Garden diary

A few additions

 

Change is the only constant in life. I feel like I've heard that sentiment expressed in more ways than I can recall. In truth though it has become something of a mantra of mine, reminding me that even the worst situations are transient whilst helping me to enjoy the best moments to their fullest. Working in a garden though, you can hardly fail to appreciate the truth of the matter. Each day, each week, each year, the garden is changing, nature's chaos perverting and adjusting our well considered plans into often wonderful and sometimes frustrating results.

Working in the garden at Allt-y-bela can be incredibly frenetic, energising and perplexing in equal measure. This week has been one of those weeks. It began with preparation for our rose dome building course, my list of worries and things to stress over has become an annual tradition now and I'm learning to stay slightly calmer. Despite some pretty persistent Welsh drizzle in the afternoon contributing to the familiar gardeners plea 'you should have been here yesterday!' the course was great fun and as an army of rose domes were contorted into all manner of shapes and sizes I felt very happy to have been part of the day.

No time to waste however as preparations began the next morning for some new additions to the garden. As I arrived in the lane a very large lorry was waiting and I had more than a suspicion that its contents would be for us.

Luckily for me Arne had arranged his crack team of landscapers to install these massive new plants so I could take part in the really nice bit, the placements and the little tweaks: 'I think it needs to come around 30 degrees clockwise' all very satisfying!

Amongst the new arrivals was a beech tree that Arne has been coveting for more than a decade! Just getting the enormous tree out of the the lorry was a Herculean task, followed by a strange convoy that included the beech tree dangling from a reversing telehandler, the Land Rover and trailer containing a beautiful multi-stemmed Cornus mas dome and a transit flatbed truck with a pair of Osmanthus topiary balls. We must have made an impressive, if a little bizarre, spectacle!

Safely back in the garden the last day and a half have been dominated by the installation of these new plants. Arne and I stood on the drive as he spoke of how this was the last delivery of large plants for Allt-y-bela, before mentioning the 5m tall Magnolia that will be arriving soon!

Words: Steve Lannin, Head Gardener, Allt-y-bela

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer

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The first blooms

 

The garden at Allt-y-bela is beginning to spring to life once more. On the droveway and through the woodland snowdrops abound drifting in vast white carpets across the brown green of the winter landscape. There is something magical and heartening to see swathes of ground suddenly coming to life in these dark weeks. Amongst the throng of single native snowdrops, a few double flowers can be found. You can generally tell the doubles by the broader nature of the flowers, the only way to be sure of course is to get down on your hands and knees and have a good look. The rewards certainly make the muddy knees worthwhile but it is a shame we don't get the chance to appreciate them in a more congenial environment.

Along the sides of the drive towards the field gate is a small wild bed filled with winter snowflakes. Winter aconites are beginning to establish there too. The winter snowflakes look a little like a broader stronger snowdrop, their heads still nod in the cold breeze but they are larger and slightly more showy.

The bulb lawn is beginning to show the first signs of life now too, a few short weeks ago I was looking across the grass at the telltale leaves of iris and crocus that offered so much promise and over the course of the last few days the flowers have been breaking out, first a few crocus, then the very first reticulated iris. Each day, come rain or shine, flowers have been emerging.

One of the frustrations I've found in past years is that I never seem to be able to photograph these spring treasures to really do them justice, then, while crawling around on my hands and knees through the mud it occurred to me that it would be rather lovely to bring these flowers into the house and photograph them properly. Around this time last year Allt-y-bela played host to a Dutch Masters flower arranging course, the resulting pictures were so stunnning I was desperate to have a go at recreating a similar sense of light and dark, fine detail and highlights. These early spring bulbs which posses such breathtaking beauty are perhaps slightly overlooked as we dodge the rain and hurry past against the biting cold. Brought indoors, with time to really look and appreciate them, their elegance shines through.

Once inside with our selection of flowers we decided to break them down into three groups; the crocus, the iris and the snowdrop type flowers. I think we could have very easily spent days placing them around the house to photograph. Allt-y-bela is such at atmospheric house, somehow though it always comes back to the older parts of the house, the medieval dining room with its massive stone fireplace and shining polished oak furniture lend themselves so freely to this style of photography.

The bulbs which are in flower now represent the beginning of the year in the garden at Allt-y-bela, there is so much to come, the thought is almost a little overwhelming. But this week, through the incessant rain and frost, these beautiful plants have emerged bringing with them a sense of positivity and hope for the coming year.

