monastic libraries for use by their herbalists. More ahem, modern works came with John Gerard in 1597 and John Parkinson in 1640. But they included lots of expensive drugs that needed to be imported. The breakthrough came with the publication of Nicholas Culpeper’s herbal in 1649. He insisted on using plant medicine that grew in Britain and on using English common names, telling his impoverished patients where they could find such plants. To help further, he translated the London Pharmacopoeia from Latin into English. His work made the available remedies accessible to people in the newly burgeoning towns and cities.

I find old herbals fascinating and plant lore can keep me glued to my armchair for hours but I don’t think I’ll give up on modern medicine. Last week Madame Molly our garden cat bit me. I can only assume she had been eating rat fricassee or pheasant parfait previously as quicker than you could say “mine’s a tetanus jab” my hand was the size of an udder. A quick trip to the doctor ensued and I came away bearing a packet of antibiotics that resembled horse pills such was their size. Anyway, a week later and my hand is back to normal and I’m back in the garden. I’m glad that I live in an age where such treatment is available. Happy gardening everyone.

Tricia Harris April 2019

 

March 2019 – It’s getting very close to opening time

March Blog 2019 - Helmsley Walled GardenHow is it that the days just swoosh past as it gets nearer and nearer to the 1st April? Work in the garden has really ramped up and we are sowing seed like it’s going out of fashion.

I need to get my planting design in plants and in the ground. The Cleveland Way National Trail is 50 this year so there will be much cake and rejoicing (well any excuse for cake). One of the ways in which we will be saying Happy Birthday Cleveland Way is to plant the familiar acorn logo of the trail by the side of the track as it divides with one arm going to our front door and the trail proper going off to Rievaulx. I know where it’s going but I need to get on and plant up as the actual day is 24th May. Come and check on my progress.

Other than that we are also sorting out events and courses. You can find full details on our website but I would just mention two things. One is on 30th and 31st March when the garden will be open to all and we’ll have a sale on in our shop. The second is our wildlife weekend on 6th and 7th of April. I’m getting as many organisations together so that visitors can learn about the wildlife and nature on our doorstep and also find out a bit about what they can do to help protect our environment; and hopefully have some fun too.

I do find this time of year  exciting, when colour starts to come back. Well in truth it never goes away but it is more, well, muted in Winter and I get to the stage where I crave yellow and red and orange. I have some lovely orange crocuses at home that put joy in my heart every time I look at them.

Back at the garden we are busily composting  the cuttings and debris from the Hot Border. A new volunteer is dedicated to composting and he is rapidly making himself worth more than rubies. As you will know, the smaller things are when they go into the compost, the faster they break down. So he is chopping long stems up and creating the layers needed to make a good compost heap; not too dry, not too wet, small pieces and nothing too woody; and getting the whole thing big enough to get a really good high temperature to kill off any weed seeds and pathogens. As I said, worth more than rubies.

As I write this and stare out of the office window it‘s a beautiful day but it is still a bit too wet in some places to really get on and in the soil. So some of the planting will have to hold fire for a little while longer and I may not get out the office just yet. But the Alphabet Garden wall is completed and looks marvellous. Special thanks to everyone who helped build it. Happy gardening.

Tricia Harris March 2019

February 2019 – What are we to do?

Helmsley Walled Garden February 2019 NewsWell February’s here and of course it is the usual maddening weather where it’s too cold or too wet or too something to be able to get on as one is itching to do.

Here at the garden is no exception and we huddle in corners comparing notes on how far we got the last time the soil wasn’t like concrete or treacle and doing seed swaps so that we can have as many cheery annuals as possible in different parts of the garden.

However, there are things we all can do in February. This is the perfect time of year to do any bare root planting. By this I mean a plant that has quite literally been dug up from the ground rather than gown in a container. Bare root plants for sale are generally things like roses, shrubs and trees.

One tree I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t come across before I worked at Kew Gardens was Amelanchier canadensis or the Juneberry tree. From North America, it’s a lovely hardy tree growing to around 6-7 metres or fifteen to eighteen feet in old money. With beautiful white spring flowers, reddish-purple berries in summer and beautiful orangey-red foliage in autumn it earns its place in the garden. It can be grown as a multi-stemmed shrub and kept smaller, either way it fits nicely into the smaller garden.

Spare a thought for the wildlife in your garden. We leave plenty of our tough-stemmed plants standing over winter. If we have to cut stuff down we leave a certain amount as this is prize ladybird hibernation territory. Some stuff will look a bit sad but if you can bear it, please leave it. However, if you have plants that have collapsed and turned to a nasty slime, then remove it to your compost bin toute de suite. Plants hate rotting material on their crown and it is also a major winter resort for slugs so it’s best to take it away.

