Garden diary

A star-studded spring carpet

The garden is bursting into life now and it's the turn of bulbs to really show their worth. Those little packets of energy and life, which seemed so inert back in the autumn, have metamorphosized into jewel-like flowers which now pepper the grass and borders. Layers of later flowering species are pushing up leaves through the still-cold ground, promising not just a continuation of this display, but a building of it, like that of a firework display building to a dazzling crescendo. Ours will be an explosion of rare and beautiful tulips, alliums and cammassia, but I'm getting ahead of myself!

Right now the bulb lawn is the star in the garden, a dense matrix of Crocus tomassinianus, Crocus 'Prins Claus' and C. 'Cream Beauty'. The couple of hundred C. 'Prins Claus' I planted in the autumn have been swallowed up into the display, a constant process of building in layers of bulbs each year, which lends the garden its feeling of age despite its relative youth. Amongst the crocus are reticulated Iris: beautiful, complex little flowers no more than six inches high with all of the stately beauty of I. siberica but in miniature. We have several varieties of these lovely little flowers including Iris 'Alida' which is light blue, I. 'George', which is a deep purple as well as I. 'Pauline' and I. 'JS Dijt'.  The courtyard is also home to Iris reticulata has I. 'Katherine Hodgkin' which is a hybrid and I have seen variously described as ethereal, breathtakingly intricate and as subtle as a painted paperweight; it is very unusual and very beautiful. The courtyard is also bursting with crocus but due to its warm south facing aspect, many are already past their best.

The river banks here at Allt-y-bela have been concealing a rather wonderful secret which it has been giving teasing glimpses of for some time now. Now that the weather is warming up though, the secret is out; there are hellebores right up and down the banks of the river as it meanders through the garden and each that emerges has been more stunning than the last. We have white doubles, rose hued singles, rich dark velvet reds and purples each one an individual selected for its unique appearance. Hellebores hybridise freely giving a huge range of forms and colours.

It would be impossible to write about the amazing abundant flowering bulbs at Allt-y-bela without talking about the narcissi. They, along with the earlier snowdrops, have been instrumental in establishing the gardens here and it is very difficult to image the garden without them. There were none when Arne arrived at Allt-y-bela but he has since planted tens of thousands, which, for a compact country garden like this one, is an awful lot! It is probably the equivalent of gardening activity having taken place here over many generations, although unlike a traditional country garden where countless varieties would have been put in dependent on the fashion of the day here at Allt-y-bela there is only one species and that is Narcissus lobularis which gives the effect of a mass planting that you might find at a great country estate garden. It neatly reflects the importance the house once held in its prime location on the main road to Chepstow.

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

Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer


01 Crocus_Prins_Claus_in_lawn_photo_Britt_Willoughby_Dyer02 Iris_retculata_photo_Britt_Willoughby_Dyer03 Iris_reticulata_George_photo_Britt_Willoughby_Dyer04 Chinadoxa_photo_Britt_Willouhgby_Dyer05 Tulips_protected_photo_Britt_Willoughby_Dyer06 Hellebore_photo_Britt_Willoughby_Dyer07 Narcissus_lobularis_driveway_photo_Britt_Willoughby_Dyer

The sweet scent of soil

It's been another busy week here at Allt-y-bela with James' organic kitchen garden course starting in earnest. The kitchen garden at Allt-y-bela will be used as a demonstration garden throughout the course for James' techniques and he is helping me to create - even by his own admission - the single most complicated sowing and rotation plan I could possibly imagine. The basis on which it is all built however is really fairly simple; a crop rotation which most gardeners will be familiar with taking advantage of the different natures of growth and feeding requirements of the various plant groups.

We have decided to split our three main beds into 12 smaller ones, to be rotated each year, hence we are planning a 12-year rotation pattern! The trick then becomes how to best utilize the gaps between harvests and sowings and planning salad crops or green manures to build up the soil fertility. James is keen to show the variety of crops that can be raised in a small area once you break free from large beds, which can often leave you with huge gluts of produce or long hungry gaps while you wait for the next crop to mature. The ethos of the new kitchen garden at Allt-y-bela is flavour and freshness that even farmers' markets can't provide. We won't be self sufficient in potatoes but the few first earlys we will have should be divine.

As part of our new approach at Allt-y-bela we have bought a couple of cold frames which we will be used with soil warming cables to start salad crops and other seeds early. We will also be investing in a greenhouse for the kitchen garden for the first time! Ultimately Arne has plans for a really beautiful greenhouse for the garden here but we are looking for an interim measure to allow us to grow some of the more tender crops more successfully.

In total there were eight of us on the kitchen garden course and between us we covered about the widest range of levels of experience and scale as could be imagined. But we were all there for the same purpose and quickly gelled into a tight knit group. I am really looking forward to sharing our kitchen gardening journey together this year, discussing the highs and the invariable lows that productive gardeners know all too well. This year we all have an advantage over our past attempts, we have James' help and encouragement and each other to fall back on when our own limits are met. Once we get properly underway with growing I will try and keep you up to date on our Twitter feed so you can see how I get on!

Back to this week though and I'm busy preparing for our rose dome and plant support course that starts tomorrow. I think that all of the materials are gathered and ready and I'm looking forward to meeting another group of enthusiastic gardeners tomorrow.

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

Photos: Kristy Ramage


Snowdrops en masse at Allt-y-bela

This is a very special time of year for galanthophiles all over the country as snowdrops flower en masse in gardens, parks and hedgerows. It's hard to escape images of these little bulbs that dominate garden media at this time of year. There is no greater signal of the start of the new gardening year than the arrival of the snowdrop. I can't think of another plant in this country of gardeners that receives such universal reaction when it bursts through the cold ground in early spring.

When Arne arrived at Allt-y-bela there were no snowdrops and in fact no real garden at all; snowdrops like many bulbs are great survivors of long term neglect and can be viewed as indicators of past gardens. The fact there were none at Allt-y-bela would suggest that no real garden has ever existed on the site. Arne has used native bulbs to add a sense of age to the garden and each year since he arrived he has been adding a couple of thousand snowdrops 'in the green'. Now, after several years, the earlier planted snowdrops have started to naturalise and spread.

This year we have planted 2,000 Galanthus elwesii, which is distinguishable from the common snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) by its larger strap-like leaves and greater height. We have chosen not to mix these with the other snowdrops and instead will have distinct areas of G. elwesii either side of the stream.

Arne loves to have very special varieties of flowering bulbs in the courtyard at Allt-y-bela and in pride of place this week, next to the front door, is Galanthus 'Wendy's Gold' which, as its name suggests, has a golden pedicel to the flower. So precious is this particular snowdrop that we constructed a little willow frame around it to protect it from the clumsy feet of the dogs.

Snowdrops provide the first opportunity of the year for gardeners to get out and meet fellow gardeners, explore new gardens and to pick up rare and unusual snowdrop varieties of which there are literally hundreds of named cultivars. The RHS Plant and Potato Fair, which is held at Lawrence Hall in London on 20-21 February, offers a great chance to meet growers and buy special varieties. There are also countless gardens open through the National Gardens Scheme, as well as Colesbourne Park in Gloucestershire where Galanthus elwesii discoverer Henry John Elwes lived, offering the true galanthophile endless inspiration this spring.

[Scroll over event / garden names above for links]

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer



Garden courses preparation begins

Over the last few weeks Allt-y-bela has been a hive of activity as we prepare for our first courses of the new year. February is going to be a very busy month with the first two days of Organic James's kitchen garden masterclass, our rose domes and plant supports workshop (which we are now running over two days due to popular demand) and the two-day hedgerow basket making course towards the end of the month.

Last week we met with James Clapp (or, as he's known round here, 'Organic James') to discuss what we needed to arrange for his kitchen garden course starting on 10th February. One of the temptations when you are faced with potential garden improvement ahead of a course is to rush to get them in place before the course begins. With this one though, I am having to restrain myself slightly: James is keen to help people remedy their growing difficulties by looking at their plot from the soil up and, as painful as it might be to be the host garden, where your own shortcomings are going to be scrutinised, it feels like an important part of the process and so I will be leaving the plot as it is for now.

That doesn't mean that we aren't planning to fix the problems we have identified and over the past few days deliveries have been trickling in. I would love to divulge some of the clever ways James is planning to revolutionise our kitchen garden, but I don't want to spoil it for those lucky enough to have a place on the course, which is spread over eight days this year.

Monday saw a visit from Chris Pike, a long time collaborator of Arne's, and the chap who built all of the rose domes for Arne's Gold Medal winning Chelsea Flower Show garden in 2012. Chris helped me perfect the technique of rose dome and plant support building and, as ever, the devil is in the detail. We collected hazel from the hedgerows around Allt-y-bela, choosing suitable material, before setting about rebuilding most of the rose domes here in the garden. The others we will tackle on the course later this month. Rose domes don't just look fantastic and give the garden added winter structure, they also encourage the roses to flower much more freely than they otherwise might. Chris showed me several more organic types of herbaceous supports built from hazel, willow and birch.

In the afternoon, Judy Hartley, who is leading our two day course on basket making, arrived with some very useful tips for weaving and choosing materials. Judy makes beautiful handmade baskets from material collected from the countryside around her home, which just happens to be at the end of the lane. Her course in February is one that I am very much looking forward to. I find it hard to believe that with the right techniques you can create the kind of amazing basketwork she produces with just the materials we could all find in hedgerows. I can't wait to discover some of her secrets.

Our course programme is varied this year, bringing talented people from far and wide to Allt-y-bela to lead courses on a wide range of craft and garden based subjects. As the gardener, I am looking forward to learning and being inspired, and perhaps using some of my newly acquired knowledge in the garden here.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer

For full garden course details click here.


A few feathered friends

Christmas cards are often populated by robins perching on bare branches or the wooden handles of garden tools in snowy rural landscapes, but in truth, now is the time of year when such scenes are far more likely to occur. One of the lovely things that happen at this time of year is that we gardeners get followed around by hungry robins who are often found hopping in our boot prints or perching near by. I've lost count of the number of times I've cursed myself for not having a camera handy when a robin has decided to sit on the handle of an old garden fork in a particularly pretty spot. Robins do of course live in this country year round but they are most noticeable at this time of year when food becomes more scarce and they become ever more bold in their search for a meal.

This time of year is a great time to see garden birds as the bare limbs of trees and shrubs provide very little in the way of cover. At Allt-y-bela we have bird feeders hanging from the pleached crab apples that enclose the courtyard and their contents is often completely emptied within a couple of days. Today I watched as a female blackbird picked messily amongst the crab apples eating what she fancied and chucking those she didn't to the ground (no camera to hand of course!).

Having bird feeders in the garden in the depths of winter isn't just a potential life saver for your garden birds, it also provides you with a great spectacle. I would definitely encourage you to think about putting out some bird feeders where you can see them easily from the warmth of a comfortable place indoors.

When I worked at Sudeley Castle we had a family of blackbirds that lived in the yew hedges and were very tame indeed. They would follow you around all day when you worked in that particular part of the garden. Strangely they all had bald patches on their heads, which must have been a genetic condition because the recollection of these bald birds stretched back several avian generations.

The greatest number of visitors to the Allt-y-bela feeders at this time of year are Blue Tits and Great Tits. But I have to confess to being pretty clueless when it comes to even the simplest of garden bird identification. When I recently mentioned to a friend of mine, who once worked for the RSPB as a ranger, that I had muddled these two birds, his reaction was somewhere between incredulity and outrage. It does seem rather ridiculous that I am so unfamiliar with creatures with whom I spend so much time. At Allt-y-bela the Tits arrived almost as soon as the bird feeders were put out today. Who knows where they were beforehand but they have certainly been making the most of the new abundance of food.

They congregate in the large beech topiary where the leaves provide a little more protection and venture out at intervals to feast on the peanuts. I was watching this predictable little pattern when a female sparrow hawk swept in noiselessly, darting up through the branches around the main stem of the tree, causing an explosion of tiny birds to burst out in all directions, followed by the hawk in hot pursuit.

The birds at Allt-y-bela are just another indicator of the richness of the landscape around the garden in this lovely corner of Monmouthshire, from the swifts and swallows and other summer visitors to the sparrow hawks and the tiny wren that are visible now. There is a great diversity of avian life here in the garden and my limited ability to identify them is all that stands in the way of me naming many more. I will make it one of my New Year's resolutions to learn a little more this year - and remember to keep my camera to hand.

Words: Steve Lannin

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer

This coming weekend (24 and 25 January) sees the 2015 RSPB Big Garden Bird Watch - a nationwide survey of garden birds that gives us an indication of the general health of both the countryside and urban areas. You can find out more and register to join in here.