York Gate Gardens: brave, innovative and covered in truly exquisite plants

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It takes years, sometimes decades, to make a large garden and only months for entropy to set in. At York Gate, Leeds, however, the future is assured, says James Alexander-Sinclair.

In the 1950s, Fred and Sybil Spencer bought a stone farmhouse in the back surrounded by a field and orchard a few miles from Leeds. Over the next 40 years, they and their only son, Robin, turned this piece of land into York Gate. Fred died in 1963 and Robin took primary responsibility for the garden. Sybil was a talented planter, but it was Robin’s attention to detail that made the garden the Premier League.

The original garden was a little over an acre, but in that acre they packed a whole host of treasures – it’s like a wizard’s hat from which another surprise is ripped off at every turn. At the front door, you are greeted by a shaggy specimen of weeping Wellingtonia (Sequoiadendron giganteum ‘Pendula’), which looks like a benign orangutan. Not exactly what you would expect in a farm garden, but there is nothing mundane or mundane here.

York Gate Gardens, Leeds. © Clive Nichols

From the gate you are subtly directed via a Yorkstone flowerbed path (all the hard landscaping here is impeccably detailed – a stone fetishist would be happy for many hours) into the original orchard where, sadly, he only a magnificent apple tree remains.

Then it is a constant parade of valleys, alleys, a vegetable garden, herbs, paths, ponds, sculptures and, of course, many extraordinary plants. The layout is instinctive and makes the site appear to be a lot bigger than it is, but the more you explore the more you find. It’s a garden with a little pinch of Japanese influence, a ton of eccentricity and a generous pinch of Yorkshire intelligence.

York Gate Gardens, Leeds. © Clive Nichols

Sadly, Robin passed away at the age of 47 in 1982 and Sybil decided to leave the garden to the Perennial horticultural charity when she followed him in 1994. For those unfamiliar with Perennial, he has a long history, having started as Gardeners Royal Benevolent. Established in 1839 with the aim of helping gardeners and their families in times of crisis – whether due to bereavement, illness or financial distress.

That is still his goal and he has, unsurprisingly, been particularly active over the past year. The charity now has three gardens – the most recent being The Laskett in Herefordshire, left by Sir Roy Strong (‘Scenes and splendor’, August 19, 2020) – of which York Gate is the most established.

York Gate Gardens, Leeds. © Clive Nichols

Like any good garden, York Gate does not stand still and expands both in area and influence. About four years ago, the association was fortunate to recruit Ben Preston as its new head gardener. He was working as a market gardener at Audley End near Saffron Walden in Essex until chance took him to take a course in Great Dixter, East Sussex, where, over a weekend, his gardening life and philosophy have changed forever.


Six of York Gate’s best plants, chosen by head gardener Ben Preston

  • Aeonium undulatum: Aeoniums do much of their growth in the winter, so Mr. Preston plants them in the greenhouse before taking them out to the sand garden after the frosts are over.
  • Hebe hulkeana: Also known as New Zealand lilac, this small, evergreen variety is excellent against a sheltered wall
  • Paeonia X smouthii: This has beautiful, finely filigree foliage and softly scented red flowers in late spring. Peonies generally hate to be moved, so make sure you have it in the right place the first time around.
  • Rosa ‘Eskimo’: One of the few roses at York Gate. “The best rose ever,” says Preston, with long blooms, crisp foliage and excellent fragrance. The only problem is that it’s hard to find
  • Salvia atrocyanea: A gorgeous Bolivian Salvia that grows to around 9 feet tall, with sultry dark blue flowers from late summer through fall
  • Tulip praestans ‘Rifleman’: A bright red multi-flowered tulip – technically more guard than fusilier

Since arriving at York Gate, his energy has made everyone jump. He has built a tight-knit team, which is augmented by 150 volunteers. He describes it as “like having 80 aunts” which contributes to the warm, family feeling that is immediately noticeable by every visitor. More importantly, there is a two-year learning team, as Perennial has broadened its goals to include training new gardeners, as well as helping struggling gardeners.

“It’s really important,” says Mr. Preston, “that we take every opportunity to try and show people that gardening is such a rewarding and fulfilling career. We intend to send horticulturalists into the world. qualified, enthusiastic and well paid, they will do amazing things in the future.

York Gate Gardens, Leeds. © Clive Nichols

For him the Spencer legacy is sacred, so he preserves and reveres all the classic features of York Gate: the astonishing espalier cedar – “the best tree in the garden” – the huge yew trees cut into spinnakers, the gravel path with the diamond granite (an idea that I have plundered more than once) and the well-stocked vegetable garden. But he’s not shy about adding more layers to the planting – he and his team are all plant nerds who are thrilled with a rare flower. You can hear the growing passion in his voice as he lists the multi-seam planting in one section of a border.

“Every bed needs to work on its socks,” he proclaims. “Here we have amsonias, bistorts and primroses, but below are snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils; waiting behind the scenes for ligularias, astilbes, aruncus, rodgersias and lobelias and over there… ‘and this in just a few square meters. It’s like listening to Ratty describe the picnic in The wind in the willows.

Vivace recently purchased the adjacent land and cottage, adding a brand new section to the garden. There is a bustling cafe and a domed factory center (which Mr Preston calls “a confectionery”) overlooking a new garden like one rarely (if ever) sees in Yorkshire. There is a large stone-lined circle – providing space large enough to ‘comfortably accommodate a group of people for discussions and tours’ – surrounded by a garden strewn with stones and sand populated by waterfalls of tulip species. (Tulipa clusiana and T. acuminata, in particular), Paeonia X smouthii, aeoniums and aloes.

More like the Almerian desert than the north of England: it is a very courageous and innovative horticulture. York Gate is a multi-faceted garden, all based on a strong underlying design, over which truly exquisite plants are coated.

York Gate Gardens, Leeds. © Clive Nichols

A final introduction is the burgeoning prairie – “an amazing place at sunrise”. Trails have been mowed through the longer grass, dividing the field into zones according to their fertility to promote camassias and increase fritillaria in the wetter parts. Orchids, nuts and yellow rattles have been sown on the site.

Every good garden needs to keep changing and that’s yet another layer at York Gate. This will be Mr. Preston’s legacy and one can only hope that for the sake of Perennial, the garden and the community of locals and visitors, the talented Mr. Preston doesn’t rush anywhere.

York Gate Garden and Nursery, Leeds, West Yorkshire, are open until October 31 – www.perennial.org.uk


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