Elizabeth Balmforth was RHS Harlow Carr’s youngest and first female curator. Three years on she has a new job and is back getting her hands dirty, as Catherine Scott discovers.
Elizabeth Balmforth is in her element. She is out in the frosty North Yorkshire countryside foraging for whatever she can transform into stunning, natural Christmas decorations.
I have to say I am somewhat sceptical as there seem to be relatively slim pickings. But if you know what to look for, and can apply a little know-how and large amount of florists’ gilt coloured spray and a few carefully dried blooms, the results can be remarkable.
“There are so many things growing in our gardens, not just holly and ivy, that can be turned into something beautiful,” says Lizzie.
It is three years since I last caught up with Lizzie Balmforth. Then we were in her office at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Harlow Carr, near Harrogate where, at 34, she had just become the youngest and first female curator in the gardens’ history.
It was a weighty job and one that Lizzie relished.
“I am really proud of everything that was achieved at Harlow Carr while I was there,” says Lizzie, who had worked in the gardens for six years before her promotion. “We did over 30 projects within the garden and I think we did some fantastic work in that three years.”
But being curator of something as massive and important as Harlow Carr increasingly took Lizzie away from the thing she loved most – gardening.
“There was a lot of planning for the future and a lot of work away from the actual gardening.
“I will always have a connection with that garden and I am on really good terms with all the people there, but I realised that what I really wanted was to return to hands-on gardening.”
So in March this year she took the difficult decision to leave what had been much more than just a job for the last ten years of her life.
“It was a massive decision for me. I love the RHS and I always will, but I really need to get my hands dirty.”
So when she was offered the job of head gardener at the historic Mount St John estate at Felixkirk, near Thirsk, she decided to take it, although it also meant renting out her home, and, more importantly, her garden in Harrogate and a relocation to an estate house.
“Mount St John has so much history and is in such a stunning location overlooking the Vale of York. Somehow the area reminds me of the Peak District where I grew up,” says Lizzie.
Her mother was a keen gardener and a young Lizzie would help her to propagate the plants in the family’s greenhouse.
Although she always had a love of nature and passion for horticulture it never really occurred to her that she could make a career out of it. Instead she studied for a degree in business and Japanese – her father is a successful businessman.
She worked in commercial insurance after leaving Cardiff University. But it was her future husband who made her see that she needed to follow her heart.
The National Trust runs a careership scheme, similar to an apprenticeship, where horticulturists can learn their trade over a three year period. Lizzie managed to get a careership at Beningbrough Hall near York, and also got the chance to go to agricultural college. “I didn’t know where it would lead, but I love learning about this field. In fact one of the best things is that you never stop learning.”
Then she landed a job in the gardens at Harlow Carr before being promoted to curator, a job now held by Paul Cook.
Mount St John is owned by Chris Blundell, who is also co-owner of Provenance Inns. All of the food produced in the kitchen garden is used in the groups’ pubs across North Yorkshire including the Carpenter’s Arms at Felixkirk, the Oak Tree at Helperby, the Durham Ox at Crayke and the Punch Bowl at Marton cum Grafton.
“All the fruit and vegetables we grow are used in the pubs’ kitchens,” says Lizzie, who is also in charge of the private gardens.
Although not routinely open to the public, the estate does open its doors for specific events and tours.
“We do a lot for charity, including the RHS, which is nice, and also do tours for the Food Writers’ Guild. We really believe in plot to plate. It makes a lot of sense and people can see where the produce is from.”
The kitchen garden includes many unusual varieties of fruit and vegetables which are not widely available in the supermarkets..
“We deliver every week to the inns and work with the chefs to try to produce varieties that they can’t buy anywhere else.”
I meet Lizzie at the Punch Bowl where she and colleague, Anna Chaffrey, are busy creating festive arrangements to adorn the pub.
Although they have brought some of the foliage from Mount St John, a great deal of it can be found in gardens and a long country lanes, says Lizzie.
The garden at Mount St John was designed by Chelsea award-winning garden designer Tom Stuart-Smith at a cost of £2.25m, which included cutting back hedges to reclaim a panoramic view across the Vale of York and planting thousands of plants, as many as possible native to the area.
Lizzie says she is looking forward to working with Tom to develop the gardens further.
It is clear that she is happiest outside doing what she loves best, gardening.
“I do feel a bit like I’ve come full circle,” she says.
“It is beautiful to be part of such an amazing and historic landscape. My aim has been to get back to gardening and while I will never forget Harlow Carr and am really looking forward to the future.”
Take your decorating cue from nature
Planning for your natural Christmas decorations can start as early as the summer, says Lizzie Balmforth.
“It is really lovely to dry plants such as hydrangea and then use them in the decorations,” says Lizzie.
“These are the largest content and therefore dictate the them.”
She starts by soaking oases overnight and then creating a base using greenery such as cedar which she forages from the garden or country lanes. She then adds some eucalyptus, or ivy.
“With the foliage it is good to slit the woody stem up the middle. You can use pretty much anything evergreen.”
She adds birch twigs or willow to give height which can be sprayed with gilt or silver florists’ spray. “It is best to spray everything outside and let it dry before using it.”
She also sprays apples and pine cones. Candles can be used but make sure they are elevated away from the foliage and never left unattended. “Don’t forget to stand back and admire your work and add more. It is Christmas,” says Lizzie.