Garden diary

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

© Arne Maynard Garden Design 2017 - reproduction of content and / or photographs only by request.

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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© Arne Maynard Garden Design 2017 - reproduction of content and / or photographs only by request.

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Frost and fire

 

There are some activities in gardening that feel like they relate right back deep within our shared history. I find these moments when walking alone through woodland far away from the noise of traffic and the other distractions of modernity. Tending a fire is perhaps the most evocative of these experiences and I still enjoy the heat, the light and the unpredictability of fire that have fascinated people since the beginning of time.

Over the past few days the weather has become very wintery. Chilly, still, sunny days have preceded clear, cold, starry nights and heavy frosts have clothed the garden in icy white. Today began with a temperature of -7C and rose no higher than zero. At this time of year the sun remains very low on the horizon, barely rising above the tree line on the ridge to the north of the house. The result has been beautiful and savage. The months before Christmas tend to be a gentle, gradual cooling with the coldest of the weather arriving in January and February so a -7C in November feels particularly harsh.

Over the last few weeks we have been alternating our time between clearing and tidying the beds for winter and planting bulbs for the spring. I enjoy the duality of these activities; on the one hand you are acknowledging winter as you strip back the year's herbaceous growth, while on the other you are planting little packets of energy ready to emerge as soon as the worst of the cold has passed.

When the frost is as heavy as it has been for the passed few days it is generally advisable to stay off the grass as much as possible. This pushes us further into the landscape in order to find productive work and we have spent the cold days clearing bramble and weeds from along the boundaries beyond the drove. These areas have generally been outside of our reach as we concentrate our efforts closer to the house, but now as we open up the spaces and let in the light again a whole new surge of energy and ideas are promising to enhance and regenerate the space.

The bonfire smokes continually as the fire slowly devours the branches, sticks and stems left there a month or more ago. The heavy cold frost clings to each and every surface, fusing the branches together despite them being only a few centimetres from the flames. Through the garden the smoke is caught by beams of sunlight creating strange light effects and ghostly grey white forms, which seem to hang in the still crisp air.

On previous days the sun has reached down through the southern fields behind the house but today it never got as far as the garden. A mile down the lane in the sun it is 5C warmer and back in the garden the cold has been a bit of a shock to the system. If the winter continues to be cold and crisp we will certainly have more time to bring the more outlying areas under control, and just as importantly create plenty to burn. Today our fire might not have been quite enough to stay the cold but looking into the flames and the smell of woodsmoke is as powerful and compelling as it ever was. 

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer

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Burying treasure

 

As regular readers will no doubt be aware I am something of a fan of bulbs, or perhaps more specifically the flowering display produced by bulbs. Bulbs give you a huge amount of value for your time and monetary investment, especially the bulbs we use to naturalise and leave in the ground year round.

Last week we set about changing over our main containers from their summer clothes to their winter ones. There are few jobs in the garden which speak more clearly about the changes about to take place than the planting of bulbs in the autumn, it almost feels like an acknowledgment that the coming months are going to be very different than those which have passed but that there is a belief that when the sun returns these little packets of energy will burst into life and celebrate with floral fireworks!

We've worked our containers very hard this summer and they have mostly responded by giving us extremely large and abundant growth. A few pots however have become waterlogged and fetid. Over time old roots and debris have built up in the base of the pots and although we often replace the top soil we haven't been down to the depths and changed everything for quite some time. I won't bore you with the details of my emptying the pots, but one thing which was apparent was the care taken when mixing the previous compost and I was determined to do just as good a mix to replace it.

There are lots of things to think about when choosing a compost for containers, chief among them being creating a suitable environment for whatever you intend to plant. As our pots will have a wide range of different plants I set out to make a general mix which should provide a good mixture of qualities. We've made some particularly good compost this year and this along with some of our leaf mould became key ingredients. I also added a little grit, top soil and John Innes, mixing it all on a board until I felt happy with its consistency. I might also have checked with the boss, just to be on the safe side!

Over the last year we have started to build up and layer our seasonal planter display, hopefully giving a more sophisticated appearance and next spring will be no exception, in fact our plans are to have a more complex and coherent display than ever before. Our pots have a greater sense of sophistication too, we have picked a palette of plants and bulbs and varied the mix throughout the pots so that while they will all have the same threads through them, the pattern will alter.

The bulb choice is also a little different: this year we have gone for viridiflora tulips which have a flash of green up the petals in whites and apricot, and wallflowers in creamy white. I'm really excited to see the results. We've spent more time this year both in the planning and in the preparation of our spring display and there really is nothing like good preparation to give you the feeling of anticipation!

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

Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer

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Prolonging a good year

 

It's a typical quiet grey morning at Allt-y-bela. The day, which began dark and drizzly, is slowly waking and the birds in the trees are beginning to make themselves heard. This morning I've come out into the cottage garden to do a little late season dead heading and editing.

Over the last few years my approach to autumn in the cottage garden has radically altered. Before I came to Allt-y-bela I was looking after a much larger garden and we tended to wait until the first frost had been through and finished many of the plants off before we got in with our shears and cut everything down. When I started here I brought that experience with me and cut everything down after it had either finished flowering or it had begun to die back. I soon realised that I was missing a trick.

This year I have pushed my luck in the other direction leaving as much as possible as late as possible before cutting it back. This started back after the digitalis had finished flowering and naturally I wanted to leave it to set seed. I left the veronicastrum too, and then the phlox and lobelia. It's not that I'm not editing each time I go through the bed, I am. I am also deadheading the plants I want to keep flowering, I am still religiously dead heading the dahlias for example. Rather what I am attempting to do is to preserve the best shapes and silhouettes, which are so important with the beautiful low autumn light, while removing anything which has started to decay. I've found that my perception of what is desirable in the border has changed as the seasons have advanced and embracing the change has allowed me to really appreciate the beauty that the cooler weather brings. I've also enjoyed cutting seed heads and dried stems to use amongst autumn flowers which seems to add some authenticity to arrangements at this time of year.

Whether I've got the balance right this year in the cottage garden is perhaps a moot point, I've learned a great deal about ways to appreciate plants after their moment has passed, and perhaps a little about achieving subtlety and balance in the cottage garden.

As I stand here propped against the gatepost of the kitchen garden looking across the cottage garden at the fine oak which is turning to copper it feels to me like the cottage garden is at least in part reflecting the change in season while a few roses and and dahlias continue to valiantly defy the pattern.

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

Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer

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