Plant information:

1. Left to right; Crocus subs. biflorus, Crocus tomasinianus, Crocus 'Snow Bunting', Crocus 'Cream Beauty'

2. Crocus 'Prins Claus' & Crocus tomasinianus

3. Crocus 'Snow Bunting'

4. Crocus 'Cream Beauty'

5. Left to right; Leucojum vernum 'Snow Flake, Galanthus 'Flore Pleno', Galanthus nivalis

6. Galanthus nivalis

7. Left to right; Iris reticulata 'Pauline', Iris reticulata 'Gordon', Iris reticulata 'Pixie', Iris reticulata 'Katherine Hodgkin', Iris reticulata 'George'

8. Iris reticulata 'Katherine Hodgkin'

9. Iris reticulata 'George'

10. Handtie of Iris reticulata 'Pauline', Iris reticulata 'Gordon', Iris reticulata 'Pixie', Iris reticulata 'Katherine Hodgkin' & Iris reticulata 'George'

Words: Steve Lannin, Head Gardener at Allt-y-bela

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer

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Pruning the roses

 

Last week passed by in a blur of rose pruning, this week has begun a little differently; the incessant rain has forced me inside to plan my kitchen garden campaign, a task that is long overdue. That's not to say that the rose pruning is finished, those two weeks off I had at the beginning of the year saw to that!

I have had a relationship with roses ever since I've been a gardener and like most relationships it hasn't always been an easy one. Pruning and training tend to lead to blood being spilled and expletives exclaimed; these days I'm rather more calm. Roses are the scent of summer and at Allt-y-bela they are particularly venerated. The work of teasing and bending sometimes brittle rose stems to our every whim can feel like a labour of love in January, yet come June the work is forgotten and the flowers enjoyed.

Last week we rebuilt the rose domes, a job which sounds pretty quick but seems to take an eternity, before we then pruned the shrub roses.  Our task for this week is to prune the rose on the front of the studio (Rosa 'Souvenir de la Malmaison') and to rebuild the frame on the back of the house and retrain the spectacular (and prickly) Rosa 'Astra Desmond'.

The latter is no small task. The frame was built the year before I arrived at Allt-y-bela and three years on it was very rotten in parts. When it was built the roses barely reached six feet up it, now they are getting stuck behind the guttering! The frame is not attached to the wall at all but rather held on large uprights which stretch from the ground to the guttering, while the other pieces hang off them. The reason for this slightly strange method is that the lime render which covers the house is soft and would flake off if anything were to be attached to it.

The climbing roses are being trained in a method similar to that used at Sissinghurst where stems are trained into loops. The roses seem to flower just as effectively as if they were trained in a more traditional horizontal way but look rather more decorative.

The rain is slowing finally and so I'd better get back to it. Rose pruning is one of those tasks that mark the year for me, I love getting the roses trained and pruned and ready for their big moment a few short months away and have learned not to fight those pesky prickles quite so much!

Words: Steve Lannin

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer

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New Year changes in the garden

 

Christmas crept up on me last year in a blur of roses, bulbs and brambles; I spent my last day before Christmas making garlands for the fireplaces and wreaths for the door. I love Christmas at Allt-y-bela, it feels so intimately connected to the landscape and the season.

After Christmas I had some unused holiday to take, which turned out to be two weeks. I'm convinced that Allt-y-bela exists outside of the normal rules of physics, days pass in what feels like minutes, weeks in what seems like days!

During my very long break I caught up on some jobs, did a little college work and walked some of this beautiful corner of Wales I call home. By the end of the last week I was very much ready to come back, I'd forced myself to stay away but it wasn't easy!

On returning on Monday I was in for a bit of a surprise; the garden was alive with builders! When Arne talks about his ideas it can feel rather like he's talking about his long term ambitions for the garden. I'm learning not take anything for granted though, Arne is a man of action and as a result the garden at Allt-y-bela is constantly evolving.

A new gardener's potting shed is being installed into a shed beside the studio along with another toilet which will be especially helpful for courses and tours, and it means that I won't be trudging through the kitchen in my muddy boots quite so often!

In the garden a cobbled rear terrace has been added, which not only helps connect the complicated architecture but will also be a place to sit out and eat in summer. There are other changes planned for this space but I'll let you know about those as they happen! At the front there is finally a cobbled path to the courtyard and the front door, again it is the beginning of a larger scheme but this first phase has already made a great difference. Back behind the house a birdbath which has, for as long as I've been at Allt-y-bela, sat waiting behind the workshop, has been placed on a new cobbled plinth amongst the box lattice. Its new location is outside of the snug window and adds a layer that I wasn't aware was missing from the lattice. It's strange how the smaller things can sometimes have the biggest impact.

The hard landscaping is finished for the moment but in the new potting shed the work goes on. On Monday the garden was filled with the very unfamiliar sound of Radio 1 as site radios boomed out across the usually tranquil garden. Now, on Friday, with blue skies, frost and quiet the garden feels like it's returned to its natural state; timeless, peaceful and beautiful.

Time away has really given me a greater sense of perspective and an appreciation of Allt-y-bela as a whole. The incongruity of Radio 1 and noise only reinforces what a special place this is, connected but outside of the world around it.

Words: Steve Lannin, Head Gardener at Allt-y-bela

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer

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A cut above

 

I suspect many professional gardeners like myself started out with a pair of very pedestrian secateurs before being introduced to the eponymous Felco no2 by some wise council and from that point they never looked back. Felcos are light, sturdy, powerful, hold a good edge and every piece is replaceable, meaning that with a little care a pair of Felcos will last you a lifetime. Many gardeners will therefore think this comparison post is irrelevant, and I don't mind if you do. Secateurs are perhaps a gardener's most-used tool and, like a choice of footwear, the pair you choose is intensely personal.

Until I was introduced to Niwaki a couple of years ago my Felcos had never left my hip, but the promise of razor sharp, hand forged secateurs turned my head and I bought myself a pair. I love my Niwaki Tobishos and have used them daily ever since, which has led me to wonder about other options I might be missing out on. And of course the all important question: How much do I need to pay for a decent pair of secateurs?

Secateurs should be fairly straightforward to test, they are in effect a sharp cutting blade on a handle with a catch - simple! I have chosen, more or less at random I must confess, six pairs of secateurs which range in price from £22 to £79 and cover a wide range of makes. I have then spent some time cutting roses, top fruit and herbaceous material with each of them to represent the typical lifetime duties of the tools.

Felco No2 £40

I thought I'd better start with the baseline by which all others are judged. Felcos come in a range of sizes and styles to suit every conceivable need. They are all lifetime guaranteed and can be easily dismantled, cleaned, old bits replaced and then put back together. Stories of their endurance are legendary; I personally lost a pair in a compost heap for 9 months, the acid had pitted and eaten away at the aluminium handles but after soaking them in oil for a day or two they were free enough to be stripped down and rebuilt, and although clearly not as good as new they went on to lead a full and varied life.

Holding them again in my hand they feel like an old friend. They are on the chunky side after so much time with the Tobishos (see below), but they are easy to sharpen and hold up to a lot of abuse; they can cope with tough woody material and you are likely to develop a hernia before you will damage the blade.

Rough, tough and dependable, why did I ever leave them? The answer is, they don't feel special. Now I know that that is not only highly subjective but it's also dependant on how much more you want to spend on a pair that does feel 'special'!

Lowe original £35

Most of you may not be familiar with the name Lowe, I know I wasn't, but I was interested to know what had happened to Rolcut secateurs. They used to be everywhere, everyone had a pair, and then they disappeared. In fact I have never used a pair of anvil secateurs since Rolcuts until these arrived a few weeks ago. The story goes that Lowe designed what we know as Rolcut secateurs which were manufactured in the UK under the Rolcut brand. The brand was then discontinued after being bought by Fiskars in the 1990s.

I chose the original pattern without the plastic grip handles, mainly because I prefer the look but also because I wanted to get as close as possible to Rolcuts. The only difference in fact is the catch, which although plastic is very easy to operate and feels good quality, in fact everything feels good quality, the blade is strong and the action feels sturdy, solid and positive. I really enjoy using them. Anvil secateurs have a reputation for bruising and flattening the opposite side of the stem to the blade and in the case of very thick rose stems this is just about noticeable. The cut is very clean however, especially on thicker woody growth where it proved superior to its rivals.

There is a drawback; on light herbaceous stems they are next to useless, chewing fretfully where others positively glide through the soft growth. I so wanted to love these secateurs and in many ways I do, but if you are looking for a single pair of secateurs that will do every job in the garden, then I'm afraid these aren't it. That said I will certainly be using them for tougher work.

Tenartis vintage grape shears £22

I have, for a long time now, had my eyes pealed for a good pair of vintage french grape shears but it's very hard to explain why in a singe sentence. I suppose that many of the best tools I use at Allt-y-bela are vintage handmade tools, they are rugged, strong and have a beauty which has been earned over decades of use. I guess I wanted to know if the same attributes could be found in vintage secateurs. I found these Tenartis on Amazon for a very reasonable price and wanted to see if they would give me a feel for the ergonomics of vintage pruners of the same shape.

They look rather roughly cast with a leather catch that I knew would be annoying. What I wasn't prepared for though was just how tough the steel was - it is almost impossible to get a sharp edge on the blade. After much mucking around and eventually filing down the blade, I finally achieved a tolerably sharp edge. The pruning experience was not really up to scratch to be perfectly honest, although I suppose I didn't really expect it to be. I bought these for their looks, for light home use and flower work and for that they are perfectly adequate. They will also look lovely in the tool shed.

Burgon & Ball Sophie Conran secateurs £25

When we first ran our rose dome course a couple of years ago we asked that people brought along their own secateurs. The result was that many pairs were either blunt or not really up to the task. Last year we bought 12 pairs of these for each guest on the course and being totally honest I chose them because they looked like my much more expensive Japanese pair, were very reasonably priced and were made by a well-known manufacturer. When they arrived, beautifully gift boxed, they very much looked the part too and performed faultlessly through both our rose dome course and our plant supports course.

I felt I should include them here because I had them around the shed, where they reside waiting for our next set of courses. Using them now I am pleasantly surprised at how sharp they are and how well they sharpen - the steel seems to be a really fine quality - and they are tough enough for the rougher tasks, yet precise enough for detailed work. The chunky brass catch looks lovely and works well. In fact my only criticism would be that the bypassed side of the secateur blade is very chunky which makes getting the shear in to tight spaces difficult, I would love to see that edge ground down a little. It's such a small point though and so if you are looking for a quality pair of secateurs, perhaps as a gift, and you don't want to spend a fortune then these are a great buy. They will last forever, cut really well and look beautiful.

Tobisho SR-1 by Niwaki £79

Since arriving at Allt-y-bela I've become increasingly aware of the importance of detail and craftsmanship. The Tobisho SR-1s look perfectly at home here, perhaps with the exception of the slightly jazzy yellow and red covers on the handles. They arrived in a beautiful box, polished and gleaming and have settled to an understated gunmetal grey. I have often thought of removing the plastic covers but I fear I would lose them and also they do protect your hand from the worst of the cold!

The Tobishos are hand-forged from two pieces of very fine steel in a family workshop in Japan, and everything about them feels special. The clacking sound they make is somehow joyous where it should be irritating, so much so that I spent much of my first month using them thinking about how much I loved the sound! The cut too is perfect, razor sharp and precise. They feel like a tool that will help you to become better at your job.

The downsides are two fold, they steel is fragile as I found very early on when I took a knick out of the blade (ouch!) and although they make a lovely sound as the back pieces come together behind the blade, they can become an unwitting trap for a stray thumb. (The same is true for the Sophie Conran pair, and the results are painful and bloody!) The Tobishos are heavy compared to the Felco pair too. However, I love the Tobishos despite, or perhaps partly because of their faults. Using them feels like a privilege although I'm not sure I can explain why.

Bahco Professional £40

The other secateurs here at Allt-y-bela have been bought over time, mostly by myself to try or just because I like the look of them. These Bahcos have been sent for me to try by Arthur & Strange and I must first confess that they are not my usual style. I tend to buy secateurs that are generally all metal and look fairly traditional. The Bahcos are certainly neither. They are designed to be ergonomic and to reduce strain on the wrist from constant use, they are also available in three handle sizes and blade types meaning that you can customise them to suit your needs. They can also be stripped down and every part is replaceable like the Felcos.

Bahco makes good cutting tools. There are few professional gardener's sheds which do not contain a pair of Bahco loppers, probably much like ours, having seen much better days and having faced the worst that gardening has to offer. Ours are battered and the bump stops are pretty perished, the blade however is sharp and they always get the job done. I think that they are great and so it's slightly odd I suppose that I've never tried a pair of Bahco secateurs.

Let's get a negative out of the way first. The catch is slightly awkward and it's quite small and stiff to operate although I think it would wear in with use. The other negative I found was that when pruning up a ladder I tend to want to move the secateurs from hand to hand to reach as much as possible from my position and of course as soon as you change hands with the Bahcos the ergonomics become a little odd, having been designed for one-handed use.

The Bahcos don't make a fuss about getting on with the job, they are very quiet in action, which seems to have a slight bounce, making cutting satisfyingly easy over a longer period of time. I think that the Bahcos will come into their own over time and in some ways a short test perhaps doesn't see them at their best. Of all of the secateurs I've tried it has probably been the Bahcos that I have come back to the most. For me though I wish that they were all metal, I wish that the catch was easier to operate and also that the spring felt a little better secured. They are certainly a great quality tool and you can't fault the cut but if they are going to challenge the likes of Felco it will probably be on the superior ergonomics and that will take a leap of faith. I think they deserve a closer look though.

Conclusions

Did I find an all-round secateur to beat the ubiquitous Felco No2? Probably not. Will I personally go back to the Felcos? Again, probably not. This is perhaps the crux of the matter; the choice of secateurs is incredibly personal. I would encourage everyone to try something different though, especially if you use secateurs every day. Most pruners are fairly inexpensive and each will give you a different experience. I don't think that I will ever stick to one brand or model for too long, next I have my eye on the Tobisho Hiryu which look incredible but come with a price tag to match and the Bahco P3 which seem to combine my love of simplicity and style with hopefully the ruggedness of Bahco's loppers.

Words: Steve Lannin, Head Gardener at Allt-y-bela

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer

© Arne Maynard Garden Design 2016 - reproduction of content and / or photographs only by request.

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