This Harrogate house is filled with flowers and freshly baked cakes thanks to horticulturalist and star baker Jo Banks. Sharon Dale reports. Pictures by Tony Johnson.
A friend recently referred to Jo Banks as the “Nigella of the gardening world” and it’s an apt description.
She is charismatic and funny with the power to enthral when enthusing on her specialised subjects: flowers, plants and cooking.
Her house is full of her own home-grown flowers and freshly baked cakes – sometimes she even combines the two, using viola and geranium petals as toppings on her Victoria sponge.
The cake, occasionally washed down with champagne, goes down well with visitors to her classes and workshops. She launched the Harrogate Garden and Flower School at her home after a mid-life career change.
The switch from nurse to gardener was sparked by emotional upset but the outcome has brought her great happiness.
“I have always had a passion for horticulture. When I was a child my dad gave me my own little garden to look after and I was hooked. As a teenager I can remember friends asking if I wanted to come out and I’d sometimes say ‘no, I’m weeding’, which they thought was hilarious,” says Jo.
“It has helped me through some difficult times over the years. In fact, I’d say that gardening saved my life. It is incredibly therapeutic for many reasons and provides solace and sanctuary.”
She studied horticulture at Harlow Carr and established her own garden design and maintenance business before moving to London for a year, where she worked at the renowned Petersham Nurseries.
She moved back to Harrogate five years ago and bought her home, a detached 1960s property. It’s a quiet spot but within walking distance of the town centre
“I saw it advertised and went to look. It was an ugly house but I could see the garden had potential. It is big and wraps round the house, although it looked tiny because it was full of leylandii and conifers. I knew I could make it beautiful with some hard work,” says Jo.
There was plenty of space inside the house but the layout didn’t work for her and there was no flow. The proportions on the ground floor were perfect for her, the workshops and for hosting her Airbnb guests.
She knocked down walls to create one large, open-plan space for a dining area, kitchen and office. Glazed double doors bring in light and lead to the separate sitting room that overlooks the garden. Another glazed door leads to the hall.
“The glazing has brought much more light in downstairs and I’ve also got fairy lights everywhere for night time. I love them,” says Jo, who also replaced the flooring and the kitchen. Her units, which include an “essential” plate-warming drawer, are made by German-based Odina and are available at Homebase. She used the same kitchen cabinets to create a wall of storage in the office.
The furniture is a mix of items from her previous home along with some new buys. The glossy cupboards in the sitting room are from Ikea and hold hundreds of gardening books. The enormous, extendable dining table is also from the Swedish superstore.
The coffee table is from Achica.com and some of her vintage finds are from the annual Ripley Decorative and Home and Salvage Show. She’s also a fan of Harrogate boutique Sophie Likes.
The décor shows her creativity and love of colour, all set against a backdrop of walls painted in the same shade of grey – Mineral Haze from Dulux.
“I love colour and I’m a big fan of Tricia Guild, of Designers Guild. Her fabrics and interiors are amazing.”
The silks are from James Hare and the cushion covers were inspired by a trip to a friend’s home in Thailand.
She also has a large collection of coloured glassware, both vintage and modern. It is useful, beautiful and is often used to display her flowers.
All her flowers are seasonal and freshly picked and she is fastidious about their arrangement. She rarely walks by without tweaking them and propping up any drooping stems.
“They are from the garden but if I do ever have to buy some I make sure they British,” says Jo, whose favourite flowers are hydrangeas and hellebores.
Outside, the garden has been completely redesigned. The planting is mainly herbaceous with fruit trees and shrubs providing the skeleton. There is a new hardstanding for what she calls the “nerve centre”, her greenhouse, as she enjoys propagating.
“I also love growing edible plants. You feel like the richest girl in the world when you pick things out of the garden and eat them,” says Jo, whose next project is to create a timber studio so she can relocate her classes and workshops.
Even though horticulture is now her job, she still gets great pleasure from working in her own garden.
“My life is mostly gardening and flowers. It’s creative, nurturing and it’s slow. It also teaches you to have hope, belief and patience,” says Jo, “I find it amazing that out of the earth comes so much beauty. It’s magic.
“That’s why I love teaching people about gardening. Whether you have lots of space or just a backyard, it gives you so much back in return.”
The Harrogate Garden and Flower School, www.jobanksflowers.co.uk