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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 2018 – How come it just got busier?

Fennel and Orchid HouseI’ve just got back from two weeks holiday with a little garden visiting thrown in – I know, I know it sounds like a busman’s holiday and in a way it is. But, and it is a big but, getting out and seeing what other people do in their gardens is both interesting and informative. It’s a bit like being shown round other people’s houses in that there is always something you can learn. Even if the décor is not to your taste there is always something as in what they’ve done with that difficult corner, or how they’ve brought light into that room.

It works exactly the same with gardening. Going to another visitor attraction helps me to gauge how we are doing, what else we might be doing and is there an idea maybe that we can take and develop to make it work for us. I then talk with Lisa, our head gardener and together we start to build ideas for the next stage of garden development.

So, filled with ideas I returned to work this morning. But of course, I have been away for two weeks and the list of things I have to do has doubled before I can so much as blink! The Physic Garden and the Garden of Contemplation have not stayed still whilst I’ve been away and there is now a green carpet of weed seedlings that need my urgent attention. The dahlias in the Hot Border have been hit by an early frost (hmm, note to self, it’s a bit early for frost damage. Does this mean a hard winter?) and I need to go down the border and cut back the frost-damaged stems and leaves.

We are still furiously apple picking and pruning. I need to walk round the Clematis Garden with Lisa as we are planting a lot of bulbs in there as part of our new winter display and they need to go in VERY soon. We will be open every Friday, Saturday and Sunday up to the end of December this year so keeping things colourful, even in the muted tones of winter, is important. I need to produce the apple facts trail and the apple quiz for children this week as Apple Day is coming up fast on Saturday 20th.

So lots happening and the air is getting chillier. I do love this time of year even though it means that summer is over and winter and (eek) Christmas is coming. But the smell of autumn is one of my favourites and I need to remember to stand still and enjoy it. The days can be so warm (I wished I’d packed shorts for Northumberland last week!) but the finger of frost is never far from morning and evening.

So if you do one thing for your garden this week, get some bulbs for next spring. Even a few snowdrops, crocuses or some winter aconites will cheer a winter garden and remind you that spring is not too far off. Treat yourself and enjoy your garden.

Tricia Harris October 2018

September 2018 – Apples

ApplesSeptember is the start of autumn – if you are guided by the meteorological calendar as opposed to the astronomical one. So we are now in full harvest mode both in the Kitchen Garden and with the apples. Courgettes are turning into marrows the minute I turn my back and the beans, greens and beetroot are all huge. We have a lovely range of tomatoes coming out of the Salad House; my favourite being Citrina a lemon-yellow tomato shaped rather charmingly like a lemon!

But it is the apples that are taking most of our attention as there are so many of them. It has been a bumper crop in a bumper year. Amazingly when the trees were in blossom there was no frost so the trees became laden with fruit. The very hot summer led to a massive June drop as the trees realised they couldn’t hang on to so many fruit in such a dry season.

But still they are laden and we are propping up branches all over the Garden to stop them from breaking under the weight of fruit. We are harvesting them constantly for juicing and for sale. So if you fancy trying something different come and buy some apples from us.

We have over a hundred trees here and nearly as many varieties ranging from New Bess Pool to Lane’s Prince Albert: Catshead to Dogsnout and  Worcester Pearmain to Laxton’s Superb. They all taste and look different.  I grew up when the choice in the supermarket was Golden Delicious or Granny Smith. I had no idea that apples could be anything from palest yellow to deepest burgundy with pretty much every variation between and as many different flavours and textures, Egremont Russet anyone? Did you know that the Bramley apple is so popular because it is a heavy cropper with big fruit that cooks and stores well. But there are dozens of other good cookers you don’t see in the supermarket because they don’t keep as well or bruise easily or any number of other reasons that don’t make them viable for commercial growers. There is so much choice in Britain when it comes to apples so it is understandable but a real shame.

However, you can see and try some of them here at the Garden on Saturday 20th  October when we will be celebrating all things apple at our annual Apple Day. As well as opportunities to taste apples, we will be running juicing demonstrations with tasting running alongside. There will be apple fact and apple quiz trails for children as well as apple bobbing.  If you are inspired to have an apple tree in your garden  you can also look at the different ways to grow and train a tree here. From espalier to step over, from free growing to cordon you can see that however small your space you can train an apple to fit it. Enjoy the fruits of the season and hopefully we’ll see you soon.

