Garden diary

A new book: The Gardens of Arne Maynard

Gardening for Arne has allowed me a glimpse into the workings of a major garden design business and I have found it fascinating. Arne has enormous amounts of energy and ideas spark from him like an electric current; it's deeply impressive and can be a little intimidating. Arne's team of designers, plants people and project managers systematically turn his inspiration and ideas into reality. It's all done with such efficiency that you can easily forget the complex precision that each project requires.

On arriving at Allt-y-bela just over a year ago I began to hear individual projects being discussed by Arne and the team. Names including Kingsmead Mill, Bowling Green and Haddon Hall were regularly mentioned, along with a whole host of others; I was impatient to hear about them all and perhaps visit some along the way!

The other great work which has been progressing alongside all of Arne's current projects has been his new book. That too has been fascinating to watch develop and catch little snapshots of the process.

The Gardens of Arne Maynard features a choice selection of Arne's most mature projects and explains how he has designed, built and then maintained them. It takes you from the client brief through Arne's design process to completion and beyond with achingly beautiful photography showing the gardens not just at their peak in midsummer but throughout the seasons. The book perfectly illustrates how the different design elements work through the year and because Arne has purposefully avoided editing out deadheads and misplaced tools, it is a celebration of gardens as they truly are and how we actually experience and garden them.

In addition to the main garden chapters are subchapters of garden essentials; these are elements that have become signatures in Arne's gardens and include kitchen gardens, roses, topiary and craftsmanship. These subchapters give the book a truly authentic feel.

I have watched this book progress since I started gardening here. As with any book, it has been a labour of love and one which has taken a whole team of people to produce. One of the most exciting times I can remember was seeing the studio table, which is a good 14 feet long, covered in photographs for Arne to sort though and decide which ones to use in the book. I remember the weather was horrible - a true mid-winter day - but the studio was warm, light and alive with activity. I couldn't help but come in to enjoy watching the process and to shelter from the dull, cold garden.

Another day that sticks in my mind was when the cover photograph was being chosen. With such wonderful photography throughout the book it was difficult enough to whittle it down to a choice of three, let alone choose a final image. It was a privilege to hear and to be a very minor part of the discussions.

The garden at Allt-y-bela is featured in the new book and my great hope was that some of the pictures of the garden would have been taken during my time gardening here. I'm thrilled to say that there are quite a few! As a gardener there is nothing that gives me greater satisfaction than seeing my work really appreciated and there cannot be a greater reward than having your work featured in such a beautiful book!

The first advance copies of the new book arrived here a week or so ago and I can't tell you how excited we all were to finally see it. I'm pleased to report that it is every bit a gorgeous as we all hoped it would be. With its release day set for September 10th I have to admit to having put my name down for four copies! They aren't all for me! It's worth noting that if you order them through Arne's website they will be signed by Arne and will include an exclusive bookmark. Something tells me he is going to be spending an awful lot of time signing books this autumn!

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

Photographs: Britt Dyer and William Collinson

You can pre-order signed copies of the book here (UK orders only).

The book will be published by Merrell on 10 September 2015 and will be widely available in the UK, USA and Canada.



Growth and clippings


One of the wonderful things about being a gardener is that you grow and change with the garden over the years. As your understanding deepens and your technique improves you are able to focus your energy on the details which define the garden in which you work. It is these details that will eventually become the hallmarks of your work.

Working at Allt-y-bela has acted as a supercharger on this process. Arne is hugely inspiring to work with and has set off a real explosion of creativity in me; some of my ideas have worked better than I could have hoped, while others have not had quite the desired effect, but they are all steps along the road to defining my gardening practice.

One of the areas of gardening which I feel define me as a gardener is my topiary; I love cutting topiary. The best lessons I had came from watching another gardener cut very tall, complex topiary while I acted as ballast on the elaborately constructed frame which was used to access the hedge. I loved seeing how he used the tool in various ways while moving around very little. This contrasted hugely to my constant dashing about, frenzied technique that left me exhausted each day. I might not have learned to cut in quite such a calm and dignified manner, but I did learn some important lessons in mechanical economy.

When I started here at Allt-y-bela I inherited a pair of point nosed hedging shears which had been used to cut a lot of the topiary. Beech hedges in particularly benefit from being cut by shears as a hedge cutter tears the leaves to sheds and results in a tatty finish. Having never cut beech topiary and never really used shears except for a little box clipping I was nervous about having to produce the quality of finish that Arne would expect, using a technique and practice completely different from anything I had done before. Last year I got by, I cut mostly with a hedge cutter to achieve the lines and tidied up with shears. The results were ok.

This year I reached for my trusty hedge cutter to start to cut the yew topiaries only to have it break down after a couple of minutes.  Still in the hedging mood I decided to cut some of the beech with shears and this year it felt much more natural, in fact I rather enjoyed it. The clacking of shears is certainly more relaxing than the deafening whine of a petrol hedge cutter. I'm not a convert yet by any means, but my range of techniques is expanding and my preferences are changing because of it.

