Labour of love for Middlethorpe Hall gardens

PUBLISHED: 10:39 08 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:39 20 February 2013

Middlethorpe Hall gardens

Middlethorpe Hall gardens

Head gardener David Barker talks about the garden he has created almost from scratch at one of Yorkshire's most beautiful country houses

David Barker began with a blank canvas when he became head gardener at York's historic Middlethorpe Hall 26 years ago. The country house hotel, dated around 1699, and not far from York Racecourse, is set in 20 acres. It was once the home of the famous diarist Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Little is known about the original gardens and all the planting and design you see today, from the ornamental beds to herbaceous borders and cordoned fruit as well as climbers trained on the walled garden, is thanks to David's expertise and enthusiasm.

He worked on the basic design, planting yew hedges for shelter and to help deaden the noise of the busy A64. The holly hedge was inherited but David has managed to halve its height. 'You have to be quite hard when cutting the hedges otherwise they will need cutting every six to eight weeks, which would mean little time for anything else. Leylandii is a useful hedge providing it is controlled.With guests all the year round it is vital to have something for them to enjoy whether in the depths of winter or the height of summer.'

Although not a botanical garden it has numerous plants many of which are labelled. Traditional aluminium labels mark out special trees ranging from the Judas tree to the Northern Red Oak, and a booklet has been produced which guests can use to learn about them as they take a guided stroll. Even on a winter's day the welcome is warm; from the moment you arrive in the car park surrounded with evergreen foliage to entering the hall with its seasonally planted urns.

The former stable courtyard is planted with terracotta pots and clipped topiary balls, and evergreen Ceonothus with its blue flowers in spring and Garrya with its winter catkins are trained along the brick walls. An archway leads into the walled garden. It was a joy to see the herbaceous bed hadn't been stripped bare by cutting everything down. Seed heads have two roles; one to catch the frost, where their beauty will sparkle, and the other as extra food for wildlife.

Once leaves begin to fall it seems a never ending task gathering them up. David advocates mowing to chop them up at the same time so they can be placed round plants as mulch. Putting leaves back into the ground feeds the nutrients back where they came from. The good fungi that they contain will control the bad fungi, keeping to the tradition of natural chemical free gardening and mimicking nature as much as possible.

For the past five years David has taken tours of RHS members round the garden and freely admits he can talk for England. He has been a member of the Professional Gardener's Guild (PGG) for 30 years, 11 years as secretary, three years as vice chairman of the northern area and after two years rest has just taken on the job of organising garden visits for the Yorkshire region as well as social events.

Middlethorpe Hall has just won an award for its service and guests are welcomed as if they are visiting a relative in their own house with the freedom to enjoy the garden. David and his colleague Andy Leighton are usually about and only too pleased to answer any questions people may have.

Every month there is something to see from the small woodland cyclamen standing up through their leaves, snowdrops heralding the start of a new season through hellebores, crocus, daffodils and bluebells to the heady musk scent from the old roses and the structure and colour from the perennials, shrubs and fruit. Even in winter the occasional iris and nerines lift your spirits. There is sheltered seating in alcoves in the hedges to the ha-ha where on a balmy summer day you can sunbathe in this south facing area. The croquet lawn is surrounded by daisy-like flowers from a vast variety of plants. The white garden is home to a special plant - a buddleja auriculata - he first saw at Ventnor in the Isle of White and was presented to him for his stint on the PGG.

David has managed to mix formality with natural planting in what is a very personal garden which has a welcome for all visitors.

Middlethorpe Hall 01904 641241

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