Garden diary

The road to Allt-y-bela

The road to Allt-y-bela, once a bustling highway is now a haven of calm. As you leave the main road behind the lane closes in around you as it winds gently through the rural landscape. Once the main route between Usk and Chepstow the road has become colonized by wild flowers as birds nest and voles busy themselves amongst the undergrowth. In recent weeks the lane has begun to break into bloom making the journey to Allt-y-bela all the more enchanting. The boundary between the lane and the garden has become blurred and although the species gently change as the ground becomes more open in the garden, the flowers in the lane seem to act as beacons on your journey, encouraging you on towards the house.

The lane is quite steeply sided in parts, much like a Cornish lane, and the plants cling to almost vertical surfaces. In its flatter sections it is more damp and dominated by meadowsweet and buttercup. The lane forms the boundary in part to a brook which runs cool beneath the shade of the trees at the field edge; here beneath the trees the wood anemones, which have given us such a brilliant show this year, continue to bloom. On the more open parts of the road the heat of recent weeks has seen them decline and become more ragged.

The dry heat of the sheltered banks has brought the bluebells out early, the upper common is going to be covered in bluebells but they are not quite out yet. The bluebells in the lane are clinging to the drier areas and have been joined by greater stitchwort which weaves its narrow glaucus stems amongst the ragged grass. Dog's mercury is here too, having already flowered it is busy setting seed now in heavy pods which pull the slender flower spikes hard down.

Elsewhere vetch is starting to appear, I love the pea like flowers and the twining tendrils, which snake through the other plants in search for purchase before pushing skyward to flower. Its small blue grey flags glow blue purple in the strong sunlight. Keeping a lower profile are the bright pink striped blooms of herb Robert, its red fleshy stems spiderlike, and there are also wild strawberries here too.

Just occasionally now the red campion is starting to flower, its cerise pink feeling almost out of place amongst its more restrained counterparts. I love its exuberance; it gives you a taste of the bright buoyant colour that is to come later.

Bugle is standing tall amongst the growing grass where the lane opens up slightly, it will soon be lost amongst the grass and so is making the most of this early opportunity to shine. It's by no means the only member of the mint family making an appearance on the lane; there are yellow archangel, whose flowers are almost like those of the orchids, starting to appear all over the garden. We also have catmint flowering, wild violets, celandine and the first cow parsley flowers are beginning to open.

The lane really is a treasure trove of wild delights at this time of year reflected and complimented by the garden. It's a great time of year to take a stroll and look out for wild plants in and near your own garden, they are not only beautiful but will also give you a surprising amount of information about what will or won't thrive in the garden itself.

Words: Steve Lannin

Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Planting with Arne

Arne is at heart a gardener. It is one of the things that defines his work in designing gardens but is perhaps most noticeable to me when he is at home. The first thing Arne does when he arrives home is to look at the garden, and by that I don't mean a quick glance around to check that it all looks ok on the surface, I mean he studies the garden in great detail, which is quite unnerving for a gardener!

Walking around the garden with Arne is a real education; he has an incredibly sharp eye for detail and will spot things way before me, despite the fact that I spend all day, every day here. The level of detail that Arne spots forces you as a gardener to raise your game further than you might have thought possible, and it has become one of my challenges to spot things before Arne does!

One of the other real give-away signs that Arne is a true gardener is that he has a tendency to buy beautiful and unusual plants without a real idea as to where they might go in the garden here. It is quite normal to arrive back after a weekend to find a tray of unusual plants waiting to be housed and whilst we try our best to find a spot for these foundlings as quickly as we can, occasionally some get relegated to the back of the kitchen garden to await an uncertain future.

Arne is verybusy with the business and free days to spend in the garden are few and sometimes far between. At the beginning of last week however Arne conspiratorially mentioned that he might have a free day on Friday to spend in the garden so I ensured that all of the usual weekly tasks were out of the way by Thursday.

We had quite a few tasks lined up for Friday but chief among them was getting the kitchen garden cleared of all the homeless plants which had been marooned there. We had a fantastic day planting but as my day drew to an end there were still plenty left to plant and we hadn't even begun to tackle the other jobs on the list. We worked on into the evening but didn't quite manage to give everything a new home. That is another mark of a true gardener; optimism. We all set out to do the impossible and more often than not we fall short but it doesn't stop us trying again tomorrow!

Most of Arne's displaced plants now have a new home but the work is never finished; this morning Britt arrived with another new plant - a gift from Arne's sister-in-law and plantaholic Elke. It's a lovely wine red climbing monkshood and I'm searching for a spot for it as I write!

Working with Arne at his home means that you never stop learning and you never stop reaching for the next level of beautiful.

Words: Steve Lannin

Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Still learning, every day

Over the last few months I have had the pleasure to sit in on some of our garden courses at Allt-y-bela; I'm currently learning to grow the very best vegetables with James Clapp who is head grower for Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir and I have made a hedgerow basket with Judy Hartley, which I am currently using as a foraging basket for herbalist Catherine Marshall who is running a workshop at Allt-y-bela in July. Most recently I have had my eyes opened to some of the amazing intricacies of plant propagation by Marina Christopher of Phoenix Perennial Plants who is currently growing plants for a multitude of Chelsea Flower Show gardens, she knows all of the hot trends that will dominate the gardens this year but she's keeping very tight lipped I'm afraid!

