Your earliest memories might be playing with your building blocks, going to the park or fighting with a sibling, Debbie Crombie’s are of giant leeks. ‘My dad was a traditional leek grower,’ says Gibside’s Head Gardener. ‘Working men’s clubs had leek shows and they were a big part of my life growing up – going to the leek show and seeing the giant veg.’ This also meant that she got involved in the growing herself. ‘We had a huge garden – it was mainly filled with vegetables.’
Despite this early love of gardening, she went on to swap leeks for labs. ‘I was a research scientist – I worked for the National Blood Authority and we made products for haemophiliacs,’ she explains. It wasn’t until she had her own children that she remembered her love of the outdoors. Her youngest, now 17, is autistic, so Debbie took time off to look after him. ‘I stayed off work for about eight years but all the time I was studying. For me doing the gardening was respite, I started growing seeds, planting hanging baskets and attending night schools.’
Debbie has only been at Gibside since April, having previously worked at Seaton Delaval Hall and Alnwick Garden. ‘I’m just getting used to things,’ she admits. ‘It’s a lovely property, really dynamic and filled with talented people.’ The garden itself is a huge, landscaped affair which hasn’t changed much since it was designed in the Georgian period by George Bowes. Parts are wild with forestry but there’s also a beautiful former aspect – the inner pleasure grounds – which Debbie is in charge of.
‘We have a walled garden with lots of fruit and vegetables,’ she explains. ‘We’re working with different community groups who all occupy part of it. We give them a bit of land and they grow their own crops – I love the community feel. There are lots of shrubs too; rhododendrons, spring, late spring and early summer flowering shrubs.’
Her favourite part of the garden, however, is the view from the chapel, down ‘the Avenue’. ‘Just to think how that was created is amazing,’ she says. ‘It’s a half-mile-long raised platform. It was originally called The Long Walk before the trees were there, but now we’ve got this long avenue of Turkey oaks, sycamore and lime. You get a beautiful view from the chapel along to the column which is at the end of the avenue.’
This year, Debbie is looking forward to seeing the results of her work when the garden begins to bloom. ‘As I’ve only just started at Gibside I’m going to see lots of my achievements coming to fruition this year – so I suppose it’s watch this space!’ You’d think this might be nerve-wracking. Not for Debbie. ‘I’m totally confident, I never feel out of my comfort zone because we have so much support working for the National Trust, and we’ve got a great team here,’ she says. ‘It’s really exciting. I look at the challenges as being opportunities.’
However, she does admit there are some tricky day-to-day hurdles to conquer. ‘We’re open every day apart from Christmas Eve and Christmas Day,’ says Debbie. ‘We open at 10am and we have to get all the noisy stuff done before then so visitors can have a nice peaceful, relaxed visit. Getting a lot of the heavier, machinery-led tasks done before 10 is quite a challenge, but the rest of it is a real joy.’
Debbie is clearly revelling in seeing things grow at Gibside – not just her plants but her novices too. ‘I’m a real people person,’ she says. ‘We’ve probably got about 58 garden volunteers and for me, my favourite part of the job is watching them grow and develop their skills as gardeners.’
So, in Debbie’s words, watch this space.