Harrogate and RHS Harlow Carr

On a sunny day in May we headed out to Harrogate to visit the town and the RHS garden. We are fortunate to be able to get there easily from Leeds as the garden is only a short scenic walk from the station.

This was my first visit to the spa town of Harrogate and I was amazed by the trees right in the centre of the town. It reminds me of other spa towns such as Cheltenham and Bath with such big and magnificent trees.

Two trees caught my eye as soon as we began walking through the town towards the garden. Either side of the path two large horse chestnuts (Aesculus hippocastanum) had grown and intertwined creating a cathedral like archway over the path. The dappled shade draws you under the branches and it is impossible to walk through without pausing to gaze up at the dense, lush green foliage. The trees were proudly displaying their pinnacles of white flowers and throughout the year conkers will form and fall onto the path below.

The two horse chestnuts over the path

Nearby right in the centre of the town there was another interesting horse chestnut however this one had pinkish red flowers. It is called the Red Horse chestnut (Aesculus × carnea) I can’t be sure on the precise cultivar but I am fairly sure it is (‘Briotii”). Either way I think this is a fun little tree that is elegant and the bright colours add a bit of excitement to the street. 

The valley gardens that you walk through on the way to the RHS gardens are primarily looked after by volunteers and have a great engaging mix of plants and garden features. Something I thought was quite interesting was alongside the small stream is a patch of Gunnera which some people call the giant rhubarb plant because it looks like rhubarb except it’s giant. 


I was really amazed by the long pergola that runs almost the entire length of the garden, it created this inside outside effect. The rectilinear shadows mixed with the organic shapes cast by the wisteria, I feel creates a relaxing and classy feel.

Harrogate’s long pergola

If you had not yet realised I have an interest in trees and as it turns out Harlow Carr does not disappoint on the tree front!

One of my favourite parts of the garden were the lakeside gardens and particularly the naturalistic woodland avenue. The formal and straight path is lined with coppiced Hazel Trees (Corylus avellanaand other woodland-esque planting creates calming atmosphere. At the end of the path the bench provides a resting point and is enclosed behind by clipped yew hedges.

This part of the garden is a taste of the woodland experience but retains the formality and rigidity of the garden it is contained within. It is an exhibition of an imaginary nature that is restrained within steel edges and hard materials.

Woodland-esque planting

A central feature of the gardens at Harlow Carr is the lake and this bench has been created around an oak tree to provide a place of rest and an opportunity to look onto the lodge and the wider garden. I think that it creates a sense of place and belonging by using site specific furniture that makes use of existing materials and trees.

Looking out onto the lake

Above the lake at the top of the garden is a newly planted woodland and meadow. It is a sloping site and home to the ‘Betty’s Trees for Life’ project. The café tea room company who have a passion for trees are working with the RHS to plant a new woodland in the area. The company, who have several outlets in the garden, run the ‘Trees for Life’ fund which awards funding for environmental projects coordinated by small charities, community or charity groups or schools based in Yorkshire of up to £4000.

Within the new woodland there is a giant wicker bee which provides an attraction as the trees are still young. Not only does this provide an interesting thing to look at it also raises awareness of the decline of bees and the need for them. A nearby sign encourages visitors to share a picture of themselves with the bee and share it on social media. Also in the woodland there is a large wooden xylophone like musical instrument that I think is a playful addition to this woodland.

The woodlands and arboretum provide a great place for a walk with plenty of interesting things to stop and look at along the way. One tree in particular that I stopped for was this fascinating beech tree (Fagus sylvatica), the queen of Harlow Carr. The tree is host to bracket fungi (Ganoderma applanatum) it is difficult to identify the precise fungus as the tree is fenced off for safety but I believe this is correct. This kind of fungus produces large fruiting bodies out of the trunk and decays the heartwood and can leave the tree hollow. The fungi causes either white or brown rot which can lead to branches breaking off if the rot is a top rot or the entire tree falling down if it is a butt rot which affects the base of the tree. This remarkable tree is sadly dying and in a lot of pain.

Mighty beech with bracket fungus

Dotted throughout the woodland are poems which I think is a great way to combine art and nature. They are paired with a drawing by the same artist. Whilst I think this is a good idea and works well I feel that the delivery could have been better executed. The sign posts are very bold and perhaps could have been transparent so text is read against the changing back drop of the woodland. This would make them look less aggressive and less like instruction signs but this could cause trouble with accessibility. 

The main boarders were interesting and well designed. We came at the right time to see the purple globes of the alliums (Allium ‘purple sensation’) which are incredibly popular. I also was interested in the wooden spiral benches that were alongside the borders. They provide freedom to be used in so many different ways. I think in a scheme that sees less traffic these would work well if they were more surrounded in planting as I felt there was a harsh transition between the soft planting and the soft shape of the seat.

A long gazebo caught my attention in the garden. The simple wooden structure was incredibly well detailed throughout. Once under the shelter I felt like I was taking shade in a Mediterranean courtyard, the terracotta tiles were very well laid in a considered pattern. I am a big fan of the tiles laid on edge and how they are aligned straight next to the 45 degree tiles either side. It has been resolved so beautifully and had its own special character.

One of the last places we visited on our trip to the garden was the alpine house. The glasshouse showcases an arrangement of alpine plants carefully selected and cared for and then chosen for the display. One alpine plant that I enjoyed was the Lewisia ‘Elise’ because of our shared name!

Harlow Carr and Harrogate was such an exciting day out and there was so much to see and write about. We left via the unavoidable plant shop and brought some plants for our garden back in Leeds. 

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