Growth is not something that is confined to the plants in the garden; in helping gardens to grow, gardens help us to grow also.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby-Dyer


A trip to Sussex

As part of our kitchen gardening course we recently visited two very different gardens in Sussex. The first, a private garden with an old walled kitchen garden at its core and which Arne has been involved with for over ten years, and West Dean Gardens, a beautifully restored Victorian vegetable garden.

In their Victorian heyday walled gardens buzzed with industry as all powerful head gardeners manipulated and toiled to produce the earliest, biggest and tastiest food crops for their masters in the great house. These spaces were built when labour was cheap and estates were largely self-sufficient communities, much like the monasteries before them. After the two World Wars, country estates went into decline as death duties took their toll and many great houses were lost and those that remained were run on a much more modest basis. The first world war especially decimated a generation of working men and much of their knowledge was lost with them.

Many of these walled kitchen gardens have survived in various states of repair and while some of them are still used in much the same way as they were originally intended, most of them have either had to adapt to a new purpose or sit idle until a viable use can be found for them.

Our garden visits neatly covered the ways in which we are reusing and reimagining these spaces. West Dean is perhaps the most straight forward. West Dean College is nationally renowned for its craft courses so it is perhaps no surprise to find it home to an outstanding homage to the Victorian kitchen garden.  The rebirth of the kitchen garden has been masterminded by Jim Buckland and Sarah Waine who took the run down remains of a once great walled garden and reimagined how it may have functioned in its heyday. I say reimagined rather than restored because what they have done is not a straight restoration. It is more reminiscent of what a Victorian head gardener might have done with the space if they were around today, so there are concessions for mechanization within the structure for example but also a much greater range of fruit tree pruning on display. Jim has passionately recreated a plethora of fruit tree shapes which have probably never been seen before in England and they alone make West Dean a great place to visit. Sarah has a truly Victorian grasp over glasshouse production, and rattles through facts and figures relating to each crop with intimidating authority. The garden reflects the rigidity and austerity of its original function; I found it hugely impressive yet also slightly sterile.

Our visit to the private house was something entirely different. The house is Queen Anne in style with later additions and is immaculately kept by a great team of gardeners. The garden has a lake, beautiful borders, perfect topiary and a wild flower meadow so superbly balanced in the species on display that it looks slightly unreal. It was the kitchen garden that we were really there to see however. When Arne started designing this garden the walled garden had retained an original bed layout and paths, complete with aged fruit trees lining them. Arne chose to keep all of the original structure and to use it in a new way; where West Dean is a phenomenal recreation of the Victorian kitchen garden this garden is more like the evolution. Because the structure has been retained the space keeps the atmosphere of a kitchen garden without the hard formal efficiency of its Victorian predecessor. Three of the four original beds have been retained for the production of vegetables, fruit and flowers for the house but have been extensively redesigned to include much more structural and material interest while the fourth is a labyrinthine path of tall grasses leading to a small sunken grassed open space. The glass houses and gardeners bothy are all beautifully built and overseen by a head gardener of very rare talent who gardens not only with great efficiency but with a real artist's eye for detail. It really was awe inspiring to experience. His name is Ben Pope and he also writes a blog which I thoroughly recommend. It can be found at 

Both of the gardens have much to be admired but I was really captivated by the private garden. It was a great reminder for me of Arne's great talent for capturing the essence of a place and somehow amplifying its beauty. The gardeners there have every reason to be proud of their efforts. I am hugely grateful that West Dean exists and it offers great inspiration for fruit tree pruning particularly, but I am also glad that the fashion in gardens these days is for softer, more romantic spaces that nurture our sense of well-being even though it is perhaps not as efficient as our Victorian heritage.

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

Photographs: Kristy Ramage


A good year for the roses

Roses are such an integral part of the English garden that it is very difficult to find an angle on which to write about them that hasn't been covered countless times before. Such is our love affair with the rose that it is almost inconceivable there can be a garden in Britain of any real size which is not home to at least a few examples.

Here at Allt-y-bela the roses are a big part of the summer display, furnishing the garden with their colour and filling the hot borders and shady nooks with their wonderful delicate scents. For me, while autumn smells of bonfires and winter of cinnamon and spices, summer smells of roses and there is nothing quite so wonderful as a summer's garden filled with the clean floral scent of the rose.

The trees that tower over the drive at Allt-y-bela are spilling over with Rosa 'Mannington Mauve', R. 'Frances E Lester' and R. 'Kiftsgate', to name but a few. These roses, planted three years ago now, are this year really beginning to take off up into the canopy. In a few years' time the branches will be heavy with the weight of the rose blooms and the petals will cover the drive in a layer of fragrant confetti.

The trees along the stream edge are also overflowing with roses including the glorious Rosa 'Wedding Day', by the steps at the stream crossing, whose blooms open deep primrose yellow before quickly paling to white. It is a simple single flowered rambler which is vigorous enough to climb into the higher reaches of the alder trees by which it has been planted.

In the courtyard by the house the hazel rose domes are adorned with Rosa 'Cardinal de Richelieu', a deep crimson Gallica rose, complimented by the unusual R. 'Louis XIV', with its strong calyx like matt dark purple flowers. Over by the steps to the studio another unusual rose, Rosa chinensis viridiflora, flowers continuously all summer long, its green flowers grabbing your attention just as you really should be concentrating on the steps!

Behind the house the north-facing back wall is quickly being covered by Rosa 'Astra Desmond'; a remarkably strong and healthy rose for a shady wall, little known yet perfect for lighting up a dark corner. Its flowers are an antique off-white and are profuse and long lasting.

Up in the herbaceous beds the rose domes we constructed back in the spring are now invisible, swallowed up by rose blooms. Rosa 'Queen of Denmark', a large blush pink rose with a beautiful heavy soapy scent, benefits hugely from the rose dome structures. The large flowers can pull the stems down causing the over-sized buds to rot in the damp before ever opening. Here they are held upright and the flowers can be seen and appreciated to their potential. Rosa 'Tuscany Superb' is another beneficiary of the domes, as is R. 'William Lobb', a beautiful moss rose and probably the healthiest of its kind, its unusual buds and stems alone make this cultivar worth growing.

The stream, which runs alongside the kitchen garden, drops over a small waterfall at the edge of the herbaceous beds and here, arching over the running water, we find Rosa 'Cecil Brunner', a lovely shell pink rose with a natural arching habit. And completing the picture of a natural rural idyll is the wonderful Rosa 'Paul Smith', magenta pink and hugely floriforous, tumbling in great waves over the herbaceous garden walls onto the driveway.

The roses at Allt-y-bela may have all been chosen and placed with great care, but the effect is a garden that feels very natural.

There are so many beautiful roses here at Allt-y-bela and I really have only named a very few that stand out in my mind when I came to write. It seems that this year is a particularly good one for roses and now is a very good time to enjoy them, especially while we still have this lovely heat!


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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby-Dyer


Much Ado in the Garden Theatre

Last week passed by me in a flash of good food, good people and frantic gardening! After preparing for the courses the week before, last week was spent keeping everything ship shape for the production of Much Ado About Nothing, which took place in the garden theatre on Saturday night. My plan for the week was fairly simple; cut a little topiary, cut the grass and then generally enjoy meeting the many interesting people who come on Arne's courses. But the unexpectedly warm weather, which was preceeded by rain, meant the garden decided now was the time to put on a major growth spurt. Some areas of grass needed cutting twice and the fairly content borders all shot up and then started collapsing all over the place! Best laid plans and all that.....

That said I would have been in a bit of a spin last week anyway trying to make the garden look as lovely as possible for all of the people who were due to visit. When I finally threw in the towel on Friday evening, after my fuel supply ran completely dry, I felt the garden looked as good as it possibly could have. I could relax and enjoy the garden on Saturday night.

The forecast for Saturday was worrying; heavy rain was due to pulse through late morning before drying up and being fairly mild by the late afternoon and into the evening. Last year we had almost perfect weather but I have heard tales of previous years when the rain was so heavy that the actors, sheltered by umbrellas, were almost inaudible! Although there is obviously nothing you can do about the weather, I would have been bitterly disappointed if rain had spoiled guests' experience of the garden this year.

I was sitting in my kitchen (drinking tea) when the rain started around lunch time. It was bouncing heavily off of the paths outside, making a tremendous racket. Shortly afterwards a friend of mine arrived from across the border feeling a little pessimistic about the chances of a warm evening. By mid afternoon the rain had cleared but waves of deep, heavy rain-leaden clouds passed by over head. By the time we were ready to leave it was still rather dull but had warmed up considerably; the sort of savage, quick heat that builds before thunder!

Arriving at Allt-y-bela it was obvious that the rain there had been intense, but it was dry and people were arriving en mass with folding chairs, picnics, blankets and that typical British optimism that causes us, as a nation, to put on and to attend outdoor events despite our famously changeable climate!

I really needn't have worried, the weather was perfectly behaved; the rain had refreshed the garden and the evening was milder than last year. The production, set against the barn wall in the fading evening mid-summer light, was magical and as the sun finally set over the house, the play drew to a perfectly timed close.

Lying back in the grass on the top of the theatre banks was a truly lovely conclusion to my first year in this unique garden.

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

Photographs: Britt Willloughby Dyer

The play was performed by The Willow Globe Company.