Keeping up with the Cragside gardening team
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.
And here we are at the end of December already. Where does the time go?
As well as the general day to day tasks such as feeding the birds, checking on watering, weeding, collecting leaves, chatting to visitors and so on, we have had another productive month.
The weather has been relatively kind so far with only a couple of frosty/icy days and not too much rain. So, we have been able to get out into the garden and tackle a couple of ‘winter’ tasks (I don’t know about you but there seems to be an endless list that mounts up during the year).
I have been reducing the soil level around some of our holly plants. They have been planted for a good several years but seem to be growing very slowly. After a little investigation, it was discovered that they had been planted too deep and this can restrict their growth. The soil level has been lowered as where they are planted, we can’t lift them, and I’ve given them a good feed and then a layer of bark mulch has been added. Over the next year or two we should start to see an improvement.
One of our glass growing frames in the nursery has slowly been deteriorating and has got to a point that it has become unsafe to use. The decision was taken to remove it and this will be where we site our new propagation glasshouse. It took a team effort to dismantle it carefully – there was a lot of glass and rotten wood – to make way for the new one. Watch this space to see the new one be erected in the new year.
We, the garden team, headed out for the day to take part in a training session to learn about a new software system which will allow for a much easier and clearer way of documenting our plant collection. There were a few of our gardening colleagues from the region attending too and we had a great day catching up and helping each other get to grips with the system. Some of us are a little rusty when it comes to using the computer.
And then it was Christmas! Phew! We take it in turns to take some well-deserved time off and then it's all systems go when we get back to ‘normal’ in the New Year.
November is one of our busier months where we remove the now finished summer bedding and replace it with spring bedding and bulbs. It’s a huge task which can last all month and there were hugs all round when the last bulb was planted into the beds!
Our garden colleagues from Gibside came and helped us to strip the last two bedding borders and then replant with bulbs and bedding. It was wet and mucky but we got a lot done and had a great day.
Other tasks this month have included lifting and potting up plants which we will overwinter in the glasshouses. These include pelargoniums, tender perennials, dahlias and cannas. These are either cut back and potted up (pelargoniums and tender perennials) of dried off and stored dry over the winter (dahlias and cannas).
We have also been getting into the festive spirit by planting Narcissi ‘Paperwhite’ for displays in the house and the Orchard House. We have also collected many bags of fresh foliage for the house and the shop to decorate with including; green, silver variegated and golden variegated hollies, eucalyptus and ivy, firs and laurel. Combine this with the talents of our house and shop team and the displays look lovely.
Our main task this month has been to carry out turf repair work to the formal lawn in front of the Orchard House.
There has been a lot of compaction on areas of the lawn over recent years. It has been slowly deteriorating with a build-up of thatch and moss, so we took the opportunity to carry out these works.
After the art installations were removed, we hired in a turf lifter to cut the turf into manageable strips. It then took me and one of the garden volunteers a day and a half to cut, roll and move the turf rolls to be stacked in our compost area. This will decompose and turn into loam which we will then use in our compost mixes in a couple of years’ time. Head Gardener George then used a rotavator to loosen up the soil and finally a small tractor with tines to break up all the chunks of thatch.
The lawn was now ready to be raked, levelled and the topsoil added, so we took the opportunity of a working team day with National Trust garden colleagues from Wallington who came to help with this huge task. As the saying goes, many hands make light work and by the end of a productive day we had accomplished this task and erected a temporary fence and the seed was ready to be sown.
So by next summer the formal lawn will be lush and green with no moss in sight. It will be the perfect place to relax on a deckchair and enjoy the views once more.
September has been relatively kind to us this year. The summer bedding is still looking great and will continue to do so for another a month or so, unless the weather takes a turn for the worst. But here’s hoping it doesn’t. Some signs of autumn have crept in too; the trees are starting to turn and fungi can be found around the garden and wider estate.
However, there was one small glitch with the weather – Storm Ali. It wreaked havoc across the whole of the UK and here at Cragside we also succumbed to the power of those crazy winds. The Orchard House took a battering and unfortunately the gable end of the west wing came off. Thankfully, the conservation team was able to board it up to ensure it was secure once more.
