May 2020 at York Gate
Another month of lockdown passes, and the garden continues growing blissfully unaware…
May is without a doubt my favourite month of the year. Suddenly the trees are in full leaf again and the skeletons of winter long gone. Growth in the garden is vigorous, changing day by day, with treats emerging to satisfy our horticultural cravings.
It is hard to pinpoint my favourite plants this month as there are just so many. A new rare treat, grown by Jack’s fair hand is certainly challenging for first prize; Meconopsis horridula. Now this really is a sexy little plant. We’ve had mixed success with it as the slugs are quick to attack when it emerges, but this one in the paved garden has made it through. Standing at the towering height of 15cm, this dwarf blue poppy grows in the wild at between 3000-6000m from Western Nepal, through the Himalaya to Western China. It truly is a beautiful little plant. Meconopsis baileyi is also strutting its stuff down in the dell.
The carpet path is looking radiant, with the bright tulip ‘Doll’s minuet’, Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’ and Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ making a real impact in May. I’ve been working on the complexity of this border since I started at York Gate nearly 3 years ago. It is the focal point of the garden and needs to look spot on right through the year; this means plants must work really hard for their place. The backbone of the planting is perennials and then further layers of bulbs, annual and tender perennials keep the display looking good through to the first frosts. The border will naturally ebb and flow with seasonal peaks so careful plant selection is needed.
I have been particularly happy that Smyrnium perfoliatum has started to perform, self-seeding in the low end of the border. I added elegant white Narcissus ‘Thalia’ to compliment the acid-green of the Smrynium and Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae. It has worked a treat. Failures must be accounted for in this process of horticulture experimentation and only mistakes will lead to better design. I added the knock-out Lupinus ‘Masterpiece’ last year, which has all but faded out, so I may consider using it a seasonal layer, removing it as soon as it has flowered and replacing it with a Salvia or Dahlia? One to ponder. Having bedding pockets within your borders is a good way of extending the interest. I’ll touch more on this next month.
Down in the meadow things are happening. The vast swathes of pignut (Conopodium majus) are majestic and the yellow rattle that we have added a few years ago has gone ballistic.
The slow and patient process of developing this beautiful meadow is something I want to leave with York Gate far beyond my tenure. Careful management to lower the fertility and develop plant communities in meadow gives me a real buzz. Even in the space of a few years we have seen the natural seed bank in the soil start to show itself. The paths mown through the meadow break it up into different plant communities, with grass vigour playing a major role in this. The area with the greatest diversity in species has the lower growing and least vigour grasses. By splitting the meadow into different areas using the paths, we can manage each area in a different way.
And one last treat…a beautiful evening last week looking back towards the house. Primula pulverulenta and Persicaria bistorta ‘superba’ on the ponds edge while the house basks in the late sunshine.
I hope you are all enjoying your gardens as much as me.
Ben Preston, Head Gardener.
April 2020 at York Gate
A strange but uplifting time…
We have emerged from one of the wettest winters on record into a truly glorious spring. The weather over the last few weeks has been nothing short of energising. Bulbs emerging, buds popping, and any thought of the cold winter days banished for another year. Many plants have caught my eye this week but the carpet of pale lavender anemones (Anemone nemorosa ‘Robinsoniana’) brought an instant smile to my face. I stumbled upon a lesser-spotted Mark Jackson rearing his head for amongst their beauty, glasses balanced on brow and camera in hand. Maintaining social distancing, I captured the rare creature in his natural habitat.
The garden was meant to reopen on the 1st April but, for obvious reasons, we will be closed until further notice, let us not dwell on the negatives. We are a nation of gardeners, pulling together; chatting to our neighbours over the hedge, painting previously unloved fences and waging war against the weeds (they won’t know where to hide, this summer)! For many of you in isolation, I feel the best tonic is to garden on and make the most of it.
