As spring takes its hold on Britain, we prepare for outbursts of natural beauty across the North. And nowhere more so than Belsay Gardens. Residing in the grounds of 19th-century Belsay Hall, the gardens have, for two generations, been attended to with unbelievable passion and dedication by the same family. Jo Harrigan tells us how her love of gardening was handed down to her from her father, who was Head Gardener at Belsay for 18 years. ‘I basically came to help them out during winter, and I loved it so much that I never stopped,’ she says. Jo is clearly proud of her dad and his passion for growing things. ‘He has always been a keen vegetable grower. He even grew vegetables that made it into the Guinness Book of World Records’ she explains.
Being a female was never something that put Jo off choosing a career in horticulture, and she prides herself on being an inspiration to young women. Although it has been a male-dominated industry for a long time, and still is to a large extent, Jo says she is finding that a lot of women are now hoping to get into the industry. ‘I get student groups visiting, and what I notice is there are a lot of females amongst them,’ she says, ‘The head lecturer often comes up after I have done the tour, to say how inspirational it is to see a female gardener.’ Whether Jo would have got into the trade without her father’s influence, however, is another matter. ‘I’m not sure,’ she says, ‘I have always been interested in art and I do botanical drawings’. Originally Jo wanted to be an art teacher, which shows in her approach to gardening, she has a strong vision when it comes to colour, texture and design.
Jo points out, however, that gardening is not as fun as you might imagine. ‘It is not all that it looks on the TV you know, just a final design. Yes you do need to get dirty, you do need waterproofs.’ The weather, she says, is the worst part of the job, often putting a dampener on things (excuse the pun). Yet even the torrential rain, which we see all too frequently in Britain, does not put Jo off. ‘We do have a motto here that you’re not wet until you drive home on a bin liner,’ she jokes. Yet she promises that it’s worth it for the end results. ‘When visitors start coming in and you get that brilliant feedback, it spurs you on.’
Jo’s original aim to be an art teacher is perhaps more relevant than you might think. She makes it clear that there is a fair amount of artistry involved in horticulture. When asked what advice she would give an amateur gardener, Jo says, ‘You have got to have an artistic flair, you have got to have that bit of art in you to see the end result.’ Gardening, it seems, is a game of vision, design and determination. But unlike a painting, with this work of art you don’t see the results until months, sometimes years have passed. Add to this, your design will develop, grow and change over time.
Belsay Gardens are far from simply a visual experience, they are also an education in texture, scent and the peculiarities of rare plant life. Jo clearly loves to inspire and educate people in the world of unusual botany. Each time you turn a corner in the gardens you are hit with either a fragrance or colourful and eye-catching plant life. ‘Flowers don’t always have a beautiful fragrance. Flowers need to attract different types of insects,’ explains Jo. The most interesting example of Belsay’s fragrant plant-life is undoubtedly the Voodoo Lily which although beautiful, smells of rotten flesh. For a more pleasant experience, Jo recommends the Katsura tree planted in the meadow garden, a rare plant that smells like candy floss when its leaves drop.
Jo’s passion for gardening and her personal ties to Belsay mean she is hoping to remain there for years to come. ‘I would like to be here for as long as I can physically manage it – because it is a physical job and I am not getting any younger,’ she says. But her love of gardening extends so deep that she revels in passing on her knowledge. After becoming a mum eight years ago, she taught for a while at Newcastle College. ‘I loved it’ she says ‘but I was a practical horticulture teacher, it wasn’t just in the classrooms’. Jo firmly believes that getting stuck in is the best way to learn, the way she did when helping her father. These days she has given up teaching for her full-time position at Belsay, but her desire to pass on her knowledge is evident, she still fits in talks, lectures and if student groups visit Belsay she enjoys nothing more than giving them a guided tour.
So what is Jo’s advice for an aspiring professional? ‘To try to absorb as much information as you possibly can but also get the practical experience.’ Like most jobs, they should be enjoyable, but in this industry Jo says, it is often difficult to keep a team motivated. ‘Some jobs are tedious,’ she says, such as planting the few thousand bulbs which adorn the grounds around the Hall’s terrace. But again, she is adamant that when you see them flower it is the most satisfying feeling. Undoubtedly, it takes true passion and dedication to achieve what Jo has at Belsay.
Belsay Hall, Castle & Gardens