Once a year the garden staff and volunteer team have a day trip out. It’s a great way to spend some time together away from the work setting and to visit other gardens or nurseries. It’s also a great opportunity to pick up new ideas and inspiration or finding a plant we would like to try here at Cragside. Our destination of choice can be from the smallest of places to one of the largest. As the saying goes… a busman’s holiday!
This year we decided to visit the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, and we weren’t disappointed.
We arrived mid morning and the first thing was a visit the tea rooms for refreshments. Well, a two hour journey is a long way!
One of the garden team gave us a tour of the gardens and it was so interesting. It’s amazing how much more you get to find out on a guided tour than having a look around somewhere by yourself. We were also treated to a behind the scenes look at their nursery and propagation glasshouses – out of bounds to visitors.
My absolute favorite part of the gardens is visiting the glasshouses. I could spend hours in there. There are so many different zones which are tailored to meet certain growing conditions for their plant collection from all over the world. I have two favorite zones though. The first being the Temperate Palm House at the entrance. The size of the palms is amazing – you must always look up! The second area has to be the Plants and People zone where you will find banana, rice and cocoa plants to name but a few. These are sited around a pond where the giant water lilys grow. They are huge and definitely have the wow factor when you enter that zone.
You know when you’ve been so busy, but can’t quite remember what it is that you have been doing? Well that is the first thing that came to mind when I sat down to write this months’ article. I’ve even had to get my diary out to check...
So, as it happens, July has been a month of completing lots of ‘little’ tasks. To name but a few of these I have been potting up summer bedding into pots to go out into the formal garden, potting on herbs, sowing spring bedding seeds, a team day working on the Rock Garden and painting stakes for the dahlias.
I have also had a couple of days away from work to allow me to learn new skills that will enhance my role here at Cragside. The first was to work at a local nursery where I have been learning about herb propagation and successional sowing plans. The second was a pretty lengthy drive down south to visit a commercial nursey that specialises in bedding plants. This was a great day out – not only to be inspired for ideas for future bedding displays and new plants to try out, but to meet up with colleagues and catch up with how everyone is getting on, particularly with this prolonged spell of hot dry weather. We all agreed it has been a testing time without any rainfall. We've all had struggles and losses but that’s nature for you.
June is always a busy month for us and seems to come around far too fast. If you have read this page previously you will know that June is our 'bedding out' month – with several thousand plants ready to be planted, it can take a while and we all breath a huge sigh of relief once it is done. However, by August and September all our hard work has paid off as the displays are looking at their best.
This year we have tried something new with the carpet beds. We have tried to reduce our time on these beds which include preparation, growing time, installation and maintenance. This will allow us to work on other areas of the garden that need some attention. To do this we have grown some of the plants ourselves, bought some in as plug plants which we have planted and for the first time we have used some ready-to-install tiles – these fit together like a jigsaw. And as a backing we have used gravel instead of plants.
Inspiration for the 2018 display has been taken from the theme of the suffragette ribbon, to celebrate the centenary of some women gaining the vote. For the first time we have designed a pattern which flows over both carpet beds.
Our spring bedding has pretty much gone over now apart from several pots of tulips. So, this month we have been digging up the spring bedding in preparation of our summer planting schemes. Talking of which, the glasshouses are full to bursting!
However, there is still plenty to see at this time of year. The Italian Terrace always looks lovely – the Erythronium are my favourite. The Herbaceous border is starting to look great by the end of the month too. This was an addition to the garden several years ago to help create some areas of colour in the formal garden whilst we are working on our spring/summer changeover. Lupins, astrantia, and dicentra are only a few of the plants flowering now.
From mid May the Rock Garden has really started to shine. Some of our rhododendrons have started to flower and what a show they are putting on this year – very floriferous! The azalea types have the most amazing scent too. The majority of the rhododendrons around the estate are not quite out yet but are looking to be out at the very start of June.
The heating in the glasshouses has been switched off and as the night time temperatures are raising slightly we will begin to leave the doors open all night too. This allows the plants to acclimatise and 'harden off' in readiness for planting out in the next several weeks.
