Garden diary

Sowing for autumn

This morning there was a distinct chill in the air, the swallows are starting to mass over the tower and plant growth has begun to slow. The signs that autumn is just around the corner are getting too numerous to ignore.

I'm something of a learner when it comes to productive gardening and have made a few mistakes already. Luckily the warm weather has been something of a friend to me and has allowed me to grow my way out of a couple of tight spots. Winter however is not at all forgiving so it is essential to start sowing seeds now for the vegetables that will help to brighten up the long dark nights ahead.

If that all sounds a little depressing then it's not supposed to be; I for one love the autumn and winter and I'm looking forward to the change of season with great relish although that doesn't mean I'm not enjoying the summer warmth!

There is a great choice of vegetable plants that can be sown now. Although it's a good time to sow oriental type vegetables such as Mizuna and Pak Choi, the seeds we are sowing at Allt-y-bela have a more European flavour.

Swiss Chard and Perpetual Spinach make great winter greens and will go on through the winter months. Flat Leaf Parsley can be another winter staple. Winter cabbages, Kohl Rabi and Cavolo Nero can all be sown now as well, along with Russian Kale and Rocket.

It's worth remembering too, that it's not too late to get another sowing of lettuce and radish in either.

Amid all of this autumn and winter preparation there is a huge amount of produce coming out of the garden. The climbing french beans 'Cosse Violete' are producing a heavy crop which, for me, is best eaten straight off the vine. There are courgettes to eat up with a fruit being produced almost daily; these are best enjoyed small. It's worth writing down your experiences of abundant food as well as those little things that didn't work quite as well as hoped as you may now be finding that you didn't need quite as many courgette plants as you thought!

The continual sowing of lettuce also pays off, but again it's worth thinking about just how much lettuce you will want at any one time. Lettuces will bolt if not picked in time. There is, however, a cheeky trick I've recently been told about and am trying. If all goes well I will report back soon!

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer

Make hay while the sun shines

Wild flower meadows require relatively little maintenance, they are great for wildlife and encourage both a greater diversity of native flora and of fauna, most significantly invertebrate and insect life.

We have two areas of meadow at Allt-y-bela, one on the top of the high ground known as 'the commons' above the amphitheatre, and the other on the opposite side of the house. Both act as step changes in the maintenance of the garden and signify a change between the more formal areas of the garden and the wild countryside beyond.

The meadows at Allt-y-bela have been encouraged by the management of the land as well as some intervention on our part. If a piece of lawn is left to grow long for example the result will be disappointing as the standard mixture of grasses found in lawns are not the same as those found in a native wild meadow.

In their most basic form meadows are treated much like you would treat a hay meadow; the grasses are kept weaker by introducing yellow rattle into the mixture which acts like a parasite of the grass roots, you then allow all of the grasses and wild flowers to grow up, flower and set seed before mowing the meadow down and removing the cuttings. The most diverse meadows are those where the soil fertility is kept low and this is achieved by removing the cuttings. Wild flowers will very quickly move in to take advantage of the conditions, the resulting meadow is then managed to make sure that one or two species don't become too dominant.

The timing of the meadow cut is the difficult part. The key is to wait until after the plants have shed their seed, usually by late July, and then to let the grass dry out as much as possible before cutting it - this will save you a lot of unnecessary effort! The trick then is finding enough dry days to cut and clear the clippings, which may be pretty significant depending on the area of meadow. This is usually done in August, although if you miss the window may be later. The problem comes when you have a grass-heavy meadow which gets wet and collapses and then regrows up through itself - this makes cutting a very difficult job indeed!

This last week has been the week for cutting here at Allt-y-bela, and now with the long grass cut and cleared I can finally get in to prune some of the beech and yew topiary that has been stranded in the sea of long grass for so many months. The aftermath of this rather brutal cut looks rather severe at the moment, but it won't be long at all until the grasses green up again and the garden takes on an altogether different personality into the autumn.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer

A new beginning

I thought it might be best to start this new garden diary with a few introductions; to introduce the gardens at Allt-y-bela, my initial impressions of them as I hurtle towards the end of my first month here, and lastly to set down my plans for this blog and what I hope to achieve with it.

The first thing to say is that being very new here I have very little insight into the development of the gardens over the last eight years but it is my intention to share the story with you as I learn about it myself, that way we will all be on a journey of discovery together.

I should also probably start by saying a little about me and how I came to be the gardener at Allt-y-bela. Luckily there is not too much to tell; I started my gardening career at Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire and became the Head Gardener there a few years later, after a few more years had passed I was offered the opportunity to lead the garden restoration at Lowther Castle in Cumbria, after the first phase was completed I returned to Sudeley Castle primarily to help to prepare for the new season and to keep myself busy while I looked for a new challenge. But I thoroughly enjoyed being back at Sudeley and so it took rather longer to move on than I had originally planned! Lowther was a vast garden, long abandoned and neglected with the bones of a renaissance gem hidden just beneath the surface. The challenge there was to reveal the structure of the gardens, provide access and to restore the vast south lawns. Sudeley Castle is a beautiful, romantic Tudor castle, restored with an unusually gentle hand by a pair of Victorian glove manufacturers whose descendants still call the castle home today. Sudeley is famed for its roses and its topiary and I have become a little obsessive about both - at Sudeley the hedge cutting and topiary took up nearly 5 months of the year!

But when I was offered the chance to work with Arne at Allt-y-bela I jumped at it. The garden is relatively modest in scale and although I had been used to working with a team of gardeners I knew I would be on my own here but the opportunity to work with an internationally recognised garden designer, in his own garden, was an opportunity not to be missed. It goes without saying that the standards expected are incredibly high and that the planting is diverse and unusual. Allt-y-bela is a proving ground, a show garden and an ever evolving work of art, it may well become a national treasure of the future and whilst I may not have been here from the very start, I intend to enjoy every minute of being here and seeing it grow, mature and evolve and I very much look forward to sharing it with you.

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

Portrait: Britt Willoughby Dyer