Tricia Harris September 2018

August 2018 – Plants for hot weather

RudbeckiasWhat a year this has been so far. Winter seemed as if it was never going to end and it rained so much I thought we would be living in a sea of mud forever. Fast forward to the end of July and as I write the ground is parched and we are desperate for rain.

We’ve got all the annuals and dahlias in the ground now and some of the dahlias are flowering already, scarily early but hardly surprising. We are seeing a lot of unripe apples dropping from the trees. Unbelievably there was no frost when they were in blossom so a bumper crop was the result. Now of course they can’t sustain that many apples so they’re dropping like flies.

All of which is a long way of saying it is a challenging year for gardeners. But we are gardeners and so used to the challenges the weather throws at us. Watering is not necessarily the answer although it may be for some things, especially if they start to look sad and crispy.

I found myself looking at the borders to see what was not showing any sign of strain and I got one or two surprises. I was very pleased to see that Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ is flowering it’s heart out in a burst of colour at the foot of the Hot Border. I was also impressed by the Rudbeckias.

There is a rudbeckia for all seasons, annual, biennials and hardy perennials and they come in a range of great colours. From the gold of the hardy perennial Rudbeckia  fulgida var. sullivantii Goldsturm to the claret glow of the annual Rudbeckia hirta  ‘Cherry Brandy’ rudbeckias come in shades of orange, bronze and lemon. It’s been really exciting to see the hardy perennials in particular shrug off the hot weather. However,  they are well established. I’d be wanting to water anything  I’d put in new this year until it was established.

Of course there are also all the wonderful drought tolerant plants such as Lavender angustifolia: all the salvias, especially hardy perennial Salvia x sylvestris ‘Mainacht’ with its rich deep blue flowers that will always manage drought conditions.

But there is also Lychnis coronaria (Rose campion) and Stachys byzantina (Lamb’s-ear). Basically any plant that has a greyish felt-like leaf will do well in conditions such as we are experiencing. The thick layer of hairs on the leaf which gives it its felty-feel helps to conserve water, stopping the plant from losing too much water through transpiration.

 All these plants benefit from being in the ground rather than a pot. They have questing roots, searching for water in their native Mediterranean habitat so they don’t like to be constrained. They can get too wet in a pot which they hate. Same with sage and rosemary.

We need not fear the hot weather. There’s plenty to keep our gardens in flower and full of colour. Mind you I’m still hoping for gentle overnight rain from say 11pm till 4pm every night for the next month. Gardeners eh, never satisfied!

Tricia Harris August 2018

July 2018 – Right plant, right place

Happy HeleniumsPretty much all the annuals and dahlias are planted and it’s all hands to the pump to keep on top of the weeding and the deadheading so the displays keep flowering. It is calming down now as everything settles down from spring growth madness into a steady summer beauty. I love walking round the garden first thing, listening to the bees in the border and enjoying the full glory of the colour and scent that abounds in the Garden at this time of year.

I realised I hadn’t spoken before about one of my gardening heroes (there are a few and I will introduce you to them over time). The hero in question is Beth Chatto creator of the Beth Chatto Gardens in Essex and a highly influential plantswoman. Mrs Chatto died in May at the age of 94 after a lifetime of working with plants and creating beautiful gardens reflected in ten successive gold medals at the RHS Chelsea flower show.

She brought a more naturalistic planting style to design promoting an ecological approach using natural plant groupings. Her philosophy was always ‘right plant, right place’ and this is perhaps the greatest lesson she has taught me as a gardener. It sounds so simple now but at the time it was revolutionary. Look at the area you are planting up? What is the soil like? Is it sandy and free draining, or clayey and prone to waterlogging in winter and drying hard as nails in summer? Every plant has a preference and it’s up to us to take heed.