We started this month with Easter weekend – a time to get out and about, spend time with family and friends and maybe eat some chocolate. However not this year though – winter had decided to have one last show. Thankfully I had plenty to keep me busy indoors.
It felt odd sowing our summer bedding seeds this month when there's blizzard-like conditions outside, but anyway they were sown, germinated and started to be pricked out by the end of the month. This year we have gone for a colour scheme of purples, whites, and greens which represent the colours of the suffragettes' ribbons. We are using nicotiana, cosmos, lobelia, alyssum, ricinus and more in our displays this coming summer.
Once the weather improved it was lovely to see the spring colours coming back into the garden. It feels like a long time coming this year and it has been so nice to be working outside in the sun and seeing all the new plant growth emerging.
Our automower is back in action this year and it's a good talking point. Visitors want to know what it's doing and how it works. Children are curious to see if it will follow them – it doesn't - not intentionally anyway, and dogs seem to have a love/hate relationship with it! See if you can spot it next time you visit the formal garden.
The wintery theme from February has carried on into March and the effect of this can be seen in the garden. The daffodil and tulip bulbs are late coming through, but like us they are just waiting on some nice warm weather.
However, this hasn't stopped us and we've had a busy month. Propagation is still going well, the Orchard house has been looking and smelling amazing with the hyacinth display we have had in there and the blossom on the fruit trees has also just started to emerge, as have the odd bees on the occasional sunny day.
We have started a 'Plants of the Month' board which highlights some of the most popular and seasonal plants in the garden during the month. This can be found in the information hut at the entrance to the Formal Garden. We've also introduced an 'Ask the Gardener' email where you can get in touch with us if you have any garden related questions. Perhaps it has been a plant you have seen in the garden or you need some advice, if so, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As a team building day, we went to work at Gibside near Rowlands Gill one Thursday. Thankfully the weather was kind, and we made an area that will be used as a potting station for children and adults alike to have a go at growing seeds, potting on plants and planting up the raised bed we created. We recycled some old wooden posts and sleepers to create the beds and laid weed suppressant sheeting down to create an accessible area. It was a great day, learned some new skills and enjoyed the tea and biscuits.
And at the end of the month we welcomed George to our team. I'll introduce him properly in the next couple of months when he's had time to settle in. So if you see him, please, do say hello.
In February we re-opened the Orchard House to visitors again after nearly 8 months of restoration work. The joiners have worked tirelessly to replace most of the wooden framework within the middle and eastern sections. There's a bit of painting left to do inside and this will be completed in the spring once the weather has improved.
Behind the scenes we have been having a bit of a move around. To allow for cuttings to be taken for our summer displays I have had to make room in the rather full propagation house, and some of the plants have been moved into glasshouses. One is heated to 10 degrees and the other is heated to 6 degrees depending on what minimum temperature the plants need to be kept at. This helps reduce the growth rate but is warm enough to keep them alive.
Talking of the weather improving – like the majority of the country, we had a visit from 'The Beast From The East' which very kindly brought a huge amount of snow. Lots of clearance work was undertaken to allow access for our visitors but we did have to close the estate for a few days until this was achieved. In the garden we have had a small amount of damage to the Orchard House – several panes of glass were broken, and a couple of shrubs on the rock garden have been weighed down under the weight of snow, but thankfully, nothing too serious.
The seasons come and go in a bit of a flash and probably no more so than when we welcome in the new year.
After a quick team catch up we're straight back into getting our tasks done. However, the weather can dictate how they plan out. We seem to have had a lot more frosts and cold spells (and even some snow!) than the previous couple of years. I certainly feel like I have had to defrost my car a lot more this winter already.
So when the weather has been agreeable we've been outdoors – cutting the hedges, tidying up the borders and clearing more heathers from the rock garden.
And when it's snowing, there is no better job than getting together in our warm bothy, with a cup of tea, the seed catalogues and some large sheets of paper and a pen to decide what the upcoming summer displays will be.
We have also had our slightly later than normal gardens team night out. A chance for us all, gardeners and volunteers together, to socialise for a couple of hours, out of work time, away from the garden and to enjoy some good food and have a drink or two as well.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!