If you’re lucky enough to have apricot, peach or nectarine trees then cover the blossom as it comes out to protect it from frost. The old-fashioned way was to weave a blanket out of corn and barley stalks and they do look wonderful. But you need either a lot of gardeners or a lot of time to weave the blankets and put them on of a night but also raise them in the morning so the trees  get the light. Much more practical these days to get some horticultural fleece to do the job.

Lastly, do feed the birds. They are our best defence against the bugs and beasts we don’t want like greenfly, slugs and snails. Nuts, seeds and fat balls will all be gratefully received in this weather. I have some of the biggest, fattest blackbirds in my garden at home who I think hit the seeds before they ate all the snails. I’m not complaining, always happy to help a blackbird and clear up the snail shells afterwards. Happy gardening.

Tricia Harris February 2019

January 2019 – The whole year ahead

Seed collectingSo the presents were opened, the Christmas dinner was eaten, the Christmas films were watched, the walks taken, the sofa snuggled in and now it is all over for another year and the whole of 2019 stretches ahead.

Here at the walled garden we are focusing on clearing and cleaning. All the glasshouses need a darn good clean to help get rid of any lurking unwelcome bugs. A good wash with horticultural soap, Jeyes Fluid or a sulphur candle are all ways in which you can clean your greenhouse. We’ll also take the opportunity to give all our terracotta pots a bit of a scrub. It’s hard work and when it’s old it can be murder on the hands but it is both worthwhile and important.

There are more and more non-native insects coming into Britain in various ways and they have no natural predators. We’ve probably all seen Red lily beetle and it’s disgusting offspring by now as well as Horse chestnut leaf miner. Less visible up here and if at all possible even less welcome would be Oak processionary moth a real threat to our native oaks, entrenched down south and heading our way.

Now more than ever we are really thinking about plant hygiene and the threat of pests to the Garden. We stopped accepting plant donations about four year ago after a disastrous winter where we had to dispose of everything in the Orchid House after a pathogen from a donated plant infected everything. We also no longer accept donated plant pots for the same reason although that of course is the subject for a whole different column on plastic and how we all deal with it. Good news, nurseries are starting to act and black pots will hopefully become extinct!

So what can we all do at home? Well a few tips: only buy plants and seeds from reputable providers or UK nurseries (which hopefully amounts to the same thing). Personal garden disclosure here, we get all our plants from UK nurseries and we plan to propagate more of our own plants in the coming year. Check plants you buy carefully and reject any that look sick. If you must buy them, keep them in a quarantine area away from your garden for at least six weeks. And please, please, please don’t bring anything back from abroad in your bag. It really does matter; even if it looks ok. A lot of the bugs are miniscule and just not visible with the naked eye. But get them under a magnifying lens and it’s like some sort of dog eat dog Armageddon in there.

So if you make one new year’s resolution make it to buy gorgeous healthy plants and seeds and have a beautiful garden. It’s the perfect time to put your feet up with a seed catalogue so make your plans and purchases now for a colourful and pest-free 2019. Happy new year to you all.

Tricia Harris January 2019

December 2018 – Flowers to tell a story

Holly leavesLadies and gentlemen let me take you on a little time travel as we go back to the middle ages and the time when plants were both the only form of medicine and also had myth and legend attached to them. In an age when only wealthy people could read and church services were in Latin, people learnt the stories of the bible through pictures painted on interiors of church walls and through stories attached to flowers. Here in the Garden we have our own medieval physic garden with each bed containing plants to heal specific ailments of a particular part of the body.

Lady’s bedstraw – Mary’s bed in the stable

Lungwort – was thought to help complaints of the lungs and with its polka dots of white on a dark green background bookends the life of Christ. The white splashes represent the milk that Mary fed to Jesus and the flowers that open blue and turn to pink represent the Virgin’s blue eyes which turn red with weeping at his death.

Star of Bethlehem Ornithogalum Umbellatum – According to this legend, God created the Star of Bethlehem to guide the wise men to the Christ Child. Once the star’s purpose was completed, God thought it was too beautiful to banish from the earth. Instead, the brilliant star burst into thousands of pieces and descended to the earth. The bits of the Star of Bethlehem gave birth to beautiful white flowers that blanketed the hillsides. They became known as the Star of Bethlehem flower.

Daisy represents the innocence of the Christ child

Iris and white lily represent the Virgin Mary

Tricia Harris December 2018