The new project has been taking shape through the winter; HACS our contractor, led by foreman David Lusher has coped remarkably well with the relentless rain and our lovely free-draining sandy loam has come into its own. The workmanship is sublime and the detailing and vision by Alistair Baldwin and his team have encapsulated the very essence and spirit of York Gate. I am very proud to be part of this project, future-proofing the Spencer family’s legacy, and cannot wait to share it with you all. The hard landscaping at the front of the property is nearly complete. This will become the new sunken garden, with a Mediterranean garden on the South-facing aspect and Woodland walk on the North. The planting will be undertaken in the autumn when the soil has settled, and any pernicious weeds have been eradicated. I will share more of the planting details over the coming months. Exciting times ahead.
Back over in the one-acre gem, the garden is beginning to flourish once again. Almost overnight, the garden has sprung into life. The flush of fresh new foliage, early flowering perennials and dainty spring bulbs always gets my blood flowing a little faster. My personal favourite, that I share with Sybil who planted them back in the 70’s, Tulipa praestans ‘Fusilier’ lines the nut walk, pushing up through the leaves of faded snowdrops. They possess an intense glow, highlighted further by evening light and are truly perennial, coming back year after year. We have added several new species of tulips and their cultivars over the last few years. Many of them will come into bloom a good few weeks before their Dutch cousins and have a more refined and delicate complexion.
Mark has been working hard potting on and propagating many thousands of plants for the new plant sales centre that will be launched when we open the gates again. He has also been working hard in the Orchard garden, adding new layers and personal touches. He has a particular love for Epimedium and other woodland treasures.
Andy, our trainee, who has an insatiable appetite for knowledge and plant geekery, has become a invaluable member of the team. He has been working on re-establishing the old cut flower border over in the kitchen garden. I have given him free rein. A lime green extravaganza has been promised. Keep your eyes peeled. Andy also planted our Allium trial in the autumn, to compare the many different cultivars now available. The foliage has emerged and it’s fascinating to see the diversity of leaf textures, shapes and glaucous tones. It will be exciting to see them side by side when they burst into flower.
Our resident plant wizard and garden clown is still working his horticulture magic. Jack, the only man who dares to go, rogue; regularly testing my eyes with epiphytes tucked into trees, terrestrial orchids hidden in walls and god knows what else. His main project through the winter has been dismantling Sybil’s garden and transforming it into an exotic oasis. I can’t wait to see the collection of bananas and tree ferns casting shadows for his unusual collection of aroids later in the year. As you can probably tell by now, I’m already overexcited by spring and the coming months of gardening, but a very important message is hanging heavy.
The work we do at Perennial has never been more important. Many people in horticulture and their families are suffering the fierce impacts of the Covid-19. Our work to provide support to everyone affected is ongoing. If you know anyone in need of our support, please pass on this message.
Stay safe, stay home and, of course, Happy Gardening!
Ben Preston, Head Gardener
Update from the Head Gardener….
As another wonderful year at York Gate comes to an end, we move into 2020 with more exciting plans than ever. We said goodbye to Matilya and Becky, our two gardening trainees, who have left to pursue the next stage in their careers. We welcome two new members to the garden team. Mark Jackson has taken on the role of Nursery Manager, overseeing the new plant centre and joining us in the garden. Previously Head Gardener at Newby Hall and my mentor for many years, he brings a wealth of experience and knowledge with him. Mark has hit the ground running propagating and ordering new plants that will appear in both the garden and nursery next year.
Andy Jackson, no relation to Mark but equally green fingered started in September on our two-year garden traineeship. His healthy obsession for ferns and alpines will no doubt creep into the garden so keep and eye open for some interesting new additions. He has already got his first project underway opposite the Kitchen Garden. The old cut flower border has been reinstated and will feature an Allium trial, comparing many species and cultivars for garden worthiness and longevity, these will be interwoven with a mixture of annual cut flowers that will make there way into vases in the new café.
After an incredibly wet autumn we have finally finished getting all the spring bulbs in the ground and nearly finished clipping the hedges back to their neat winter bones. The snowdrops are already starting to push their noses up and all but the last leaves have fallen.
