This is about more than just a garden visit.
I am writing this blogpost retrospectively, having visited RHS Harlow Carr in early Spring this year. Our visit this time, occurred just as the buds were opening on the blossom trees (prunus of several types), the fresh leaves were unfurling in many shades of green on chilly trees, the bulbs’ leaves were emerging from their cosy soil beds, many flowers bravely blooming in the still and freezing-cold Yorkshire air, and various heathers and ericas were in abundant show-off pink colour blaze.
Harlow Carr has become a special place to me, a place where I have enjoyed a few visits since my children attended boarding school in that British county, which is several hours’ drive south of our current home. Visiting gardens is a way for me to connect with the pure life force that I sense is so lacking in society today, a vital way for me to unwind and to find inspiration for all the tasks I’m still learning to understand and to manage, and for strength in the journey of life itself, as well as simply to be in the presence of beauty and grace, for wonder and for fun.
On this day back in April 2017, my husband and I had driven down from the area where we live south of Edinburgh, met our daughter at a train station nearby, and we’d all set off for an afternoon of grounding, family time and chatting about life plans, on a very rainy afternoon. We were lucky to find a table fairly quickly in the very busy cafe on site, and happily enjoyed a simple lunch in an attractively glassed area, which afforded us the privilege of seeing the beautiful grounds around us, while keeping warm and snug inside. Magically, the heavy dark clouds had moved on just as we were sated from a few hours of chat, so we gathered our coats and cameras and stepped outside into the crisp, damp, fresh air for a quick and intentional walk around the tidy paths.
As we live further north than this garden, it was interesting to note what was happening there, and to know that our turn would come next. The further south one travels in Britain, the earlier the seasons begin and the warmer the climate is. Our growing season is brief, when it finally starts, and I always sense a wave of panic when everything suddenly begins to grow like mad up here, all maintenance and other jobs becoming necessary at once. Thus, it helps to see gardens further south, for the warning signs before they take place where we are.
As we wandered about, strategically and fast (by then near to closing time), I was surprised to see so many heathers in bloom at Harlow Carr. Most surprising, I thought, was that the hungry bees were already out and feasting on their tiny little blooms … a sign that this (the various types of heather or erica) is a good plant, one type of species to encourage others to include in their plantings everywhere – at least in every area of Britain where it does not already naturally grow in the wild (where still allowed). The British landscape does not currently afford much scope for wildlife to find either food or haven, there being little naturalness or biodiversity left on the main island of the United Kingdom; in most areas a begging starvation of diversity exists wherever one looks.
Gardeners can address this suicidal environmental travesty, but alone we cannot – the large landowners and land managers must take the situation into their hands too. We urgently have to address the plight of our wild pollinators and other creatures that exist to form a healthy eco system, which we each will benefit from. I digress. Lungwort (pulmonaria) in its many forms, is another plant that bees love in the early months of the year, flowering profusely before much else is in bloom.
It was lovely to see everything looking ready to receive the new season’s growth, beds tidied and mulched … no doubt left a little wild during the winter, to afford habitat for wildlife and to allow some seeds to feed birds, as well as to drop into the ready soil. I especially loved the little area near the potting shed, which boasts elegant garden architecture, as well as tastefully careful landscape design.
The potting shed itself was delightful to visit – attractive and of great interest; it was useful to find a description there of how pest control was managed in the past. Nowadays so little thought is given to the damage that we are doing to ourselves, to wildlife, to ecology, and to the future of our children’s experiences of the natural world by the use of so many toxic pesticides, synthetic fertilisers, all manner of cleaning materials, genetically engineered plants, etc. Indeed, we are “shooting ourselves in the foot”, instead of learning from and following in the footsteps of our clever ancestors, who knew how to work with Nature, to create something out of little, to harm few or none in the process of fending for themselves. I think about these things, when I wander about!
The notice on the potting shed wall reads:
“The Potting Shed
The potting shed is the gardener’s laboratory! Before commercial pesticides became available, gardeners mix their concoctions of chemicals on a stove in the potting shed, using recipes that have been handed down over generations.
Most ingredients can be found easily and cheaply such as soot, elder leaves, dung, urine and ashes. Other materials that are used can be bought locally such as soap, lime, sulphur and tobacco.
It is a real factory … in order to realise why gardens have so many flowerpots, it is important to remember that every plant in the garden will have been grown from seed, carefully nurtured and then planted out (there are no garden centres for instant effect at this time).
Potting sheds are the domain of the workforce and the gentry never visit them, just as there is a definite line between ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’ in the house.
Use of Poisons
Dangerous ingredients, such as arsenic and strychnine, are used regularly in the garden as they can be bought very easily – however the Arsenic Act (passed in 1851) allows only people over 21 to buy it, and the sale has to be recorded in a Poisons Book.
The most dangerous ingredients are generally kept in a poisons cupboard in the potting shed. In true Agatha Christie style, if there is a murder on the Estate, the first place the police tend to look is in the potting shed!
In order to keep flies out of the potting shed and prevent them from laying eggs in the compost mix, the walls of potting sheds are painted with Reckitt’s Blue. This is a blue powder added when washing clothes in order to produce a clean blue-white appearance.”
I find all of this fascinating, don’t you?
As we ambled quickly along the paths, we encountered a few surprises, such as the very tall willow statue of a Roald Dahl story character, The BFG, which would surely delight every child who visits there and also provides inspiration, perhaps, for what one might do with natural materials found outdoors. He, the BFG, was a ‘friendly chap’ ~ I took a quick photo to remember the artwork by …
Heading uphill, onto the side of the garden opposite the entrance, we wandered through tall trees and shrubs, admiring the majestic trunks of rhododendrons, many of which were in beautiful (and some fragrant) bloom. The honey of rhodendron is toxic, apparently, but the bees need these blooms too and the flowers are always a wonderfully welcome sight, after a long, dark period of Wintry gloom. I have learnt, at cost to one or two of the mature garden shrubs at our home, that only some rhododendrons (of which azaleas form the same general family) are fit to be pruned! Would that ours could look as tall and elegant as those at Harlow Carr, which have been cared for by clever people in the know about these things.
I think this must have been about my fourth or fifth visit to RHS Harlow Carr, since our first visit there in September 2011. On that day, we had been travelling back up north, having taken our youngest child to boarding school for the first time, and my emotions were in torment. I remember wandering around Harlow Carr on that day, with my heart in my throat, tears brimming, feeling as though I were a tree whose limb had been ripped off in a whirlwind. It was an ache I shall never forget … and I thank the universe for making sure that everything turned out well, despite the pain and the challenges and the things that were to come, after that agonising time. My soul was soothed by Harlow Carr, stopping there as if to apply a plaster to a gaping wound, and it helped me to keep breathing as we left the county, where both of our children were now boarding … it is a relief to have all of that behind me now.
If you have the chance to visit any of the Royal Horticultural Society gardens in Britain, do consider doing so; I am sure you will not be disappointed. So much care goes into preserving precious plant species, designing landscapes that stand out, inspire and motivate and heal the soul … and now the RHS are also behind a great push to make the public, citizens of all ages and all walks of life, aware that we must take care of our natural environment, our pollinators, our precious and vital earth. I am so grateful for the chance to see such places, to absorb the positive energy there, to benefit from the calm and order and consciousness … very grateful indeed.