Garden diary

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.


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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The bones are laid bare

I have been at Allt-y-bela for five months now and each month has brought a new set of surprises. The garden flowered prolifically all summer and in the kitchen garden plants grew at an astounding rate. As the summer slowly turned to autumn the light has changed and the plants have slowed down, the whole frenetic pace of life here has been winding down and the garden is somehow feeling more intimate. The river keeps up a constant murmuring conversation making its presence known, and the leaves have been turning from green to all shades of reds, oranges and yellows, shining like gold in the autumn sunlight.

The process that gardens undergo during autumn is nearly at an end now. The garden here is finally starting to look tidy and a little more under control as its bones are stripped and laid bare.

The first time I saw the gardens at Allt-y-bela I was struck by their unusual strength of structure, that and the care that has been taken in choosing materials and refining details. The use of native yew and beech in the topiary as well as box, (which might as well be native for its ubiquitous presence in British gardens), helps the garden to settle effortlessly into its timeless pastoral landscape.

A journalist recently noted that the garden had a slightly 'otherworldly' nature, like something out of a fairy tale, and I thought that she summed up the beguiling quality of the garden perfectly. Although its individual elements are fairly commonplace, it's the composition that sets this garden apart.

All summer long the beech topiary has provided height and structure and as a broadleaf it's slightly less tight and formal than the yew and the box. Over recent weeks the beech trees have undergone a dramatic transformation as the leaves have gradually changed colour. These sober, slightly austere, trees have suddenly become the stars of the garden, their golden brown leaves catching the low, yet still warm, November sunshine. They are being transformed into beacons of rich golden light punctuating the garden and lifting it while reflecting the warm rich orange of the house.

I have been especially impressed at the way the elements in the garden have not only worked during one season, but how their roles have changed as the seasons progress and how each has a part to play throughout the year. The garden has been carefully constructed to get the most out of a restricted palette; I'm looking forward to seeing how the elements work with each other through the winter and into the spring.

Words: Steve Lannin

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Autumn musings

Autumn in the garden tends to be characterized by clearing and tidying away before winter; hedges get clipped, fallen leaves cleared and herbaceous beds cut back. It is often still warm enough to be cutting grass as the real cold doesn't tend to start to bite until after Christmas.

I cut all of the topiary and hedges relatively early this year and they were all finished by the end of August, or so I thought. Yew and box hedges can put on a late spurt of growth after August if the conditions are right and some of ours have grown again this year. Because of this I have spent a couple of happy afternoons trimming off the extra growth which, because it is fairly short and sporadic, is really no bother at all.

I started to clear out some of the wilder areas along the boundaries this week and discovered quite a lot of hawthorn that has been cut into shapes in previous years. I have enjoyed cutting this as I've gone along. Up above the orchard is a little glade of hawthorn, hazel and holly and since the hawthorn has lost its leaves it has become apparent that they too have been topiarised in the past. It's rather fun discovering these little hidden clues as to what has been done before, I'm sure I must have missed some, but as the winter draws closer, and the bones of the garden begin to show themselves, there will be more opportunities to get to know the garden a little better.

The dahlias and cosmos in the kitchen garden and the border just outside of it are still just about hanging in there. The dahlias though have been a little bit disappointing this year, having stayed really quite small and failing in some cases to fill their supports, but they have kept on flowering right through. Generally you lift dahlias once they have had a good frost on them and while we continue to have mild nights the dahlias just go on. It will come to a point where we will lift them anyway if the hard frost doesn't hurry up, but we are not quite there yet.

The rain that has been falling fairly consistently over the last few weeks has swelled the streams and given the garden a new dimension. The sounds of the running and babbling water is modulated through the garden by the various outbuildings, borders and earthworks. The waterfall by the kitchen garden roars as the water cascades down to join the main river below and I'm told by Arne that after very heavy rain the water can skip the falls entirely and simply shoot out of the end of the stream!

Each week I have been spending a couple of hours clearing the fallen leaves and adding them to my leaf mould bin. That bin is almost full now and I'm wondering if I shouldn't build another; leaves can continue to fall for another month or so yet, so there will still be plenty more to collect and you can never have enough leaf mould!

With further rain forecast over the next week or so and with temperatures staying mild, we may need to make some tough decisions about when to start to clear the herbaceous beds and lift the dahlias.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Heaps of goodness

I've set myself a bit of a challenge this week, and to be honest I'm starting to regret it! I've been spreading our home made leaf mold and compost onto our beds and so I thought I'd write about composting and the benefits of it. However to be perfectly honest I suspect that many people reading this will already know a fair amount about making compost and the fact that it is a good source of organic material which can benefit the soil composition and structure whether you garden on light or heavy soils. I'm pretty sure that you will also know that if you add a layer of compost to the beds now it will help to retain the residual ground heat and if you spread it in spring it will help to retain moisture.

In short, compost is pretty awesome stuff; it's also free to make, helps reduce the waste that goes to landfill or your garden waste bin, which leaves room for the things that you really don't want to compost such as perennial weeds, diseased material and things like that.

I'm sure that you will also know that compost is best made from a mixture of materials rather than any one type - unless it's leaf mold that you're after, in which case you'll just use leaves! So what was my challenge again? Ah yes! I wanted to impart some totally mind boggling facts about compost that you perhaps hadn't heard before, facts that will turn a run-of-the-mill romp about worms and kitchen waste into something that you will want to tell somebody about… ok here goes:

A teaspoon of compost contains:

20,000 - 30,000 species

1 billion bacteria

300 meters of fungal hyphae

50,000 protozoa


300 nematodes

Now I should really point out that this is a teaspoon of well-made compost, but it is just a tiny teaspoon all the same. After being told these startling facts by my organic friend James Clapp (who was quick to point out that the information was gleaned from Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis' book 'Teaming with Microbes') it really opened my eyes to the whole mini ecosystem that exists within our compost. All of a sudden it's no wonder that compost does such amazing things to our garden beds, and all of this microscopic life preceeds the bugs and the worms that we can actually see. Worms which are hermaphrodite, breathe through their skin and have five hearts! It's a fascinating world in that compost heap you know!


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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer