2015 Garden Review: Steady Progress

An annual review of the of the gardens around St Mary’s Inn has been waiting for the growing season to come to an end – but it’s just kept on going and the white Kaffir lilies on show in the entrance lobby were picked from the beds in Christmas week. Roses and Michaelmas daisies were also in flower well into December.

We amateur gardeners have much to inspire us in Northumberland, from the grandeur of the Alnwick Garden to the wonderful cottage garden of Bide-a-Wee near Netherwitton there are many examples of 10/10 gardens. Indeed, Capability Brown himself was born at Kirkharle no more than 15 miles from us.

In designing our garden, we wanted a planting succession to provide yearlong interest.The bulbs planted in the autumn of 2014 when building work was still in full swing provided colour as early as January with snowdrops and white and blue scillas showing first and so on to other bulbs of various kinds – each making their contribution throughout the remainder of the year, especially the 10 or so varieties of ornamental onion (allium sp.) and we award ourselves 4/10 on this score.

rsz_fullsizerenderFurthermore we planted bulbs in the autumn for an even more varied show next year – white and blue camassias, orange foxtail lilies and hyacinth ‘Delft Blue’. The latter were placed alongside wallflower ‘Fire King’ – let’s hope that they flower at the same time for a heavily scented blue and orange display right next to the accommodation front door. We also planted crocus ‘Whitewell Purple’ in the grass between the car park and the Chapel – fingers crossed that they naturalise despite the persistently wet conditions.
A second goal was to create a garden that Would make a modest contribution to the food on the plate and give the kitchen team an insight into the growing of edible plants. In the public areas, we planted fruit trees in various forms in the beds and against the building – standard, bush, fan and espalier. If you look carefully, you’ll see several varieties of apple (including some less common cultivars such as Keswick Codling and Lord Lambourne) but also plums, gages, damsons, pears, cherries and quince.

There’s even a crab apple (Malus hupehensis) for future production of verjuice. This year was all about formative pruning and being patient – it’s not easy to resist the temptation to keep all of the fruit potential on the branches in these early years but in the interest of stronger and healthier trees most needs to be removed before ripening.

At the back of the building and away from the public eye there’s an extensive gravelled herb garden – not because we wanted it hid away but because this area faces due south. It was scorching hot during the summer months with the buff gravel sometimes blinding the eye – ideal for the classic Mediterranean herbs including sage, rosemary and thyme. We also grew tarragon, chives, fennel, lovage, oregano, sweet cicely, parsley, mint and lemon verbena. We plan to plant more herbs in the coming spring some of which we’ll propagate ourselves.

rsz_img_0007There are fruit fans growing against the south-facing walls behind the herb garden. They will be pruned in late winter to encourage fruiting spurs and further develop their branch framework. We award ourselves 4/10 for efforts in this area.There are lots of trees and shrubs on the land surrounding St Mary’s Inn – a lot of greenery – so it seemed desirable to create by way of contrast a garden full of colour and scent – to delight on arrival but also to enjoy while sitting outdoors during the warmer months. We also wanted the garden to be wildlife friendly and in particular be ‘Perfect for Pollinators’ reflecting the campaign led by the RHS and Sarah Raven. Our herbaceous perennials are therefore generally single flowered.
It was a thrilling sight to see the honey bees that live in hives about 10 minutes walk from the garden collecting our nectar. We even applied this thinking to our summer display of exotic dahlias although we allowed ourselves the occasional indulgence – dahlia ‘David Howard’ and dahlia ‘Summer’s Night’ for example. These plants and others from the garden provided the material for cut flowers on display in the bar and dining areas, another important theme.

To create floral displays from a garden in its first year was a very creditable achievement so we award ourselves 5/10 on this score.We recently met with Shaun Hackett of Northumberland National Park to discuss the possibility of a wildflower meadow opposite the Inn. He gave us valuable advice and we look forward to working with him on this medium term project He also shared his enthusiasm for solitary bumble bees which we hope to support through our planting schemes and development of appropriate habitat.

There has been one unwelcome result of the recent warm weather – the weeds are doing splendidly. The top soil was sourced on site from the gardens abandoned many years ago and therefore contained a substantial seed bank of the coarser weeds as well as tufts of coarse grasses. For this reason and in the interests of humility we award ourselves 3/10 overall and the school report is generous in its assessment of steady progress. With big hearts and much optimism it’s back to the Dutch hoe and the weeding.