Jack has been working his magic in Sybil’s garden. The lawn is no longer and a rather magnificent display of hardy exotics of will greeting you next year. The family of late plantsman Don Vickers have generously bequeathed a rare collection of plants from a hidden jungle on the edge of Leeds. I’m sure those of you that knew Don will recognise some of his statement plants and a fitting reminder of his extraordinary jungle oasis.
I have been working with Landscape Architect Alistair Baldwin and his team, creating the new gardens and entrance that will welcome you to York Gate. Our new carpark, café and plant centre along with many new garden rooms will surround the Spencer’s one-acre gem, protecting it for future generations. We have a longer winter ahead, but we can’t wait to welcome you back in the Spring.
July 2019 at York Gate
As we head into mid-summer the golden flush of new foliage on the yew topiary and hedges softens the sharp formal edges of spring and lets the summer perennials take charge. Over in the herb garden our ever-increasing collection of tender Salvia have been planted out to fill the gaps. My personal favourite Salvia curviflora is just coming into bloom and will continue right through to the first frosts. A stunning deep pink that contrasts with its dark green foliage on stems up to 1.5m, a must have if you’re fond of new world Salvia.
We are always looking to extend the season of interest in every part of the garden and believe it is especially important in a garden of this size. The Dell is full of colour in spring and early summer then moves quietly into green textures over the summer months. The exquisite unfurling crosiers and giant arching fronds of the Dicksonia Antarctica added last year tickled our Kiwi taste bud, so we have added some more architectural New Zealand species. Psuedopanax crassifolium and Psuedopanax ‘Moa’s toes’ look rather Jurassic with their unusual evergreen foliage on tall narrow stems.
We have threaded a number of annuals through the borders this year to bridge the ‘June gap’. After the spring flowers have bloomed and we wait for the summer stalwarts to take a hold, gardens can be left with a brief lull. Interesting purple opium poppies, Papaver ‘Lauren’s Grape’ and ‘Black Peony’ have proved popular amongst visitors. A little pet hate of mine is people snapping off the seed pods. But I do take pleasure in telling red handed individuals that they have been a little premature in their thievery as the seed won’t ripen. Cornflowers have also added an extra layer in and around the kitchen garden. Centaurea ‘Blue Boy and ‘Black Ball’ underplanted with the zingy orange Calendula ‘Indian Prince’ will flower all summer long.
It really is a dream job working here at York Gate, every week we are reminded of the passion that the Spencer’s poured into this magical garden. I met the most wonderful lady today, secretary to Robin back in the early 1970s. She shared fond memories of the kindness Robin had showed her and his obsession with the garden. Mrs Carter delved into her bag and pulled out a polaroid from her wedding day, Robin perched proudly on the church steps with her family and friends. She was overcome with emotion that the garden still flourishes, and the legacy of Robin and his parents lives on.
Head Gardener, Ben Preston
June 2019 at York Gate
We made a number of changes to the Carpet Path border in the winter, adding a new layer of early summer perennials and annuals to support our mid-summer stalwarts Astrantia ‘Gill Richardson group’ and Eryngium ‘Jos Eijiking. The bold Lupinus ‘Masterpiece’, early flowering Salvia ‘Viola Klose’ continue the purple and blue theme. As the border came into full flower at the start of the month, I felt we were just missing a little something. A loyal volunteer and member of the local hardy plant society, Judith Ladley, suggested the border needed a little orange to contrast with the purples. We have since threaded the long flowering Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’ through the border that has given that extra zing. So, thanks you Judith.
The successful renovation of the pond last year has allowed us to work on yet more new planting schemes. Willow leafed blue star,
Achillea ‘Terracotta’ along with swathes of Primula pulverulenta are now growing around the water’s edge, while the giant Hosta ‘Empress Wu’ is growing by the day at the top of the miniature waterfall. We will continue to add new species to extend the growing season.
The Spencer family started laying down the foundations of York Gate Garden back in 1951. Now in its 68th year, the structure and back bone of their designs are coming to fruition. The trees are reaching maturity and the hedges are thick and tightly clipped, dividing the garden into the many different garden rooms. As custodians of the garden, our aim is to protect the Spencer legacy and carry the garden forward, gardening with their same principles and philosophies. The garden will continue to evolve but we must protect the spirit of York Gate. Jack and I have taken great pleasure in looking through Sybil’s old plant records; it has been reassuring that many of our plant choices appear in these lists. We will continue to add new and interesting species and cultivars, so the garden keeps evolving while protecting the Spencer’s Legacy.
The meadow is looking quite wonderful this month, the dense swathes of pignut (Conopodium majus) are quite breathtaking, the carpets of white froth ripple down the meadow towards the woods beyond. The density of the pignut is quite unique and provides the perfect habitat for the small and beautiful
Chimney Sweeper (Odezia atrata). A small dark brown day-flying moth with a white tip to the apex of their wings. The yellow rattle sown last autumn to stunt the vigorous grass species is also growing well, which will in time help more wildflower species to thrive. It will take a number of years to establish large communities of wildflowers but by gradually reducing the fertility in the soil and slowly introducing new species, we can create a hay meadow that will stand the test of time just like the wonderful garden the Spencer family created.
Head Gardener, Ben Preston
March 2019 at York Gate
With Spring and the first day of the open season fast approaching we’re busy getting ready to welcome visitors back to the garden. Paths are getting re-gravelled, sprawling ivy tamed and perennial seed heads left for winter structure cut down before the new foliage emerges.
‘Behind the scenes’ the potting shed is a hive of activity. Annual seeds being sown, cuttings of tender perennials struck, and seedlings pricked out. I really hope Sybil would approve of the work we continue to do as the garden evolves. Her tiny potting shed at the head of the carpet path is such a special and intimate space. I think of the many hours she spent potting on and making plans for the garden. It also reminds me of my first day at York Gate, looking through the port hole window with awe at the magic and intricacy of the garden that now consumes my life.
Layers of bulbs are erupting from the borders, shrubs budding and ferns unfurling, teasing of the delights ahead. Chaenomeles x superba ‘Crimson and gold’ is glowing deep red on the front of the house, flowering over a month earlier than last year.
The crocus and snowdrops provided a spectacular display but faded quickly with the warm weather in late February, showing us how different each year can be. Only 12 months ago we were battening down the hatches for the ‘beast from the east’.
Our annual delivery of bean poles and hazel sticks have arrived courtesy of Leeds Coppice Workers. They are a wonderful co-operative that have committed to restoring and managing neglected woodlands for the local councils and wildlife trusts. Traditional hazel coppicing and woodland management has fallen by the wayside in recent years, but this is certainly a step back in the right direction. The co-operative manages the woodlands for free and make a living by selling bean poles, pea sticks and charcoal that are by-products of their work.
The bean poles and pea sticks will be used for plant supports throughout the garden and not only are we supporting local sustainable business, but the rustic hazel looks far better than bamboo that has become an unnecessary staple in our gardens. We’ll be selling bundles at York Gate from the 1 April in the nursery. Get in touch with your local wildlife trusts to see if there are similar initiatives in your area.
We’ve also had the pleasure of Gardeners’ World filming with Adam Frost looking at the wonderful structure and backbone of the design at York Gate. It will be aired on the second programme of the series, Friday 15th March
A very exciting and busy gardening month ahead.
Ben Preston, Head Gardener
February 2019 at York Gate
I am a little late catching up on my writing this month. The clear skies and frosty mornings didn’t last long, we are amid a rather scorching February. The highest ever overnight temperature in February was recorded in Scotland just a few nights ago, a balmy 14c. As Englishmen, we have a disposition for complaining about the weather, but I find it all rather fascinating. Every year and season we find ourselves with new challenges and ever-changing weather systems. We must think forward to a changing climate and garden accordingly; drought tolerant planting is going to be the key to gardening success in the coming years.
