Garden diary

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


Cottage garden musings

The cottage garden at Allt-y-bela consists of a mixture of roses, fruit and herbaceous planting. In the winter it is dominated by a large domed beech topiary which stands as a sentinel at the end furthest from the house and is reflected by the naked rose domes. The little cobbled paths, made from river stones Arne collected from the stream, form ribbons of blue grey to frame the panels of planting which in summer are so profuse as to hide them entirely. In the centre is an apple tree beautifully trained into a goblet shape whose limbs spiral up crossing each other as they do so.

The cottage garden has undergone a subtle and beautiful change over the last couple of months. Back in June the borders were dominated by roses with Astrantia, Aquilegia, Allium and Geranium playing the supporting roles. The colours were rich and often dark giving the garden an opulent, exuberant feel, somehow reflecting the energy of the period that leads up to midsummer.

A little over six weeks later and the garden has softened, the colours are a little more gentle and the pallet of plants has evolved too. Where the wine red Astrantia 'Claret' and almost black Centurea montana 'Jordy' once reigned, now light pink phlox has emerged raising itself above the foliage of the plants below gently swaying and moving in the warmth of the August afternoon.

The purple red flowers of Origanum laevigatum 'Rosenkuppel' creep through the undergrowth frequently spilling out over the cobbles, while light pink Nepeta grandiflora 'Dawn to Dusk' and Salvia turkistanica light corners with delicate flowers. Digitalis parviflora adds a strong vertical dimension to the borders drawing the eye back up just as the Veronicastrum did before it. Occasional flourishes of Sanguisorba lend offbeat notes to the composition, breaking the neat verticals with their unruly deep red blooms. Most majestic of all though is the beautiful angel's fishing rods, Dierama 'Merlin'. Their strong strappy arching leaves manage to be both architectural and graceful, and with a profusion of bowing flowering stems, each hung with delicate but rich purple papery fishes, I can think of few finer plants.

The cottage garden is really quite a modest space, even by Allt-y-bela standards. Most people who have a garden will have a larger space than this taken up by this type of plant.  What Arne has managed to do within it is really very special. The garden manages to reflect the changing seasons, right throughout the year, through its clever choice of plants. It manages to successfully navigate the transitions without ever showing gaps. The plants are absolutely shoehorned in and marshalled ruthlessly; if something doesn't work hard enough to keep its place then it is replaced, there is little room for sentimentality.

Allt-y-bela, with its modest spaces, is the perfect canvas for Arne to trial his ideas. The ones which work will find their way out into the wider world and those that don't, well they are just an important step along the road to perfection.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer



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.