Garden diary

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.

 

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New Year delights

Happy New Year! Welcome to a new start, a clean slate and a fresh new, never before seen or experienced year!

Traditionally new year is a time to make resolutions and whether they are personal goals or general statements of good intent, new year is a good time to look forward and to strive for better days.

January can feel like a bit of an anticlimax after the Christmas festivities. It can feel a bit austere in the often cold dark days of the early new year, but I hope I might be able to cheer you up a bit and reassure you that your garden can be (and may well be already) a haven of fresh new life and interest.

Like many of us more fortunate types I have had a break over Christmas, in fact I've been away from the garden for almost two weeks. It's easy to think that very little would have changed in that time considering the time of year, but in fact the garden has moved on a huge amount. The break away from the garden allows you to view things through fresh eyes. We as gardeners can get very easily bogged down in the details and lose sight of the bigger picture, a break can really help to put things back into perspective along with drawing your attention to jobs which you may have overlooked.

I'm pleased to say that the first thing I noticed about the garden on my return is that generally it looked pretty tidy! There were a few little tidying and finishing off jobs that got overlooked in the dash to get the final leaves cleared and beds tidied before Christmas, but with those little tasks done I feel better still.  Many plants have been busy over the last few weeks, bulbs have begun to break the surface, buds have started to swell, and flowers have been breaking out across the garden!

So today I have taken a bit of time to properly explore the garden and to catch up on which plants are doing what. Unlike in spring and summer where the colour in the garden is concentrated in the flower beds close to the house, my trip today took me into the margins of the garden where the garden meets the landscape.

One of my favourite flowers of the whole year are out now; the tiny flowers of our native hazel appear just above the catkins before they start to open. They are a vivid pink and star-like in form and if you've never noticed them before then have a really close look at a hazel now. Perhaps it is their diminutive and rather 'shy' nature that appeals to me so much.

The edges of the common and the old drove way are carpeted with the leaves of snowdrops with cowslips dotted in between. The very first snowdrop is out already and if the mild weather continues, white blooms will soon spread right across the area. There are occasional cowslip flowers also, although the rosettes of leaves that are dotted far and wide hint at what is to come.

The hellebores in the studio bed and along the riverbanks have big swollen flower buds and will be flowering any day. On my little trip I only found one which was partially open but Arne has been promising some very beautiful and unusual flowers. I love hellebores and can't wait to see them!

Elsewhere there are witch hazels flowering now too. Just before Christmas Hamamelis 'Arnold Promise', a beautiful warm yellow witch hazel started to flower and it is now ablaze with colour and joined by a rich mahogany cultivar called Hamamelis x intermedia 'Diane'. Again there are more to come.

There are some winter flowering shrubs that offer fantastic fragrance and one of them, Daphne bholua 'Jaqueline Postill', is located right outside the front door. Lonicera x purpusii 'Winter Beauty', Chimonanthus praecox 'Grandiflorus' and Viburnum x bodnantense 'Dawn' all add scent and are found throughout the garden, all in flower, at the moment.

Winter can be a season that is overlooked when planning a garden, which is a shame because there are some great plants out there which will really add to your year-round enjoyment. Whereas summer is all about exuberance and excess, winter in the garden is about unexpected jewels, just when you need them most.

Arne is running several courses over the summer here at Allt-y-bela where you can learn more about how he approaches planting. One of the joys of my job is the opportunity to learn first hand how gardens are created and structured and the courses provide an opportunity to gain some insight here in Arne's own garden. The wonderful thing about gardening, and what keeps most of us hooked, is that there is always more to learn, and the courses at Allt-y-bela provide a great opportunity to do just that.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer

 

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The right tool for the job

There are a great variety of garden tools available, and as a professional gardener I have the opportunity to use a wide range of them and, I have to confess, get rather excited about finding just the right tool for the job. I'd like to share a few general observations about garden tools along with a couple of examples that I have discovered and loved this year. 

The first thing to say is that I'm not talking about powered tools. I know that many people love a good engine, I'm no exception, and although some of the things I'm going to talk about below also apply to them, we will leave our petrol driven friends for another day.

There are two types of hand tool into which we can broadly split the vast plethora of tools used regularly by domestic and professional gardeners. They are; cutting tools and cultivation tools. I'll come back to the cutting tools later.

One of the first things I noticed when I inspected Arne's tool shed was the large number of traditional and well-aged garden tools he had. There were so many in fact that I've had to slim the number down to the few that are used on a weekly basis, the others are now safely stored away. But there is something to be said for having the pick of the bunch.

Old tools often feel 'right' in the hand. There is an ergonomic quality about a well made trowel, for example, that isn't necessarily present in even the most traditional looking modern tool. Balance and weight are another two qualities you often find differentiate good quality old tools from some of their modern counterparts. Some tools, like a digging spade, may require a bit of weight in order to help you through the task, others such as rakes are better if they are balanced and light.

Back in September I was planting bulbs through rough grass using an old long handled trowel. It was a beautiful tool but snapped at the weld between the handle and the blade. I went out and bought a quite expensive replacement from a well-know premium tool maker; it lasted less than half an hour. Many modern tools appear to be great quality but fail relatively quickly. I have found Sneebeor to be a manufacturer of great quality modern tools that should last for years to come.

But I don't want this to sound like a 'they don't make 'em like they used to' rant, and in some cases they still make them exactly like they used to! I recently became the proud owner of a traditional 'Dufton' hayrake, which have been made in the village of Dufton in Cumbria for over a hundred years. It's a great tool, and I feel really lucky to have one. I am also now the owner of a traditional birch besom broom, which to be honest I have slightly struggled to adapt to. It requires a lightness to use which is quite alien to those who have only ever used steel spring rakes for tasks like raking up leaves, but with use it will wear to suit your technique.

My view is slightly different when it comes to cutting tools. I have used old traditional pairs of shears and clippers and found them to be really heavy, especially for those of us who have only ever used modern steel tools. There are some fantastic modern cutting tools out there, but as with cultivation tools, there are also some, which look good but turn out to be disappointing. I'm afraid I have found that you get what you pay for with cutting tools, but when put into perspective they don't really cost a great deal. Investing in good tools not only means they should last for many years but a valued tool is much less likely to end up lost in a compost heap!

I have always used Felco secateurs, (they are pretty much the gold standard in professional gardening circles), but this year while searching for something else entirely I came across a Japanese manufacturer called Tobisho. Tobisho hand forge garden tools out of Japanese blue steel and once produced samurai swords. As you might expect, they are fairly expensive but they are an absolute joy to use. They have a good balanced weight and make a lovely satisfying 'snip' noise when you use them, which sounds a bit odd, but try them and you will love it too!

I have also fallen in love with Barnel hedge shears. When I arrived at Allt-y-bela, I cut almost everything with petrol hedge cutters but have slowly been won over by these shears. They are made in Portland, Oregon and are light weight with a razor sharp edge which never seems to dull. They have totally changed the way I look at hedge cutting.

With Christmas just around the corner it's a good time to hunt out something lovely for the tool shed. There are some really fantastic quality tools out there both new and old if you are prepared to look for them. Happy hunting!

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

Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer

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Dahlia love

Arne has been growing dahlias at Allt-y-bela since he first started creating a garden here over seven years ago. They provide great late season colour, come in a huge range of colours and forms and are perfect for cutting. Dahlias have become an integral part of many late summer garden schemes as their popularity has been restored after a fairly torrid time in the eighties and early nineties.

Dahlias are native to Mexico and Central America and were an important crop for the Aztecs who both cultivated and harvested them from the wild. They ate the tubers, used them to create medicines and used the dried hollow stems as water pipes. The cultivation of dahlias as a crop declined after the Spanish conquest, and an attempt to introduce them to Europe as food failed, people preferring the potato instead. Today the dahlia is the national flower of Mexico.

Dahlias are half-hardy tuberous perennials, meaning that the top growth will be killed off by frost in the autumn but that the plant will store its energy in swollen root-type structures until late spring when they will put on top growth again. In most of the UK dahlias can't be relied upon to survive outside over winter. That might sound like an overly qualified statement, and intentionally so! Many people have methods for keeping dahlias outside over winter but I think it is fair to assert that those lifted in the autumn and started out in pots in the spring flower much earlier in the season than those left in the ground.

The best way to buy dahlias is as tubers in the spring, they are usually available from garden centres but there are also some great online and mail order bulb companies which often stock varieties you may struggle to find in the shops. I recommend planting them into large pots in a cool greenhouse or poly tunnel around Easter. Keep them in their pots in the greenhouse until after the last frosts - usually the end of May - after which, plant them out into the garden. You may find that the growth is quite soft at this stage so the plants might need staking. Dahlias tend to put on a lot of top growth and can end up tumbling other plants unless they are well staked. Staking is always best undertaken before the plant needs it, I'd always advise setting up the staking when you first plant the dahlias out.

The only thing left to do now is to keep cutting the blooms or deadheading them until the frosts come along and knock them back again. It's worth noting the difference between buds which are about to break into flower and those which are over.  It is sometimes difficult to distinguish unless you know what to look for. The flat-topped button like buds are those about to break and the long conical looking buds are those which are over and need to be removed.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer

 

It's best if you can leave the cutting back and lifting of the dahlias for as long as possible. The plants will naturally start to build up energy reserves in their tubers as the days shorten and the cold begins to bite. Once the frost has blackened the stems I cut them back to the ground before carefully lifting and washing them. Once they are washed they should be labelled and left to dry for a couple of weeks, somewhere frost free but not too warm. Once you are sure the tubers are dry and clean - to help prevent rotting - you can store them for the winter. The tubers need to be stored somewhere frost free and safely away from pesky rodents who will be only too happy to tuck in, even if you have passed on eating them yourself! I tend to store them in straw, but you can store them in open trays or in dry sand if you prefer.

Whether you are lifting and storing your dahlias now, or considering adding some to your garden in spring, dahlias are fantastic garden plants and are available in colours, shapes and sizes to suit all tastes.

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The first frost

Last week we had our first frost of the season. I always find the first proper frost of the year exciting, and I've been thinking about why that might be; as a gardener, there are many processes that either require frost or are changed in some way by the action of frost.

The best first frost I can remember happened a few years ago while I was gardening at Sudeley Castle. It was a couple of days before Halloween and we had lots of events for children planned for that weekend. The garden had been in full late season bloom the day before and was looking far too sunny to host macabre Halloween celebrations and yet overnight it was transformed. As the frost lifted it became apparent that the garden had undergone a spooky makeover; the stems and leaves of the half hardy and seasonal plants had turned black and limp and looked very much like the hand of death itself had passed through the garden. This sudden metamorphosis has always stayed with me, perhaps as a reminder of the power of nature, or just as a stark example of the change that comes with the turning of the seasons. Most change we see in the garden happens by degrees, but the first frost of the year can dramatically alter the look and feel of a garden overnight.

The first frost at Allt-y-bela brought no such dramatic change this year. Being a month later, most of the work of cutting back and clearing is already done, although we have left a proportion of the herbaceous plants standing to catch the frosts, simply because they look rather beautiful. The first frost this year came after a period of overcast, dull and drab weather and the cleanness of the cold air and the brilliant clarity of the light added to the almost overwhelming sense of wellbeing that the change brought. The skies were blue, the light perfect and the frost was uniform and heavy.

The frost lay thick on the ground and through the trees, covering the grass in a carpet of crisp white, adding a fringe of ice crystals to the edges of the leaves and freezing the late roses on their stems. Droplets of water were frozen solid as if the cold had suddenly blast-frozen the dew. The change in colour, almost as if the garden had been cast in monochrome, highlighted the shapes of the topiary and earthworks, lending them a crispness I had never seen before.  By ten in the morning the frost had lifted and disappeared, leaving a lovely clean crisp day with a surprising amount of warmth from the late autumn sun.

Frosts are essential for breaking the dormancy of many seeds and help lighten the burden of early season pests. Frosts also help to break apart heavy soils and ease the compaction under grass. The first and last frosts mark the extent of the growing season for many tender plants and vegetables, but I think for me it is the symbolic significance of the first frost that makes its occurrence so memorable. Winter starts here, time to wrap up warm and embrace the change!

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer

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