Marina is a scientist by training and she brings her knowledge of biological systems together with her experience as a grower to the fore when she demonstrates her techniques. Marina is very aware of the importance of the growing media to the health and well being of her plants and she has designed her own range of composts from seed sowing mixes to potting mixtures and the one thing that unites them is her love of grit! I was amazed at just how gritty her mixtures are but of course it is not just any grit; the grit Marina uses is only available from one quarry and she has spent years finding the optimum size and shape. The grit keeps the soil texture open but also holds the moisture across its surface. Marina's mixes can be up to 80% grit for cuttings! One of the great things about using a gritty mixture is that the roots become very easy to separate when you come to pot up. If they are not though, or if they are a bit long for the new module or pot, don't do what most of us are tempted to do and curl the roots around to fit them all in, do what Marina does, chop them off to fit!

When I first saw Marina do this she had a pot of cuttings which had been sitting a little too long in their pot and had become root bound. She turned the pot out and chopped the pot contents in half to a barely stifled gasp from her audience! It is better to cut the roots and let the plant recover than to mess about trying to untangle roots. These old roots are likely to die anyway and although it might look a bit brutal and is certainly pretty unorthodox, her results ultimately speak for themselves. Marina's techniques have been honed in a very high-pressure environment where there really is no room for sentimentality; her techniques however are easily adapted for those of us who grow on a slightly more modest scale.

There are a few places left on some of our other courses this year including Arne's Curiosity Cabinet of Plants course on the 23rd of April where Arne will be introducing some of the rare and unusual plants he loves and divulging some of his secrets about how to source these rare gems.

To find out more about Arne's courses and to book a place, click here

Words: Steve Lannin

Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Easter at Allt-y-bela

Easter in the garden is a time to celebrate new life; it's a time of plants emerging from the cold earth and of breaking buds. This Easter is particularly exciting for me as it is my first one at Allt-y-bela and there is something very special about seeing this particular little hidden valley coming back to life. The winter hasn't been a particularly hard one, or indeed a particularly wet one. We seem to have been spared the extremes this year and I suspect that the weather forecasters will soon be telling us that the winter was marginally warmer than average and marginally drier as well. 

I like to take the time to walk around the garden whenever I can to just look at things and to see what has changed but also to notice what is staying the same. It's terribly easy as a gardener to let the subtlety of changes in the garden pass you by. We are all rushing to catch up on the jobs which should really be done by now whilst fighting off the first flush of spring weeds. One of the lovely things about Allt-y-bela is that it is tucked at the very end of a tiny Welsh lane which is banked and hedged on either side. The banks are absolutely full of wild flowers and right now they are bursting with primsoses and as you approach the house the primroses and the occasional oxlip seems to be spreading in from the lane towards the house amongst the ranks of daffodils.

On the common the snakes head fritillaries are starting to break through and bud up and it's a massive relief to see them. Back in the autumn I spent days crawling around planting several thousand of them before watching tentatively to make sure they weren't eaten by some of the native fauna! Some of the other bulbs I planted in the autumn are up now too. The crown imperials have been fragrancing the drive with their very particular odour. They appear somewhat crushed this year, however I'm sure that next year they will be standing stately and tall.

Around the back of the house, within the informal box parterre, our new Magnolia has no such trouble commanding space. Its lovely open goblet form is going to look beautiful in leaf and it serves to break up the domination of the evergreen structure. The herbaceous plants are also starting to break through now, with Aconitum, Delphinium and Aster all now visible. I particularly love the herbaceous peonies which push through like a purple red fist before spreading their leaves.

Allt-y-bela is defined as a garden by its location and for me one of its key geographical plants is the hazel, which grows so abundantly in the valley here.  Over the past week the hazel buds have started to break and fresh green leaves have been emerging. There is nothing that heralds the true arrival of spring like the hazel coming into leaf and here at Allt-y-bela spring has truly arrived!

Words: Steve Lannin

Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Sowing with reckless abandon

With Easter approaching and the weather warming up, a childlike zeal is released in the gardener. The short, cold days of winter seem to be over now and we are all straining at the leash, desperate to get back into the garden and grow something!

At Allt-y-bela we have recently taken delivery of a couple of cold frames which have now been placed against the southern gable of the old barn. Soil warming cables have been installed under the ground within the frames to speed up seed germination and I have been sowing seeds with careless abandon! I also bought some lovely wooden seed trays to sow into, along with some really strong module trays. Both should last for years to come. 

So where am I up to? I have now planted all of our potatoes into the kitchen garden; we are growing 'Charlotte', a lovely salad potato, 'Anoe' which is an early cultivar and a new one to me and 'Ratte' and 'Mayan Gold', both main crop cultivars bred from an ancient variety of potato grown in Peru 7,000 years ago. I have also planted out a variety of broad bean called 'Hangdown Green', which James Clapp assures us is one of the very best. I will be putting in our onion sets very soon but we still have some Cavolo Nero in the bed, which Arne is currently eating his way through!

I have been sowing beetroot and oriental salads along with lettuce, chard, radish, rocket, spinach and onions and most of it has now germinated which is very exciting. I will also be sowing some seeds into seed beds outside over the next week or so and covering the beds with fleece to protect the seedlings and to help raise the soil temperature. Arne has never been massively keen to use fleece in his garden at Allt-y-bela for aesthetic reasons but has been convinced to give it a go this year by James who is running our organic kitchen garden course. In searching out the best fleece to use we came across some green fleece which we are currently trying out in the garden. It will be interesting to see the effect it has - I'm expecting the darker colour will absorb more heat but maybe admit less light . I will let you know how we get on with it.

We are also expecting a new greenhouse to arrive soon so I have moved our compost bins from beside the kitchen garden to accommodate it, and we are currently trying out making our own compost tea! There are exciting times ahead in the garden as things begin to grow once more but it's worth remembering that it is still very early and we may yet experience some hard frosts. But it's a great time to be getting back out in the garden and revelling in the joys that spring brings!

Words: Steve Lannin, gardener at Allt-y-bela

Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer