Keeping up with the Cragside gardening team

Two gardeners planting the summer bedding

Looking after the Formal Gardens is an all-year-round job, and Gardener Holly Darby is using this space to share with you the work that the team get up to. She'll be talking about how the gardens change over the seasons and keep you up to date with the jobs that are keeping the team busy as they move through the year.

December 2017

We are often asked ‘What do you do in the winter? Surely there isn't anything happening in the garden?’ To which our reply quite often comes as a surprise when we tell people that there is always something to do.

The garden is dormant during the winter months and it might look like there is not a lot happening outdoors but I can guarantee there is plenty to keep us busy out in the garden and behind the scenes.

For example, so far this month we have tidied more of the flower beds, mulched the herbaceous border with farmyard manure, cut back the roses, cleared areas of leggy heather from the rock garden, continued to grow tender plants in the glasshouse, tidied the sheds and have had a good old sort out to name but a few of the tasks we have carried out.
And the list will go on. It always does, but it is satisfying when each job is done and we make our way onto the next one.

However, it is Christmas, so we will all take a few days off over the festive period to put our feet up, eat too many chocolates and enjoy a few well-earned days off with our loved ones.

Gardener Holly is mulching the herbaceous border
A gardener drives a small vehicle alongside the herbaceous border

November 2017

This month it has been all about the thousands of bulbs and hundreds of spring bedding plants. All of the beds are now planted up with either tulips or daffodils as the main display with an edge or covering of Bellis daisies, Forget-me-not, wallflowers or primulas.
We have also planted up a fair few pots, again with either tulips or daffodils and topped off with some colourful bedding plants.

A lot of our herbaceous planting has been cut down, although, there is some more to go. We are still collecting leaves and putting them into a leaf mould bay. When they have decomposed in the next year or so, we will use this as a mulch on the beds throughout the year.

We have had several frosts now and we have even had our first snow of the winter. It was only a few centimetres, but was pretty while it lasted!

Our first wreath making class was enjoyed by those who came along and took home their lovely hand-crafted wreath. I must remember to make mine too. I love the satisfaction of making something yourself.

The garden experienced its first snow of winter
The formal garden with a light layer of snow

October 2017

Early October saw the continuation of the colourful displays of plants, but as the month has drawn on and the days are getting colder and shorter, these have quite rapidly faded over the last couple of weeks. This has been helped along by the first frost the season.

A lot of us like to watch the weather daily but, for us gardeners, we tend to check the weather several times a day, particularly at this time of year when the chance of frost is increasing. It’s a daily decision to decide if now is the time to bring in our most tender of plants into the protection of a glasshouse, or do we leave them outdoors and fleece them to keep the frost off and allow them to stay out a little longer?

So, one of our more important tasks this month is to prepare our glasshouses for the winter. As you may have read in previous posts, we use a propagation glasshouse which is used to keep our most tender plants, for example some of our impatiens, and also our establishing cuttings warm.

We also use a small glasshouse which we keep heated to between 5 and 8 degrees Celsius. This is used for our tender plants, which need some protection from the cold but don’t necessarily need a lot of warmth, such as salvias, fuchsias and pelargoniums. To prepare this glasshouse ready for winter, we give it a good clean and then a spray with a horticultural disinfectant. We then line the walls with thick bubble-wrap to provide insulation. The roof is kept clear to allow as much winter sunshine in as possible. An electric fan with a thermostat is used to keep the temperature right, generally from late afternoon to late morning. If we are lucky and the outside temperatures allow, we will open the doors to allow the fresh air to blow through. If it's too cold to open the doors we can use the fan to provide an air flow.

We keep quite a few stock plants of our tender perennials too. These are kept in the cooler of the two glasshouses and are kept on the dry side. This prevents rotting and the plants dying off.

Our volunteers have been starting to cut back any of the herbaceous plants which have now died off and collecting the fallen tree leaves – of which there are many!

Autumn colour in the garden in early October
Autumn colour in the garden in early October

September 2017

September is the month in which Gardener Neil strims the meadow areas of grassland. These include the Pinetum, autumn colour walk, and the verges along the drive up to the Formal Garden car park. This is an annual job and does require help from ourselves and volunteers.  After the grass has been cut, it is raked up and then taken away to be composted. We have to remove the cut grass from the meadows to ensure that the ground is left in an impoverished state. This allows the slower growing wild flowers a chance to thrive. There has also been a lot of cake consumed too – it's hard work!

In the Formal Garden I’ve been busy taking cuttings from our tender perennial collection. Numbers of each variety vary, depending on how many of each type are required for next year's design. The rooted cuttings will grow over the winter in a warm greenhouse (about 12 degrees celsius), and from February next year I will take cuttings from these plants so that by April/May we will have all of the required plants again to fill the borders.

As I mentioned in the August post, the signs of autumn are well under way. One of the main changes we see here in the garden are the swallows starting to congregate together. About mid-month they left us again for another migratory trip south to warmer climes. It's quiet once they go – they are real chatterboxes! Once they have left it's a sure sign that autumn is here once again.

The Formal Garden is still looking really colourful. This is something which surprises a lot of our visitors. They love that we still have a lot to see. And when I see visitors sitting on the benches on the top terrace, amongst the colourful pots and the backdrop of dahlias, looking out over the garden towards the Simonside Hills, that’s one of the many reasons I love what I do.

There are still bold and bright colours to see in the Formal Garden in September
Early autumn colour in the Formal Garden

August 2017

It doesn’t seem five minutes since I was pricking out the summer bedding and now, here we are, pricking out the seedlings ready for spring! This year we have polyanthus, Forget-Me-Not, pansies, violas, bellis daisies, wallflowers and cineraria. Along with our daffodil and tulip bulbs, our spring displays will provide a fabulous show of early colour in 2018.

Our summer bedding displays are looking really good right now. My favourite shot of the garden at the moment has to be standing on the top lawn looking up over the Carpet Beds towards the Clock Tower. The Carpet Beds are bold and colourful, the pots of argyranthemum, lobelia and fuchsia soften the view which allow the vibrant colours of the dahlias to really stand out behind them. Personally, I think that the garden really does shine in late August and September with the vibrant displays still on show.

However, in the latter part of August we have noticed the early signs of autumn, the nights have been a little cooler and there is a dew on the grass in the morning too. One or two of the plants seem to have either finished slightly earlier than I expected and a couple have come into flower slightly earlier than last year too.

I do love the summer months here in the garden (who doesn't?) but I am also looking forward to the autumn colours.

Dahlias stand out behind the carpet bedding
The carpet bedding and late summer colour in the Formal Garden

July 2017

July has been a bit of a catch-up month. A lot of the smaller jobs which we didn’t get around to completing in June have now been caught up with. I have also sown the seeds of our spring bedding plants and they will be ready to prick out in August. Weeding, cutting back the spent plants and dead heading are the day to day jobs keeping us busy.

It's important to spend a little time every day dead heading your flowers. Not only does it keep the displays looking colorful and neat, the biggest benefit of removing these dead flowers is to encourage the plants to produce even more!

The sole purpose of a plant is to flower and then seed so it can reproduce and survive. As a gardener, we can use nature's ways to our benefit. By removing the spent flowers we are redirecting the plants energy from producing seeds into encouraging them to produce more flowers instead.

A job that will only take a few minutes of your day will reward you with longer lasting colorful displays.

Dead heading will keep flower displays looking neat and tidy
Dead headed flowers next to a pair of clippers

June 2017

With the arrival of June and the continued sunny weather, we were full swing into the planting out of the summer bedding.

All the beds have been filled, the Carpet Bedding is in, pots have been planted up, and we are now looking to fill any gaps within the herbaceous borders with the few excess plants which we have.

It’ll take several weeks for the beds to fully fill out and they will continue to put on a show well up to the end of summer, and if the weather is kind, into the autumn too.
June has also seen the first broods of swallows fledge and they are a joy to watch as they initially leave the nest and become airborne. You have to watch out sometimes – their spatial awareness isn't that great! Usually our swallows will have two broods during their season here.

There are also a lot of birds in the garden with their babies as well – it can sometimes get quite noisy when they are calling on each other but lovely to listen to.

So as we head into July we'll be out in the garden working on the areas which haven't had quite as much attention as they deserve. And hopefully the weather will pick up again – it’s another wet, miserable morning as I sit here and type this.

The swallows are starting to fledge
Three swallows perch on a door frame in the Formal Garden

May 2017

May has been and gone in the blink of an eye this year, or so it feels.

The whole month has been dedicated to potting up the last of the cuttings, pricking out the remaining seedlings and potting on plants from 3 inch pots to 5 inch pots. This allows the plants a chance to establish themselves for when June arrives and we start to bed out the borders. We have approximately 30,000 plants in total this year.

The heating in the greenhouses has now been turned off which helps the plants to slowly harden off in readiness to plant out. This process helps the plants gently acclimatise to the outdoor temperatures and it’s not too much of a shock for them when they do get planted outside. They don’t like a sudden change in temperature – just like us! By the end of May the greenhouse doors and vents are wide open day and night.

We also start to take out the spring bedding plants and add in a fish, blood and bone feed to the borders in preparation for the summer bedding.

The last of the cuttings have been potted up and will be ready to be planted in June
Plants in the greenhouse getting ready to be planted

April 2017

At the beginning of April we sow the seeds for this year’s upcoming summer bedding displays, as well as continuing with the cuttings of our tender perennial plants.

This year we have bright and bold colours in the Formal Garden, ranging from purple ageratum through to scarlet zinnias and everything in between!  All of our summer bedding plants are grown on-site by ourselves, and it can be a daunting task when you stop and look at how much there is to do, but it’s definitely worth the effort when you see the amount of plants we can produce in-house.

All of the summer bedding plants are grown on-site at Cragside
Plant cuttings in the propagation house at Cragside

March 2017

Over the last couple of months Rock Gardener Neil and his volunteers have been spending some time stripping out the old heathers from areas around the Rock Garden. This has exposed some of the craggy areas of the sandstone rock and reveals the true essence of this area of the garden – the rocks themselves.
The remainder of the heather have had their annual clip. Neil prefers to use hand shears rather than a hedge trimmer as he finds he can create a better shape – generally mounds, which mimic the curves and contours of the rocks.
Over the next few months Neil will replant some of these areas with some dwarf rhododendron and a variety of new heathers.

Old heathers in the Rock Garden have been pruned to ensure the craggy rocks are the stars of the show
The pruned Rock Garden infront of the house

February 2017

One of the main jobs which have been keeping us busy in the Formal Garden is the pruning and mulching of our rose beds.  The 350 roses were a new addition to the garden three years ago and have been thriving as each year passes.  We prune the roses at the start of the year – to an outward facing large bud – which allows for strong, new growth and an ‘open’ habit which will allow airflow throughout the plant and helps reduce the risk of diseases such as blackspot. Once this has been completed we remove all fallen leaves and any weeds before a good old dose of well-rotted farmyard manure is added as a mulch. This not only helps to feed the roses, but it also suppresses weeds (hurrah!) and retains moisture in the ground reducing the need for watering. June and July are the best time of year to come and see them in full bloom. 
Roses were a major feature in Lord and Lady Armstrong’s Formal Garden and could be found in the border we now have as the Herbaceous Border. An article from The Newcastle Daily Journal dated 21st August 1884 refers to this – ‘The orchard house next attracts attention, and, in passing, one cannot but stop and gaze with admiration at the endless variety of superb roses growing on the terrace above the Italian garden.’ We took the decision to reintroduce the roses into the garden but instead of changing the Herbaceous Border we chose an underutilised grassy area at the eastern end of the Italian Terrace and made that into the rose garden that you see today.

Pruning the roses
A colourful array of roses in the Formal Garden

January 2017

After a quick Christmas break (and too many mince pies) it's straight back to work! Our first major job of the year is to cut the hedges in the Formal Garden. We keep this job for whilst the estate is closed because it's quite noisy and messy, and we don't want to cause any disruption to visitors. 
We have over 20 variegated holly columns and several large hedges which need to be cut, and it's these that help create the structure in the garden. They can get a bit lost during the year but once most of the plants have died back and been composted, the dark greens of the leaves and bright red berries of the hollies have their chance to shine. Once they've had their annual trim they look smart and tidy, and are ready to welcome you back for our reopening in February!

Trimming the hedges in the Formal Gardens
The gardening team trimming the hedges