(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on January 7, 2010. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.
Hidden away in north Northumberland near Alnwick and the North Sea coast is a wonderful all-season garden built around Howick Hall which was the home of the former Earl Grey. The Grey family have lived at Howick since 1319. Vicount Howick, Charles Grey was elected to Parliament in 1786 at the age of 22 and was later Prime Minister. The famous Earl Grey blend of tea is named after him. It was created to suit the water at Howick and was later marketed by Twinings. The present gardens are in the informal style after William Robinson and were mostly created by the Fifth Earl and Countess Grey in the 1920s and 1930s.
The gardens open for visitors in February for the annual snowdrop walks. There are thousands of snowdrops planted throughout the woodlands at Howick and there are signposted snowdrop walks to follow where you get wonderful views of masses of them. The bulbs were originally planted by Lady Grey between the wars and they have multiplied, becoming huge swathes of white throughout the woodland.
A little later, in March and April there is a fine collection of old narcissi varieties including 'Pheasant's Eye', 'King Alfred','Seagull' and 'Sirius' planted in meadows by Lady Grey who was a great bulb enthusiast. Fritillaria meleagris are abundant in the grassland also with scillas, aconites and erythroniums and then species tulips extend the bulb season into May.
The relatively new bog garden takes centre stage in summer. A large pond is surrounded by a collection of plants grown from seed collected worldwide. The plants are mostly unimproved varities including arisaemas, trollius, cardiocrinums, rheums, salvias, lilies, rodgersias and astilbes. Many trees and shrubs from the far east complement the perennials and bulbs in the bog garden.
The main flower borders surrounding the house and terrace are at their peak in mid-summer. The main rose border contains roses such as 'Golden Celebration', 'Mary Rose', 'Frencham', 'Deep Secret', 'Winchester Cathedral' and 'Perdita'. They are fronted with catmint. There are fine specimens of Choiysia ternata near the goldfish pond. The terrace path is lined with agapanthus, and there is a wonderful yew-enclosed kniphofia border underneath a huge Atlantic cedar. There is also a long border outside the Tea room (which sells Earl Grey tea naturally), that is filled with osteospermums, cistus, echinacea, eryngium, cimicifuga, salvia, gaura, cephalaria, monarda, fennel, astrantia, agapanthus, hemerocallis, Japanese anemones and many tender perennials, annuals and bulbs like chocolate cosmos, Californian poppies, scabious, dahlias and cosmos.
The rockery contains many summer flowering alpines as well as cyclamen, gentians and crocuses. The path here leads down towards the stream and on to St Michael and All Angels church. Charles, the 5th Earl and his wife Mabel are buried here.
Perhaps the most famous feature at Howick is Silverwood, the estate's woodland garden. Planting started in 1930 and the highlights include a magnificent collection of species rhododendrons, camellias, azaleas and magnolias, which are underplanted with herbaceous perennials such as meconopsis poppies, primulas, euphorbia and hellebore. Other shrubs include Mahonia, Clethra, Crinodendron, Pieris, Vaccinium, Euchryphia and Hydrangea, and the planting represents countries from China, Japan and Chile. The woodland is at its most impressive in Spring, but there is a lot of summer interest too, and in autumn there is wonderful colour from the turning leaves, and early flowers from hamamelis.
The aboreteum at Howick which was opened in 2006 covers 65 acres and contains over 11,000 trees and shrubs almost all of which have been grown from wild collected seed from all over the world. It is one of the largest collections of trees in the UK. There are wonderful specimen trees all over the estate from maples and oaks to magnolias and birches and they include some rarities like Sorbus harrowiana.
The BBC's Gardener's World voted Howick one of the top 5 coastal gardens in the UK. It really is worth a long visit - or two! I try to visit several times a year at different seasons and there is always something new and delightful to see.
All photographs in the article are my own.