Garden diary

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.



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



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