There's still time to experience the Winter Walk at Harlow Carr Gardens in North Yorkshire. Heather Barron talks to the man responsible for maintaining its beauty

FOR a man whose least favourite season is winter, Russell Watkins is doing a great job with the Winter Walk at Harlow Carr.

The walk has been Russ’s responsibility for the last decade and as anyone with a garden will know, there is always something to do, all year round.

As Floral Team Leader, Russ is involved in the never-ending job of keeping a public garden like Harlow Carr, near Harrogate, in tip-top condition.

While design and planning are part of his remit, he has special responsibility for the Winter Walk.

“It all started with my nan. She had quite an old-fashioned garden - mostly vegetables and roses - but she got me interested. By the time I was five, I was helping her to prune her roses,” explains Russ.

Having been bitten by the gardening bug, he left school at 16, and was keen to get some horticultural experience. He spent a year “on a sort of apprenticeship scheme” with Birmingham Botanic Gardens, followed by a two-year National Diploma course at Pershore Horticultural College, where he specialised in Garden Design and Ornamental Horticulture.

Realising that he wanted to be a garden designer, Russ enrolled on a three-year degree course in Garden Art & Design at Leeds Met, which was more technical than practical.

He knew, half-way through, that office-based work wasn’t really what he wanted, but he stuck it out.

After graduating, he took a position with a garden maintenance firm but he stayed less than a year.

“I hated it,” he confesses. “I’m a very planty person – not a butcher, and it was all about cutting things into cubes.”

Luckily, a vacancy for a position in the Harlow Carr Plant Centre came up and, after “a lovely interview” during which he says his interviewer felt “she should save him from garden maintenance”, he was offered a six-month contract.

“It was a fast learning curve with deliveries every day, and some plants I’d never seen before,” laughs Russ. “There was also lots of customer contact, so I was spending a lot of time giving advice.

“Although there were no guarantees, I was hoping it would be a stepping stone into the gardens,” says Russ. “After my six months, a place became available and I got it.”

During his time at Harlow Carr, Russ has spent ten years with the Floral Team and a year on the Woodland Team, which he confesses was very different.

“All my knowledge was in floral, where I was more at home. It is quite prescriptive, with set standards. Woodland is much more naturalistic, so, initially, I struggled with it a little. But it was lovely working with different plants and a different team.”

Although the Winter Walk was started eleven years ago it was never completed. Russ took it on, and considers it to be ‘his baby’.

“It’s been amazing,” he says. “I don’t like winter – it’s cold and wet – but that’s when the walk is at its best. I try to create colour and interest, making it as bright and brash as possible.

“With floral planting, it’s all about complementary colours, but I can ignore a lot of the rules and introduce colour combinations that are not normally used at other times of year.”

Although the walk is open all year round, it comes into its own from October to April.

“The season ends in a psychedelic blast of colour from mid-February to mid-March. It’s like a kaleidoscope, before it switches off like a light, in preparation for the ‘big cut down’ at the end of March/beginning of April. The rest of the garden is just waking up then.”

Visitors are increasingly asking if it is possible to buy the plants on display, so the Plant Centre now stocks products that are featured in different areas of the gardens, with a really good selection from the Winter Walk at the moment.

To find out more, click here