Harlow Carr Gardens – Review

harlow carr pink flower

A Garden in Change

by Barney Bardsley

Big formal gardens are not really my style. I prefer the wild open spaces, or those small, intimate green corners which lurk behind people’s houses. But I have visited RHS Harlow Carr in Harrogate several times. I am happy to make an exception of it.

Despite being one of the four national gardens of the Royal Horticultural Society, Harlow Carr does not have it easy. It is buffeted by the elements in its high exposed position. The rolling curves and swampy, tree-lined dips present an array of problems, both geographical and climactic, to a veritable army of gardeners who work its terrain. This is an imposing, if somewhat austere piece of land. As the RHS website says, it is “a garden dominated by water, stone and woodland”, and has the kind of majesty which befits its ancestry. An ancient royal hunting ground in the age old Forest of Knaresborough, no less.

Back in the 1990s, when I first came to it, the garden was somewhat stiff and aloof. Then, in 2002, when it merged with the RHS, things started to loosen up a little. Formal planting gave way to meadow drifts. Lacquered shrubs melted into wild flowers and grasses. The woodland was re-generated. There was willow weaving and vegetable planting. Under the dynamic leadership of Matthew Wilson, curator from 2004 to 2008, organic and sustainable gardening became the watchwords. Harlow Carr was moving with the times.

“Plenty for the eye to feast on”

harlow-1Taking a walk around the grounds recently, as the diggers ploughed up the far corners for a new Learning Centre, and the gardeners rushed about re-planting the raised vegetable beds (displaced by said diggers!), and building up the banks of the valley streams (disastrously struck by flash flooding several times in last year’s rain-sodden summer), I was struck more than anything by the air of eagerness and purpose about the garden. This site, above all else, seems like a garden in metamorphosis and becoming. As all the best ones are.

One thing you need to know before you visit: Harlow Carr is a working garden. It is primarily an education charity. It’s devoted to teaching both children and adults about the growing world. It is a place that is always busy with workers, visitors, school groups and horticulturalists. This is not a show garden. No leafy retreat. It bustles. So come – and be prepared to party.

There is certainly plenty for the eye to feast on, in terms of big-scale planting. Particularly in the sweeping main borders, completely renovated in 2005 to reflect the concerns of global warming. They are now packed with drought-tolerant beauties such as alliums, sky blue agapanthus, echinacea, rudbeckia and fire red crocosmia.

“Much to contend with”

But to me the more challenging and intriguing parts of the garden are its interactive features. The working kitchen garden, where you can chat to the gardeners about crop rotation, about broad beans, sweet peas and potatoes, companion planting and a hundred ways to compost. The trouble spots, particularly the streams at the bottom, which threaten regularly to burst their banks when the rains come. Here the ingenious device of weaving living willow into the eroded soil is being tried. It shores up nature’s ravages. Yes, Harlow Carr has much to contend with. From waterlogging below to drought up above. It reminds me very much of Beth Chatto’s exquisite and pioneering work in her famous Essex garden. There too, the two extremes of damp and dry are being tackled in a manner both ecological and beautiful.

harlow-2Everywhere you look in Harlow Carr you can see evidence of creative minds at work. There are the beaten metal sculptures. Here a giant poppy, there a bird or an angel – of artist Steve Blaylock; and the living structures – pirate ships and whales – created by the masterful Cumbrian willow weaver Phil Bradley. Even the forty little raised beds in the vegetable garden are ingenious.

“Little jewel of stillness”

“They’re all made of re-cycled milk bottles,” says gardener (and “productive team leader”) Alison Mundie, as she ties in her sweet peas to some sturdy hazel coppices. Behind her are turf seats, like “hairy Caterpillars”, she laughs. They were made from the top soil when the beds were created. They’ll gradually rot down into compost as the seasons change. This year they will preside over a tumbling pumpkin and sunflower patch. Everything designed to promote the connection between us and the natural world. Even the humble sunflower, of course, is hugely productive. Giving us seeds to eat, oil for cooking and the basis of dye for textiles. There are lots to see here – and lots to learn.

But if this busy interactive approach is not really your style, there is another garden pretty close to Harlow Carr which is definitely worth a visit. This is the quiet and subtle Bluecoat Wood Nurseries, further up the Otley Road, away from Harrogate town centre. Twenty five years old this year, Bluecoat is run by Horticap, who have a team of staff and volunteers who train adults with learning disabilities in horticulture and rural skills. There is a thriving nursery here, and the garden is a little jewel of stillness, set well back from the road, complete with pond and woodland. What struck me most was the sense of utter tranquillity surrounding the whole place. It felt like somewhere tended – and attended – with a lot of care and love, both for the plants and for the people it serves.

Make time to come here if you can: and just take your breath for a little while.

 “A Handful of Earth” by Barney Bardsley is published by John Murray
RHS Harlow Carr is open all the year round. 01423 565418 for details.


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