The RHS Garden Harlow Carr column with Liz Thwaite

Harlow Carrs woodland is starting to come alive with vibrant colours as we move into autumn.
Harlow Carrs woodland is starting to come alive with vibrant colours as we move into autumn.

I’m surprised to see some early signs of autumn already taking hold in the garden, due largely to the dry spring and rather unpredictable summer. The leaves on many of our trees – including the maples (Acers) and spindles (Euonymus) – are beginning their annual transformation from a summer palette of greens to reddish hues as the days shorten and low light levels start to make their presence felt.

The woodland is a beautiful spot at any time of the year, but as autumn progresses, it comes alive with fiery reds, rustic bronzes and vibrant shades of amber and gold.

The woodland garden team has been hard at work over the past 18 months, working to achieve our curator’s vision to create a ‘perfect woodland garden’ at Harlow Carr by introducing a greater diversity of plants and wildlife as well as year-round beauty and colour.

The aim is to keep a traditional woodland walk feel but with more open vistas, a lighter, airier atmosphere and more stumble-across glimpses through the trees to pockets of colour and interest that visitors simply have to investigate further.

It’s all about light and space and combining the natural beauty of the woodland with the changing light through the seasons.

To achieve this, the team is thinning out some of the trees to allow our beech and oaks more space to be appreciated, whilst keeping a handful of craggy, damaged trees to serve as bat roosts and bird nesting sites.

New species have been added to improve the diversity of the Woodland and introduce more striking colour, particularly in the autumn.

Some of the rarer trees worth seeking out include a delightful clump of deciduous false camellias (Stewartia pseudocamellia) with their lovely mottled bark and orange-red leaves, and the butter-yellow colours of our katsura trees (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) whose decaying leaves smell of toffee apples in October. The Arboretum is the spot to find specimen trees, including collections of conifers and beech. Don’t miss the mountain ash trees (Sorbus) which are at their very best in autumn when the leaves redden and the berries shine.

Underplanting is a key feature of the new-look woodland: more than 90,000 snowdrops and 90,000 bluebells have been planted en masse over the last few years.

The plan is to create two ‘blue’ corridors: one will run from Southfield, the area just above the Queen Mother’s Lake, through to the former Harrogate Arms, which is due to be redeveloped; the other corridor will connect Valley Gardens in Harrogate town centre, through the Pinewoods – in partnership with the Pinewoods Conservation Group – and into the garden.

Visitors can discover the beauty and diversity of Harlow Carr’s Woodland at a three-day Festival of Trees and Wood from 29 September to 1 October. The Yorkshire Carver will breathe new life into an old beech tree by creating a totem pole – complete with bugs, bats and woodland creatures – which will become a permanent garden feature for families to enjoy. Power tool manufacturers Stihl will offer a range of demos including chainsaw sculpting.

There’s also a chance to see shire horses at work, learn traditional wood crafts such as whittling, willow weaving and hurdle making or simply seek out the hidden glades, rare trees and Arboretum collections and find out about the best options for your own garden during a talk and walk with the experts.

Don’t tell spring, but autumn is my favourite season!