I once spoke to a couple in the Garden who were visiting from Arizona. They took great delight in our roses and bemoaned the fact they could not grow them in Arizona despite trying many times. I felt slightly faint when I thought of what Mrs Chatto would have said; poor roses. Mind, I did feel for the couple as well as it’s very hard when you love a particular plant so much but the conditions in your garden are against you.

The Gravel Garden here was inspired by Beth Chatto’s work at her garden at Elmstead Market near Chelmsford. Mrs Chatto turned their heavily compacted car park into a garden of sweeping curves and relaxed and colourful planting. The ground was given a good dose of organic matter, every plant was given a thorough soaking when it was planted and then covered with a thick mulch of gravel. The premise was brutal; that was all the care they were getting and if they didn’t do they would come out. Nothing has been watered since except by rainfall and it is spectacular.

We have never watered the Gravel Garden since it was planted and it has grown vigorously. It reminds me of two things, the first is just how much water can be lost from bare soil. The other is to always give thought to what you plant, how you plant it and where. Happy gardening.

Tricia Harris July 2018

June 2018 – A riot of colour for your borders

Hot Border in Bloom at Helmsley Walled GardenWe are absolutely in the thick of it here at Helmsley Walled Garden. It’s that stage of the year (I feel sure you’re familiar with it) when everything grows like mad, including the weeds and there are still lots of plants to go in the ground; annuals, dahlias and so on. The ground is like concrete and there are simply not enough hours in the day to do everything you need to never mind want to.

Things are incredibly busy but even for us it is important to stop and admire colours and shapes. At the moment the Laburnum Arch is just going over and the alliums that have been blazing balls of purple all along the Hot Border and under the arch are slowly tuning into seed heads. The combination of purple and yellow is always spectacular and it is one we repeat throughout the year.

In the borders at Helmsley you’ll see Salvia nemorosa ‘Lubecca’ and Anthemis tinctoria ‘E C Buxton’ at one stage and Lythrum virgatum ‘Dropmore Purple’ and Achillea filipendulina ‘Gold Plate’ at another. Or Iris sibirica ‘Shirley Pope’ against Euphorbia cyparissias ‘Fens Ruby’. Thinking about colour combinations helps to hold your borders together and keep them full of colour and interest all through summer. Blue goes from everything from pale lilac to a dark purple that is almost black and yellow goes from cream to tawny, something like Dahlia ‘David Howard’ flowering later in the year.

You can find yourself with almost too much choice so go for three colours plus white and of course green. Think about flower shape as well as colour. The gorgeous clumps of yellow daisy-like flowers on Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’ will make a very different display to Phlox paniculata ‘Mount Fuji’ with its tall stems of star-shaped white flowers. Likewise the round heads of Allium hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation are very different to  Lobelia cardinalis ‘Queen Victoria with its dark purple foliage and bright red flowers.

Consulting your plant books is a good idea and the internet is always useful. The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) have a useful website where you can search for a plant and get information on when it blooms, how tall it will get and what conditions it likes.

It takes a bit of effort but it is worth considering all these things as you can plan a beautiful display which will misfire if you don’t time things correctly. I once had a brilliant idea to plant black and white tulips at home. I picked ‘Queen of the Night’ and ‘White Triumphator’. I found out why the usual suggestion is to plant ‘Queen of the Night’ with ‘Maureen’ as they are both single late tulips. ‘White Triumphator’ is a lily flowered tulip and flowers later. It was a lesson well learnt to do my homework.

So I hope that has given you a flavour of what is around. If you fancy a bit of inspiration, the borders here are really starting to fire up. I’m now inspired to get to the plant centre to see what might fill the gaps in my own garden: happy days.

Tricia Harris June 2018



May 2018 – Laburnums

Helmsley Walled Garden Laburnum and AlliumsWell the sun has finally come out after a very long holiday and we are all pleased to see it here at the Garden. Everything has been so behind but is now thankfully starting to catch up. It always does in the end.

One of the highlights of May for me is the flowering of our Laburnum Arch. Now it’s fair to say it’s not as grand or as long as the famous archway at Bodnant in Wales but it is pretty special. Sometimes I stand underneath when it’s in bloom and the only thing I can hear is the buzzing of myriads of bees as they collect nectar and pollen. It is beautiful in full flower, but it does take some dedicated work to keep it looking fabulous.

One of the jobs you never see being done because it’s done in January or February when we are shut is the pruning and shaping of the trees over the archway. This was done this year by our Head Gardener Lisa who stood up a ladder with a saw and loppers for hours at a time in freezing winds to shape the trees and tie in all the new branches. It’s a cold job so we thawed her out regularly with hot drinks and biscuits and telling her it will look brilliant in May.

Apparently, the smooth green wood was once used in cabinet making and inlaying and also in musical instruments. Recorders, flutes and bagpipes were made from the wood in the past although cheaper hardwoods have now taken over sadly.

Anyway, I’d like to see more of these beautiful trees around so if you fancy having a go at growing a Laburnum or maybe even training it over an archway, here’s a few tips.

A fully grown Laburnum can reach up to 7m (22ft) with a spread of around 6m (19ft) taking about fifteen years to get there.  It’s not a long-lived tree, the average life span being around 30-40 years. It flowers in late May or early June and will grow well in almost any soil but doesn’t like being waterlogged. Extremely hardy, it’ll cope with temperatures down to -20c. in 2010, the temperature here in 2010 was a minimum of -10c overnight for a month and the trees didn’t even blink. Happiest in full sun it will tolerate partial shade.

Perhaps best of all they are very independent trees and require no special looking after unless of course you are training them over an arch. Once established they don’t need feeding and would only need watering in a serious and prolonged drought.

The three most popular varieties grown are Laburnum anagyroides, Laburnum alpinum and L. x watereri ‘Vossii’. You’ll find these at any reputable nursery. A rule of thumb is the smaller the tree, the more easily it will establish, and it will be cheaper. So, splash out on some beautiful colour for your garden this year, It will make you smile and the bees will love you.

Tricia Harris May 2018

April 2018 – Working in the Physic Garden

Helmsley Walled Garden Physic GardenWell hasn’t the weather been putting a crimp in our gardening year? Here the ground has either been under snow, frozen solid or waterlogged and it has at times been impossible to do any work in the Garden. Still, there has been plenty to do with chitting potatoes, seed sowing and pricking out and potting on.

Now we have had some nice days and so everyone has been out weeding and hoeing and raking and getting the Garden prepared for the season ahead. I have been in the Physic Garden, our tribute to plants with medicinal purposes featuring plants used by medieval herbalists.

The winter has left it looking somewhat bedraggled so I’ve been cutting back and weeding and generally tidying. It got me thinking as it often does how people worked out which plants could help with which conditions. I can only shudder to think how herbalists worked out that rhubarb was edible but the leaves were poisonous. But then one had more leeway in a world where people felt that everything that happened was God’s will including whether you lived or died.

But herbalists such as the twelfth century abbess Hildegard of Bingen who wrote several works on herbal medicine were often right and some of the remedies she and others used are still in use today.

For example, a tea made from powdered cowslip root was prescribed by Hildegard as a cure for colds and depression. Whilst we would not use it as a first port of call for depression, research has shown that cowslip tea is helpful in alleviating a persistent cough. You’ll find cowslips in the coughs and colds bed of the Physic Garden.

Lavender is another herb used in medieval times: to scent linen, keep moths from woollens, relieve the symptoms of colds and aid insomnia, all ways in which we still use lavender today.

The flowers of the cornflower, once familiar on the edges of every field would be made into a decoction to use as an eyewash and parsley was used as both a tonic and as a remedy for rheumatic pains. Angelica would have been used to aid digestion and mint as an inhalant for heavy colds and in an infusion for digestive problems, uses we would still find familiar today.

I find reading through the old herbals absolutely fascinating and researching for this article I’ve found another book by Hildegard I didn’t know about. So I’ll be ordering that to add to my collection of herbals. I’m not a herbalist by any stretch of the imagination but I find it fascinating and looking after the Physic Garden a real joy.

So come and enjoy the fruits of my labours and see how many plants you recognise in the Physic Garden. Not all of them would be recommended in modern medicine but you may be surprised at just how many are things we all grow in our gardens. Until next time, I’m off to plant some rosemary and sage, happy days.

Tricia Harris April 2018

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