The beginning of snowdrop week has been a huge success, the dry weather has meant we have been able to keep on top of the garden and have it looking it’s very best for the visitors. Although the snowdrops have stolen the show there are many other treats that have impressed. The chocolatey frothy foliage of the emerging Corydalis temulifolia ‘Chocolate Stars’ has been my personal favourite. The foliage begins to flush in December and by April it will fade to lime green and produce an abundance of purple flowers.
Sybil Spencer planted York Gate’s favourite snowdrop, G. ‘Samuel Arnott’ back in 1962. She bought 3 bulbs at 3 shillings and 6 pence each, a fair sum back
then. Now the garden is filled with thousands of the muscular little cultivar, it is taller than its species counterpart with a much larger showy flower. Its ability to bulk up quickly makes it a worthy stalwart to any garden.
We have had the first of our ‘York Gate evening lectures’ from my good friend Anne Wright, specialist snowdrop and miniature daffodil breeder. ‘How to make the most of your snowdrops’ gave us an insight into breeding and selecting new cultivars. And how to use combinations of hellebores, Crocus, Eranthis, Euphorbia amygdaloides purpurea and the scenesing foliage of Epimedium to support your snowdrop displays.
The hanging installations of snowdrop ‘Kokedama’ moss balls have been a hit. An intriguing concept of the Japanese Art form, suspending plants in neat balls of moss. We’ve hung them from the winter skeleton of our Magnolia × soulangeana ‘lennei’, another bit of gardening fun to keep us entertained.
The wood anemones have even started flowering today, enjoy the warm weather.
Ben Preston, Head Gardener
Jack continues to bring new, weird and wonderful plants to the garden and in late December, a rather odd climbing onion joined our succulent collection. Bowiea volubilis, native to southern Africa, he assures me the grapefruit size bulb will only get a little bigger. Another little treat that makes York Gate forever quirky and interesting.
The last of our seed orders for the vegetable garden and summer annuals have been ordered this week, get yours in if you haven’t already. Let’s hope for another fantastic year of gardening.
Ben Preston, Head Gardener
November 2018 at York Gate
As we head towards the shortest day of the year the autumn colour is still providing golden russet tones while we busily prepare for our winter opening in December. This is the month of spring bulb planting here at York Gate. I love trawling through the bulb catalogues on mid-summer’s evenings trying to decide how I’m going to combine my old favourites with new and exciting introductions. We are going bold and hot this year, combining dark rich wallflowers with fiery tulips, delicate daffs and carpets of grape hyacinths.
In order to prepare for bulb planting the herbaceous borders are being cut back, cleared and weeded, with special attention to leave self-sown annuals and biennials that will add more interest to next year’s blooms. Honesty and Foxgloves are two of my cottage garden favourites that self-seed freely, giving late-spring and early summer colour. In the White garden we leave the tall seed heads of the grasses Calamagrostis ‘Avalanche’ and Miscanthus sinensis ‘Silberfeder’ to give structure architectural frosty structures through the winter months.
We’ve already had a couple of hard frosts that have finally ended the floral wonder of the Dahlias and tender Salvias. Once the Dahlia foliage blackens it’s time to get them lifted and stored for winter. We knock off the majority of the soil, let them dry for a fortnight before storing them in a mix of dry compost and vermiculite. They will spend the winter hidden away under the potting shed bench until next year.
I hope you’ve all got your tulip and other spring bulb orders done. Enjoy the last of the summer evenings and happy gardening.
Ben Preston, Head Gardener
July 2018 at York Gate
Thankfully the reservoirs are still at good levels here in Yorkshire, so the watering continues. We’re managing to keep our lawns lush and green, the only blemish is ‘the mole M1’ running through the Orchard garden.
We have begun the hedge cutting marathon, starting in the white garden. The beech is first on the list, which we will work our way through in August and move on to the yew later in the year. The Spencer’s began planting hedging in 1953, starting with 399 beech trees around the boundary of the garden and many more planted since. They provide the back bone to the garden and enclose each garden room.
We saw our first bit of rain for months just a couple of days ago, finishing off what’s been our busiest month ever here at York Gate. Even though we water regularly nothing can replace the vibrant flush after a good downpour. I was lucky enough to catch this lovely view of a rainbow, showing off the golden yew buns in the driveway.
Ben Preston, Head Gardener
June 2018 at York Gate
It’s a very fine balance to create a kitchen garden that is both highly productive and aesthetically pleasing. We have used the tall and hot red of Tagetes ‘Burning Embers’ around the periphery and the dwarf Tagetes ‘Tangerine Gem’ around the paths. The frothy white umbels of bolting coriander has added an unplanned extra too. Sweet peas grown up the hazel poles at the back of the plot have been flowering for weeks already, adding colour both where they flower and in vases in the house. We’ve trialled the new sweet pea cultivar ‘Together’ this year that is a cross between Matucana, the wonderfully scent old favourite, and a long stemmed showy Spencer variety. We’ll give you the verdict later in the summer.
Ben Preston, Head Gardener
May 2018 at York Gate
The heavy rainfall in early spring followed by the wall to wall sunshine in May has done nothing but wonders for the garden. Everything is flourishing and running rampant. The spring bulbs are now finished and we’re heading into full summer mode. Tender perennials, annuals and summer flowering bulbs have been planted out to fill gaps between permanent planting.
Alliums are the show stoppers this month; Allium ‘Mount Everest’ dominates the White Garden, the purple explosions of Allium Schubertii in the Paved Garden and everyone’s favourite Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ is stealing the show along the carpet path.
Jack’s also been busy adding some more unusual Aroids throughout the garden. The bold foliage of Arisaema provide interesting textures and contrasts in shady pockets in and around the pinetum. Martagon lilies throughout the dell will also be looking their best this month, you may even find other displays of colourful lilies lurking in hidden pockets in quiet areas of the garden.
We’ve added a new interesting succulent display to the paved garden that gives you an example of how small spaces in the garden can be used for something a little more unusual than summer bedding. Playing around with plants and trying new ideas is all part of York Gate ethos and we welcome your comments and opinions on our new displays. The striking rosettes of Aeoniums underplanted with House leeks and Echeveria beneath the Windmill Palm along with Aloes and other succulents in stone planters add a Mediterranean feel. See what you think.
Ben Preston, Head Gardener
April 2018 at York Gate
After a slow and wet start to the season plants are bursting into flower. The tulip displays will be at their best this month, with a variety of colour and schemes complimenting the different garden rooms, accompanied by grape hyacinths, daffodils and many other spring treats. We have underplanted the main tulip displays with forget-me-not, a wonderful spring favourite that will show off its dainty blue flowers for weeks on end.
Down in the dell there are carpets of anemones alongside the bright yellow flowers the skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus) and Himalayan blue poppies. The wet spring has help many of the plants get off to a good start on our free draining soil and the stream that often runs dry at this time of year is still providing a sense of tranquillity.
We have undertaken two major projects this winter, restoration of the pond in the Orchard garden and re-lining the canal. The pond now benefits from a lovely miniature waterfall and will no longer lose its water level in the summer months, providing a beautiful reflective backdrop to the summer perennials. We have also welcomed two new resident mallards to the garden that seem to have taken a liking to the upgraded water features.
Restoration work has begun on the architectural espaliered Pyracanth on the end of the house, it has been suffering from leaf minor in recent years and we’ve made the decision to undertake some restorative pruning to improve the health and aesthetic of the plant. So don’t be alarmed when you see the hard pruning that has been undertaken, they respond well to hard pruning in spring.
We would like to invite you to see the new wild flower meadow project that is now underway, we have opened the gates in the white garden to the paddocks beyond. We have put together a plan to plant a mixture of spring flowering bulbs this autumn including crocus, snakes head fritillary and wild daffodils. Over the next few years we will introduce native summer flowering perennials, keep your eye on this space and most of enjoy!
Ben Preston, Head Gardener