Garden diary

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. 


One year on...

I always find there is a moment in early June when you realize that somehow, without really being able to understand how, you are getting behind in the garden. Luckily over the years I have learned to recognize and accept this momentary panic and to take the necessary steps to correct it - this usually entails dashing about like a headless chicken pulling weeds as if your life depended on it.

It was on Tuesday as I was sitting at the kitchen table having a dubiously earned cup of tea with Pat, the frankly irreplaceable housekeeper, when she dropped into conversation the state of play for the next week or so. It looked something like this: A tour for the professional Gardeners' Guild on Friday, Arne's courses next Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and then our annual summer production in the garden theatre on Saturday. All of a sudden my calm demeanor disappeared and the familiar feelings of barely concealed panic returned with a vengeance. I knew that all of this was coming of course; I just hadn't realised how close it all was!

Arne usually condenses his main courses into a couple of weeks around mid summer and around the time of the play and it is during these few weeks that the garden is seen by the most people. Consequently it becomes the most important time of the year in the garden at Allt-y-bela. This year it is all condensed down into one week with a garnish of professional gardeners -eek!

It was this time last year that I was packing my final boxes and moving to Usk to start work here. I finished my previous job on the Friday, spent a couple of busy days moving furniture and boxes in cars to start work on the Monday, again one of the busiest weeks of the year. Last year however all of the hard work had been done before I started and although those first few weeks were a whirlwind of people, courses, information and gardening, the foundations had been well laid for the transition. I was then, and am now, very grateful that they were!

So here I am, one year on and what can I say? I love the garden more today than I did the day I started. I certainly understand the way it all works a lot more clearly, and I definitely feel much more settled. Moving jobs is a stressful time and starting a gardening job in mid summer is certainly not for the faint hearted. I feel like I know the basics now and hopefully I will have many more years here to perfect what I have learned and to learn more as the garden changes and develops.

Back in the here and now and it's Friday afternoon. I'm feeling much more positive about the garden; most things are in their rightful places and the parts that need the most attention are the least visible. (There is always Monday to sort out those areas!) The group of gardeners came this morning and were incredibly supportive and seemed to be genuinely enchanted by the garden. Next week I will start cutting the box topiary while Arne leads his courses, it's the part of the job I love the most and the gentle clacking of shears shouldn't be too distracting for those who have come to share a little of Arne's wisdom and some of the magic of Allt-y-bela. I look forward to meeting those of you who are attending.

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

Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer


We still have a few tickets left for the production of William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, to be performed in the Garden Theatre at Allt-y-bela on Saturday 20 June. Bring a picnic and enjoy the garden before the play starts at 7pm.

Click here for details.


Grass in all its glory

I've set myself a task this week. It would be very easy to keep writing weekly diaries on subjects I know well, but sometimes it's good to force yourself outside of your comfort zone and try something a little different. Every year at about this time I marvel at the unsung beauty of our native grasses in flower. Even a gardener like myself, who in their career has had relatively little to do with grasses, would be hard pressed not to appreciate the diversity of wild grasses that can be found in and around our gardens.

I set out this morning, trug in hand, with an aim to see how many individual grass species in flower at the moment I could find. My hope was to manage six. I would expect there to be dozens of grass species present in the garden here but as my very first grass collecting adventure I set my sights at a fairly achieveable level.

The garden at Allt-y-bela boasts a range of habitats to suit different species, with areas of damp shade to fairly dry sun and as I went about the garden I certainly noticed the difference both in species and in the relative vigour of those species. In the bulb lawn for example there were a surprising diversity of species but they were all less vigorous than in other parts of the garden. Up on the common, where we have been heavily sowing yellow rattle to reduce the vigor of the grass there, the difference was even more stark with some species looking really very sad indeed.

The best spot in the whole garden seemed to be the first bank in the earth works which rises up to the kitchen garden on the north side of the house; the slope itself is fairly dry and south facing without too much yellow rattle. I was going to mow it short a couple of weeks ago but other jobs have prevented me from getting to it - I'm so glad I haven't managed it yet!

So how many species did I find? I think I found 14 species which were sufficiently different for me to attempt to identify them. With my grasses laid out on the studio table I hit the internet with gusto but I quickly realized that to correctly identify grasses you really need to be able to study the structures in detail and the relatively low quality pictures weren't going to be much use. I've been a bit of a fan of botanical drawing and painting for some years now to the extent that I've recently picked up the paintbrush and started to have a go myself and so I invested in a book on native grasses of the British Isles and waited somewhat impatiently for it to arrive. The consequence being that I missed my usual garden diary deadline, I hope you can forgive me! To make matters worse I have failed to come up with a list of species that I'm confident enough to publish.

