Garden diary

An October walkabout


There is no disguising the fact that autumn is upon us. I know it's a cliché but I really can't believe how fast the season has gone. I've hugely enjoyed this summer too. Whereas last summer I was scrapping around trying to find my feet, I've been able to enjoy this one far more. Autumn has started to touch the tops of the trees and the warm weather of last week was tempered by biting cold mornings.

Because Allt-y-bela is tucked into the bottom of its own little valley, the sun in the autumn casts long shadows and the light falls in shafts through the trees illuminating individual plants as if a spotlight has been shone on them. On the drive the beech and hawthorn topiary shine out, their tight clipped forms stark against the approaching dusk.

Around the garden there are plenty of plants in flower. The roses in particular are making a fantastic late show this year, and the light is so much kinder after the harsh light of June. The colours and forms, often with morning dew, now seem even more sumptuous and special partly due to the light but also because they have much less competing with them for our attention. Rosa 'Sir Paul Smith' which tumbles over the wall of the cottage garden is spilling a few choice late blooms tantalizingly at nose height from the drive edge, whilst the 'Generous Gardener' continues to live up to its name sending up cluster after cluster of delicate pink flowers.

Autumn is also a great moment for Japanese anemones and we have a couple of particularly beautiful varieties in the garden at Allt-y-bela. Anemone hybrida 'Wild Swan' is a lovely white flower with a pink blush on the back while Anemone hybrida 'Andrea Atkinson' is pure white and planted down by the stream looks beautiful in the evening light.

Over the last year or so we have been adding to the asters in the garden creating some much need late season colour and a few of our new selections have really shone out this autumn. Aster novae-angliae 'Herbstschnee' meaning autumn snow has been a really fantastic addition to the developing border outside the courtyard. With its strong tight habit and profusion of flowers it has defined the look of the front of the house over the past month.

Aster ericoides 'Pink Cloud' has been a lovely light addition to the cottage garden; its habit and colour provide delicate interest in a part of the garden that is dominated now by seed heads and bronzing foliage. Aster novi-belgii 'Fellowship' on the other hand is bright and vibrant purple and lifts the beds outside of the kitchen garden, currently dominated by dahlias.

I am a huge fan of autumn, partly perhaps because the garden is slowing down and I get more time to appreciate it. But mainly I think because the flowers at this time of year seem all the more special. As gardeners we know it won't be long before winter clears away most of the colour again until spring.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Reaping the rewards


Last week saw the very last day of our organic kitchen garden course which has been running right through the growing season and based in the kitchen garden at Allt-y-bela. It was with mixed emotions that we faced that last day; on the one hand it is a great relief for me to no longer have the monthly scrutiny of a very professional grower in the course leader James Clapp, who is currently head grower for Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quatre Saisons in Oxfordshire, along with a group of very talented course participants. On the other hand I was genuinely very sad to say goodbye to the many good friends I have made over the past 8 months. The insight they have had into the garden and especially into the kitchen garden is a very personal one, and they have shared the ups and downs that I have experienced in my first year of vegetable growing. Without exception I have received huge support and encouragement, which have certainly helped sustain me when things have gone wrong.

When the greenhouse arrived a few months ago it was like welcoming an old friend who has come to help you out of a tight corner. I have grown quite a lot in greenhouses over the years - although no vegetables I have to admit! The key with keeping a greenhouse healthy seems to be controlling the temperature and humidity. In practice this usually simply comes down to knowing when and how to ventilate. Because our little greenhouse is relatively sheltered and the summer so gloomy there was never really a need to shade to keep the temperature down so that simplified things further.

By the time the greenhouse was installed it was getting rather late and so more by optimism and hope than any great expectation we filled it to bursting point with tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. The young plants very soon got underway and before I knew it I was twining the stems of the cucumbers ever higher up makeshift string supports towards the apex of the greenhouse roof. We tried two varieties, one of which was Melen, an F1 variety that produced abundant really tasty fruit for months on end, and another White Wonder, a light skinned, oval shaped cucumber which produced huge amounts of bitter and almost inedible fruit!

The tomatoes too were a mixed bunch, we trialled 12 varieties in all, of different shapes, sizes, colours and flavours; all have produced good fruit but some have certainly been tastier than others. My personal favourite was Vialli, a lovely cherry tomato with a balance of flavor I find just divine. As for the peppers, well they are steadily ripening and this little spell of dry warm weather will do them the world of good I'm sure. There is again a real mixture of varieties and I'm hopeful that I will be able to report success in some cases at least.

My little greenhouse has definitely been my piece of comfort in a part of the garden where I feel that I am still struggling to find a real connection. That said there have been some successes, we have had more salad than we could possibly eat, the broad beans and potatoes were really very good and the brassicas have survived the cabbage white onslaught miraculously unscathed. I have also managed to double crop on a decent number of the beds, which for a first attempt isn't at all bad.

I'm not sure yet if we will run another vegetable garden course next year. I've certainly learned a huge amount from this one. Despite the horrors of having your work critically appraised in front of a group I have no doubt that without James and the many friends that I made on the course the garden would look and certainly feel much poorer.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Creating a sense of place


One of the things I love about Arne's gardens is that they all exude a sense of belonging to their landscape. Whether modern or traditional, English, European or American there is a sensitivity and depth to the design which allows it to sit comfortably within its surroundings. Having worked with Arne for a little while now I have picked up breadcrumbs of wisdom about how this might be achieved but when I was offered the chance to sit in on Arne's three day course on creating gardens with a sense of place, I naturally jumped at the chance!

I won't try to condense three days of learning into a few short paragraphs because it would be utterly impossible. What I was struck by though is the extent to which Arne routinely goes to understand the landscape, the clients and the site in order to achieve a successful garden. It goes way beyond making sure that the materiality of the garden is right and that the history is respected. Arne studies his clients and their home; motifs and patterns which occur within the historic fabric of the house may well end up being used as inspiration for garden elements. A treasured possession, a family relic, a much loved painting may be the inspiration for a border's colour scheme. The end result is personal to the client, to the house and to the wider landscape.

Arne creates gardens that are uniquely personal to his clients. To emphasize just how important this is to a successful garden design, he took us to two very different homes; one where a garden has been created and one where the delicate nature of the site, which is epitomised by the house itself, makes creating a garden incredibly challenging.

Our first stop was Llowes Court near Hay on Wye. At first glance everything is much as you might expect; it is a lovely Welsh manor house painted in saffron yellow with well tended barns and a meadow. But something totally unexpected lurks just below the surface of this garden. The first clue was meeting Sue, Llowes Court's rather magnificent owner and creator of the gardens there. She is charming and direct with a glint in her eye that at once leaves you in little doubt that you are in for a treat.

"Where do you want to go first?" she asks Arne, "The mineral pavilion? The birds nest? The Grotto?" Her invitation is like a grandmother offering you sweets when your mother's back is turned. We looked at each other and grinned and leaving our expectations at the gate we happily fall in behind her. I don't really want to describe the garden to you; it's one that needs to be experienced. It is magical though, it is like being transported back to childhood. It's fun, it's confusing, it's totally beguiling but there is an undercurrent of wisdom to it, it's not at all silly nor throw away. The design is considered, modulated and worldly. It is masterful, fearless and energetic. The garden is a reflection of Sue herself and I can't think of a higher compliment for it.

Our second stop was Ciliau, a Welsh farmhouse perched high in the Brecon beacons. On arriving at its gate you drive up a steep and rutted track and are greeted by the back side of some very utilitarian looking tin roofed barns. Pallets of roof tiles and pieces of architectural stone lay stroon about and my first impression was of having arrived at an abandoned farm. On closer inspection though you notice that the gate posts are rough hewn from great gnarled tree trunks and that there are some signs of life.

Nothing quite prepared me for what I found when I rounded the corner into the courtyard of the farm itself. It struck me as something that had been carefully arranged for a painting or perhaps a film set for a period drama. Three wild looking horses, positioned centrally in the yard, looked languidly across at us while a pair of geese eyed us suspiciously from the doorstep. The old house looked in just the correct shade of decay and an old Victorian table sat abandoned in the corner. In places the bedrock jutted straight out of the ground and the land rose slightly towards the house, which lay at just the right distance to allow you to properly drink in the scene. The word bucolic was probably coined for Ciliau.

The house's current tenant is Roger Capps, a renowned master builder, who quietly takes us through the history of the house, most of which I miss as first the cat, and then the horses, seemed to take an unnatural interest in me, first sniffing, then nibbling at my hair. From what I gathered though the house was given its last major tart up in 1590, it has miraculously survived major development ever since. It still has no heating and no bathroom in the house so Roger has built a wonderful bathhouse in the garden. It gets so cold in the winter that Roger has been known to find his house guests asleep on the heated bathhouse floor in the morning. It's a hard life living at Ciliau, which is the only property in the UK to be designated a SSI due to its colony of lesser horseshoe bats that share the house. Roger is a great custodian for Ciliau; he has spent a lifetime working on some of our most treasured buildings. The house is rich with wall paintings and layers of colour. History drips off the very walls. It is beautiful and fragile and in better hands than it could wish for.

I think what I learned most from the course is perhaps what I have learned most from gardening; there are no shortcuts. If you want a garden to be right then you have to be prepared to really work. Gardens reflect people and their interactions with the landscape and both have to work together to create something which lasts. Arne's great skill is at least partly his sensitivity, and then there is his creativity and the ability to bring the elements together. In many ways though the creation or reinvention of a garden is just the beginning of a long-term relationship.

Words and photographs: Steve Lannin


Arne runs a series of garden courses from his home in Monmouthshire each year.

Arne's new book, The Gardens of Arne Maynard, is available to purchase now. Buy signed copies directly from us here or visit your local bookshop.


Enter: The Dahlia


One of the many wonderful things about having a garden is being able to pop outside and cut a few flowers for the house. Whether you choose to pick wild flowers and grasses, astrantia or phlox from the borders or specially grown beauties like sweet peas, there are few things that brighten up a home more than flowers.

At Allt-y-bela the picking usually starts with wild narcissi in early spring, followed by tulips and then wild flowers and stems from the herbaceous borders, before moving on to sweet peas, chosen here for their scent as well as their colour. But now it is the turn of the dahlia to take centre stage.

This year has been a great year for the dahlias at Allt-y-bela; the plants have been stronger and taller and more floriferous than last year. The flowers have also been bigger and their colours truer. Amongst the many dahlias in the garden Dahlia 'Vancouver' has become a firm favourite of mine. It has a cactus type flower with an opulent purple edge, which fades towards the centre. It really looks stunning as a single specimen in a vase. Arne has a particular weakness for Dahlia 'Naples' which is a very sophisticated flower; double but very neat and sculptural, it is a kind of antique white, rare and special, it's definitely one for the connoisseur.

In the kitchen garden are two small beds which are devoted to cutting flowers, in the spring they are packed with hundreds of tulips which go to brightening the various rooms in the house and at this time of year they are full not only of dahlias but also sweet peas, cosmos and gladioli. This year as something of a departure from the norm we have grown vegetables including sweetcorn, peppers and squash, as well as edible flowers such as calendula and nasturtiums, amongst the cutting flowers.

As ever though nothing stands still at Allt-y-bela and this year we have used one of the beds in which we grew potatoes to trial some new dahlias. We have three new varieties; D. 'Veronne's Obsidian', D. 'Glorie van Noordwijk' and D. 'Classic Swan Lake'. The latter is a dark leafed, dark stemmed variety with creamy semi double flowers while D. 'Veronne's Obsidian' has unusual, almost black, pinwheel flowers that are very unique. D. 'Glorie van Noordwijk' is perhaps a tone lighter than the colour of the house at Allt-y-bela and I can immediately see its appeal. Its flowers are cactus type, strong and bright with just a hint of translucence.

Each of these new additions has something out of the ordinary to offer. The nice thing is that none of them would have been my choice, I'm much less brave when it comes to experimenting with strong colours and unusual forms, but I certainly wouldn't rule out my writing in a year or two's time of my complete addiction to any one of them. Innovation requires risk and whilst Arne continues to innovate my horizons continue to broaden.

Words: Steve Lannin

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Effortless order


I was once told that the mark of a truly great gardener is the ability to leave no trace of their having been there at all. Good gardening should look effortless. This is both a blessing and a curse; on the one hand you have a garden with continuity which evolves through the seasons without there appearing to be any major upheaval, on the other hand this can be misinterpreted as overstaffing. I've seen this happen many times and it's very sad.

Gardening is often quite messy and challenging physically but there are few greater pleasures than showing people around a garden, which has been thoroughly prepared to look spontaneous and unprepared!

There are broadly three types of jobs in the garden; those which entail a huge amount of work but look as if you have done very little, those in which you do very little but it looks as if you have done a lot, and those in which you do a lot and it shows! I suppose I could add those where you do little and it shows, but we won't go into that!

Possibly the most obvious example of jobs where a little effort goes a long way is lawn mowing. Borders might be well prepared, flowers dead headed and pots in perfect condition, but a tatty looking lawn will spoil everything. At Sudeley Castle there is a lawn which is full of lumps and bumps, the evidence of former gardens and buildings, where a close cut and neat stripe utterly transforms it into a piece of English garden perfection! Arne would quite possibly despair of me if he came home to find stripes in the lawn at Allt-y-bela - it really isn't that kind of garden - but the point holds just the same.

The pleached crab apples around the courtyard at Allt-y-bela have been looking a bit wayward for some time now; every time I go to take a picture for Instagram or Twitter I just can't bring myself to post it. The new vertical growth has obscured the delicate horizontals which frame the house front and have turned the thin veil across the façade into a virtual wall of green. The crab apples are pruned in much the same way as our eating apples using the modified Lorrette system, which calls for the new growth to be cut back to four or five buds above the basal rosette. It's important not to do this too early because if you do you will get a second flush of new growth from the point just below the cut. The idea of cutting it now is that it is too late in the season for the tree to put lots of energy into new vegetative growth and so its redirects that energy into the fruit. 

What this all means in practice is a lovely sunny day, enjoying the clacking sound of your secateurs shortening the new growth. At the end of the day you end up with a barrow load of clippings and one very neat façade. Combine that with a little mowing and you have a very smart looking house for comparatively little effort!    

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer