A tour of York Gate garden in Leeds
York Gate in Leeds may be relatively small, but this historic, late 20th-century family garden is one of horticulture’s brightest gems. Words Jack Wallington, photographs Richard Bloom.
Walking around York Gate on the northern outskirts of Leeds, it’s easy to forget the main part of this garden is only an acre in total. Broken into a series of enclosed garden spaces, each different from the last and brimming with beautiful plant combinations, its size makes it one of the UK’s most inspirational gardens for relatable, take-home ideas.
The garden was originally created by two amateur gardeners, Frederick and Sybil Spencer, who bought the house and surrounding farmland in 1951. Both Frederick and Sybil – and their son Robin who was responsible for much of the garden’s design from his father’s death in the early 1960s to his own in the 1980s – loved the Arts and Crafts style of gardens such as Hidcote.
At York Gate they aimed to translate that style to suit their smaller plot, dividing it into a series of stylised zones that include a miniature pinetum, a fern dell and a tropical garden. Around each corner is a different themed area like a series of tiny show gardens.
After Sybil’s death in 1994 this remarkable garden was gifted to the horticultural charity Perennial, which has maintained it in sympathy with the Spencers’ design, but over the past few years has made some exciting changes. One has been to buy back land the Spencers had sold to raise funds for their ambitious garden plans in the 1950s. Another has been the appointment of talented head gardener Ben Preston, who joined the team five years ago.
“I arrived at a time of transition with the garden moving into a new phase when Perennial bought the property next door,” says Ben.“It meant we could have a car park, a proper café, have better access to the meadow and add a new nursery to grow our own plants.”
As well as allowing Ben and his team the chance to offer plants for sale to York Gate’s annual 17,000 visitors, this new nursery also enables them to propagate much of what they need for the garden. Currently, a third of plants are grown on site, with plans to increase this to around 90 per cent, further reducing the garden’s environmental impact.
For Ben, what makes York Gate so clever is that it works brilliantly on a smaller level. “It’s not like Stowe or Chatsworth,” he says. “It’s relatable to an average gardener, broken into 14 areas filled with ideas that people can replicate. All the different elements are quite complex overall, but when you break it down it’s feasible at home.”
What Arts and Crafts garden.
Size Around four acres in total, including original one-acre garden and additional meadow.
Soil Sandy but improved.
Hardiness zone USDA 8.
The best public gardens are alive with ideas and at York Gate the best ideas from the past merge with those of the present. York Gate’s philosophy is to maintain the backbone of the Spencers’ legacy – the topiary and structure that make the garden – but to push horticulture forward in the lower and softer layers with exciting perennials and annuals.
“Sybil noted down every single plant she bought,”says Ben.“So we can select modern varieties of plants that they bought. The Spencers were planting arisaemas in the 1960s and 1970s, plants not everyone was growing then, and we’re continuing to do that now.”
Topiary forms key focal points throughout the garden with a row of remarkable yew sails near the house and the famous espaliered cedar and pyracanthas. Around all of this, the team is trialling contemporary combinations, including scheffleras and exotics in the jungle garden, various colourful asters, succulents, persicarias, lilies and dahlias.
“It’s a multi-layered garden held together by the structure,” says Ben. He and his team are adding to these layers with annuals joining the thalictrums, delphiniums and peonies in the white garden, and the blue flowers of meconopsis seen among the ferns and polygonatums in the dell.
“I love the detail,” says Ben. “From tiny pockets with unusual erythroniums, to the hard landscaping next to other really unusual plants. You can walk around this garden 50 times and always see something new, see something very special.”
Between 1951 and 1994, the Spencer family created a masterpiece of pattern from paths to topiary hedges, which allows for a timeless structure that frames innovative new planting ideas today. The striking row of six yew sails is visible from all areas of the garden.
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Dominating the white garden are the silvery spikes of Astelia chathamica and two billowing clouds of Persicaria x fennica ‘Johanniswolke’ alongside a mix of fresh-green foliage and a host of other white-flowered plants, including foxgloves, astrantias, sanguisorbas and veronicastrums.
Keeping the Spencers’ legacy of trying exciting new plant combinations, the small tropical garden is filled with tree ferns, scheffleras, hostas, fuchsias and other leafy exotics.
Spiral topiary and alliums set off the beautiful herb garden, filled with a range of edibles, including fennel, chives and origanum, many propagated by head gardener Ben and his team of volunteers.
The carpet path, designed by Robin Spencer in 1981, leads the eye to a small gazebo at the heart of the garden. Rather than add clutter, the path’s diamond pattern helps bring a sense of calm to frame the exuberant main borders.
A lean-to greenhouse and stone terrace are the perfect habitat for the tiny jewel-like alpines and succulents. Tender plants are tucked away into the greenhouse for the winter.
Stone setts in gravel surround a reclaimed millstone in a satisfying labyrinthine pattern, helping to accentuate the shapes and textures of the planting, which includes
yew buns and the striking silhouette of a lolloping Sequoiadendron giganteum ‘Pendulum’.
The meadow is used as a productive hay meadow supplying local farmers with feed for livestock. Throughout spring and summer it is awash with orchids, fritillaries and a host of other local wildflowers – all supporting a large population of wildlife.
A Clapham-based landscape designer, Jack works anywhere around the world. He has a regular garden column for the Telegraph and his book, Wild About Weeds: Garden Design with Rebel Plants, is published by Laurence King publishing.
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