My experiment has been a success I think, not because I now know the range of grass species in the garden (in fact I am possibly less confident now that I know what I have), but rather that I have been inspired to find out more and to look more closely at the green element of our gardens that we perhaps take the most for granted.

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

Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Chelsea: a first time for everything


May is a frenetic time in any garden. I think that I probably find it one of the most exciting as well; the rose buds are swelling and all over the garden plants are growing at the fastest rate that they will all year. All of this abundant growth comes with some problems for the gardener; all of a sudden you are faced with a seemingly endless list of time-critical jobs which you must somehow navigate your way through in order to surf the wave of growth.

When Arne first invited me to the Chelsea Flower Show I was understandably excited but as the date got nearer I started to grow slightly uneasy about the prospect of taking time out at this most critical of moments. In fact, the Friday before Chelsea I was very close to phoning Arne to tell him that although I would love to go, I just couldn't spare the time. Luckily though I held my nerve and set off for the capital last Monday afternoon.

For a country chap like myself, arriving in London is always something of a jolt to the system. I love to visit cities when I do get away from the garden, the vibrancy and pace of life is so very different to that which I am used to.

I was lucky enough to be able to arrive at the showground at 7am on Tuesday morning, a full hour before the gates opened and to have a tour around some of the highlights before the crowds arrived. I was also lucky enough to witness some of the reactions from the garden designers, exhibitors and garden builders to their medal awards; it was a timely reminder of the love and effort that goes into the spectacle that is the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

It is such a difficult task to sum up a show like the Chelsea in a few short paragraphs; there were things that I loved, there were things that weren't really me and there was everything conceivable in between. I suppose the one thing theme that ran through the whole show was one of optimism. Chelsea felt like a carnival of horticulture, where everyone could find something to inspire them.

I was amazed by the floral marquee; there is such a wealth of things on display; from floral art, to plant societies and nurseries specializing in almost everything imaginable. Personally, the stand out displays were the Cedric Morris iris which have been lovingly collected by Sarah Cook, and Simon Lockyer's perfectly presented auriculas. I spent many happy hours photographing interesting and unusual plants that I thought Arne might like.

Outside in the show gardens was perhaps where I felt most at home and I was charmed by the artisan gardens, especially the Sculptor's Picnic Garden by Graham Bodle with its strange, yet majestic gnarled arbour. The Trugmaker's Garden by Serena Fremantle and Tina Vallis was another favourite for its relaxed cottage garden planting and its highlighting of an almost forgotten traditional British industry. The Breast Cancer Haven Garden was brought together by some fantastic willow sculptures inspired by nests and contained a beautiful oak leaf shaped sculpture.

The Fresh Gardens were mixed and variously challenging, although I felt drawn to the more traditional planting in gardens like the Breakthrough Breast Cancer Garden. It was refreshing to see a wealth of concepts conveyed through the use of different plants and materials. For me the stand out garden was the Dark Matter Garden; I loved the way it attempted to make sense of the movement of dark matter through sculpture and planting.

The main show gardens were for me dominated by two stand out designs; Dan Pearson's Chatsworth Garden for Laurent-Perrier and James Basson's Perfumers Garden in Grasse for L'Occitaine. I was very aware of the hype surrounding Dan's garden before I viewed it but I was totally blown away by the detail and the frankly flawless presentation. It was jaw-droppingly impressive. James Basson's garden had many parallels with Dan's; it was perfectly put together and felt very much like a garden that had sat in the same spot for many years. They both in different ways showcased a less formal approach to planting; Dan's garden being wild yet somehow pristine and James's garden feeling lived in and real. I desperately wanted to sit down with a glass of wine in James's slice of rural France.

There were some really innovative ideas on display amongst the other show gardens including the Rich Brothers from just down the road in Brecon, who used a moveable shack and fold-out furniture and art to give their garden a really youthful dynamism. I also loved Charlie Albone's water feature in his garden The Time Inbetween which symbolized the sudden loss of his father through the sudden draining of a pool. It was one of those things that you have to see to really appreciate. The anticipation of waiting for the pool to fill, followed by the sudden and dramatic loss of water was really quite affecting.

It's been nearly a week since my day at Chelsea; I spent 13 hours at the show and came away feeling a little overwhelmed. There were other great show gardens and a multitude of floral displays that will stay with me for a very long time but it's Dan's garden, which has given me the most food for thought.

The over-riding feeling though has been one of huge respect for all of the people who make the RHS Chelsea Flower Show what it is; the most prestigious horticultural show in the world. Busy or not I'm going to be making sure that I make time to pay homage to Chelsea and all that in exemplifies a little more regularly in future.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby-Dyer


Leaves spring forth


The last few weeks have seen massive change in the garden just as there has been across the country. Fresh green leaves have clothed the garden's structure once more, bringing with them a greater sense of intimacy. On the driveway the brilliant tulips are mostly finished, replaced now by the self-sown bluebells. Seeing the ranks of new flowers each day makes it feel like the bluebells are spreading before our very eyes. The bluebells have been joined this year by a carpet of yellow archangel (Lamium galeobdolon), the vibrancy of the pairing is just dazzling. Up in the nuttery the archangel is dominant putting on a display the likes of which neither myself or Arne has ever seen before.


In the trees above something exciting is happening; Arne has been planting roses into the trees here for the past few years but over the last 12 months they have picked up and really gone for it, winding their way up through the branches in search of light. Rosa 'Madame Alfred Carriere', a beautiful white climber with a pink blush, has just opened her first flower of the year offering a tantalising taste of the beauty to come. Arne wants the trees hung with roses and not just smaller flowered rambling types, but full flowered scented roses will hang over the entranceway in years to come, dropping petals like confetti over the wild flower strewn drive.


Over the last few weeks the beech topiary and spiral have been shedding last year's leaves, adding a slightly jarring autumnal note to the early summer scene. They have now been replaced by fresh green or wine red new leaves. It always surprises me at this time of year just how fast the change can take place, from barren winter tree to lush, fresh and green, seemingly overnight!


Behind the house the service tree (Sorbus torminalis) is flowering for the very first time. This once abundant tree is now relatively rare, the fruits, known as chequers were used to flavour beer before the introduction of hops. The service tree now sits at the edge of the garden near to perry cider pear trees which would undoubtedly have been grown around the house in centuries past.


As I write I am moving quickly through the garden, past the kitchen garden in which the vegetables, warmed by the recent sun and encouraged by the extending day length, are beginning to grow well. And also past the Primula auricula theatre, in which the auriculas are rewarding us for the time spent re-potting them last year by giving us the best flowering display in years: I couldn't be more pleased with them.


It's up in the herbaceous beds where the changes are really noticeable. We had a huge clear out of alliums earlier in the year as they had started to take over and smother the other plants. The ones we have left are looking fantastic and are just about to break their buds, and it looks like we've got the balance just about right! Elsewhere in the beds the peonies are looking magnificent in flower; Paeonia mlokosewitschii, better known as 'molly the witch' is looking particularly good. They are joined in flower by Aquilegia, Astrantia, Geranium pheum, Centurea 'Jordy' and Anthriscus 'Ravenswing'.


Our lovely little 6x8 greenhouse is nearly ready to be put into place by the kitchen garden as well. We have levelled a base area and will build it any day now where it will be home to tomatoes, chillies and aubergine, as well as providing a nursery for young seedlings. It feels like the final piece of the jigsaw in that part of the garden and I can't wait for the first wet day when I can spend a bit of time in there.


Just along from the greenhouse are our bees. The bees used to live behind the studio barn but had to be moved while the work took place to construct the garden theatre last year. Apparently you have to move bees less than three feet or more than three miles for them to accept the change. They arrived back at Allt-y-bela last week after a year long absence and perhaps because I was so interested to get a front row seat, or perhaps because they had been shut in all night, I got quite badly stung when they ventured out including a rather nasty sting below my right eye!


I must confess that I was slightly cautious after that introduction, although wasp stings are something of an occupational hazard, I'm not sure I have ever been stung by a bee before! I needn't have worried though, the bees have settled in again and are far too busy now to even give me a second look It's good to have them here and we are due to get another hive in the next week or so although I might just keep my distance this time for the first few hours!

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

Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Are you inspired by Steve's Garden Diary to write about gardens? If so, see our courses page for details of Open Ground Writing Workshops at Allt-y-bela this year.