Garden diary

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



Ghoulish autumn visitors

It's Halloween today, the 31st October 2014, and I'm sitting outside on the steps of the studio to write this journal entry. My intention had been to write inside but the weather is so unseasonably mild it seemed a shame to miss out on what is undoubtedly a beautiful day. There are weather rumours circling of hard cold weather just around the corner and calls that it's likely to be the worst winter for x number of years, but as the sun casts warm mellow light through the beech topiary here at Allt-y-bela, winter still seems a very long way off indeed.

One of the unexpected joys this autumn has been the shaggy ink cap mushrooms. They first appeared by the hen house near the studio, just a small group of strong white nodules in the grass. Over the next couple of days they grew steadily out of the grass forming narrow bell shaped caps. Britt, who takes such fantastic photos to accompany these words, took dozens of photographs over the course of a day, and during that day many of the mushrooms opened to form large flat discs before starting to disintegrate, dripping black goo onto the grass. 

Over the next week or so the ink caps came relentlessly, and by the middle of last week a patch of several square meters existed with mushrooms at all of their various stages of growth and subsequent decay, I couldn't possibly bring myself to mow them down, and so the grass has been left a little long.

This week I started to notice them in other places too, up in the wild flower bank behind the house, in the grass by the stream; they are popping up everywhere. It's such a lovely surprise to see them but additionally, they are edible and so they have provided a rare treat at meal times too.

Ink caps are best eaten young. Their tendency to decay rapidly means they are not suitable for storing; even in a fridge they will rapidly become a wet black mess! So eat them young and fresh!

As a serious note of caution however, I would suggest that you never eat wild mushrooms unless you are 100% sure of their species. Many mushrooms bear a remarkable similarity to their edible counterparts but are very poisonous. Being something of a novice myself I have been inspired to look at booking myself onto a mushroom foraging course. There are plenty available, and of course now is the perfect time to learn from more seasoned professionals!

I find autumn such a joy after the frenetic pace of summer, the darker evenings are now forcing me to go home a bit earlier and the garden is becoming less demanding, allowing me to catch up on some of the jobs that got away from me in the summer. I had a lovely surprise this week when I cut down the long grass near to the kitchen garden only to discover a very pretty stream that had become choked with vegetation. I'll certainly try to keep that a bit clearer next year! Will this beautiful mild weather last? It most certainly won't, so whatever you do, enjoy it while the sun continues to grace us with such strong beams of warmth!

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Everlasting pots

When I started at Allt-y-bela back in June Arne was particularly excited because it meant that he could do more with pots. The previous gardeners were fantastic but only worked two days a week making looking after pots around Arne's busy schedule really challenging. When you garden in containers you have to be extra vigilant to the plants' needs, containers can get very hot, or indeed very cold; they can lose moisture very quickly on hot days and use up the nutrients in the compost alarmingly quickly.

The best plant displays in pots tend to be tightly packed and really need daily checking. Over the summer months I watered all of the pots every day, sometimes twice a day if required. I also fed the pots a liquid seaweed manure at least every month and in hindsight I could have done with feeding them a little more. The results however have been worth every minute spent. Choosing plants that suit pots can be tricky, especially if you want to get away from some of the more traditional choices, but it's worth experimenting with new mixes. Our pot displays this year have been dominated by salvias.

The three large pots on the south side of the house are purple themed with spikes of tall and almost black Salvia 'Amistad' softened by Salvia leucantha, a strong structural half hardy salvia with purple velvet-like flowers set against blue grey foliage. We chose S. leucantha 'Santa Barbara', a particularly deep violet form and slightly more compact than other cultivars with a good strong frame. Against this we used purple basil, Ocimum 'African Blue', which not only fills the pots with scent and great leaf colour but also adds flowering spikes in the same purple blue as its leaves.

Threaded through these main plants are others that add to the complexity of the composition and a frothly quality that the former, more structural plants slightly lack. Chocolate cosmos (Cosmos atrosanguineus) weaves its way tentatively through the throng and appears amongst the rabble pointing a perfect purple-brown daisy-like flower on a long spindly green stem. This beautiful cosmos adds a sweet scent to the powerful pungency of the basil for those who take the time to savour it.

Lastly two other salvias are present in the mix and it is these that create the 'froth', spilling over the sides and rambling through their neighbours. They both have small anonymous leaves and slightly woody stems but that's not to say these salvias don't make themselves known. Salvia 'Ultra Violet' and S. 'Nachtvlinder' are both purple but are very different. S. 'Ultra Violet' is a vibrant violet pink while S. 'Nachtvlinder' is graduated from purple to maroon across each flower.

These pots have been flowering non stop from the days I started back in June (and I'm sure they were even before that!) and even now at the end of October they show absolutely no signs of slowing down. It is going to take a pretty hard frost to stop these extraordinary pots from continuing to brighten the areas immediately around the house, and I think we will all be very sad indeed when they do!

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Primula auricula care

This week I have continued the theme of catching up on jobs which I previously hadn't had time to do. The Auricula Theatre at Allt-y-bela has been one area I've been desperate to get into shape and I'm pleased to have been able to make a start.

The theatre was built for Arne's previous house and was brought here, along with his collection of Primula auricula, when he moved here eight years ago. It was built from an illustration and description in Johnson's gardeners' dictionary of 1877 following the description exactly. Arne also had auricula pots handmade by Littlethorpe Potteries in Yorkshire also based on the descriptions found in the book.

Primula auricula originates in the mountain ranges of central Europe where they grow in clefts in rocks. Many of the plants found in specialist nurseries now are hybrids between Primula auricula and Primula hirsuta. It's always a good idea if you have plants that aren't thriving to think about where the species originated from; with plants like auriculas, the cultural instructions can seem like a disconnected list of do's and don'ts until you look at the climate in which the plants naturally grow and then things quickly begin to fall into place.

Like many alpine plants auriculas don't like being wet over winter. In their natural environment auriculas will be covered by a blanket of snow for much, if not all, of the winter, and this covering acts like a blanket of fleece protecting the plants from the extremes of temperatures and importantly from the becoming waterlogged. In horticulture we have created frames to mimic this effect and thus protect the plants from our comparatively mild but wet winters.

The plant's alpine origins also help to explain why ventilation is so important and even guides us towards an explanation to flowering period which coincides with the alpine summer. A natural extension of this also helps to explain the repotting and watering of auriculas.

Traditionally Primula auricula plants are grown in relatively small pots, usually up to 9cm in diameter and plants like to be almost root bound. When you consider that plants naturally grow in rock crevasses then this too begins to make more sense. They like to be kept relatively dry in winter (when they would be under cover of snow) and watered more freely in spring, when the snow would be melting in the mountains.

With all this in mind I set about re-potting our auriculas this week. Many of our plants were in quite large pots and were clearly struggling and the theatre itself was in need of a freshen up and a clean so I did this at the same time.

It was fascinating to see the difference between the plants in auricula pots compared to those in ordinary terracotta flower pots. Those in the specialist pots had faired better - the roots were filling the pots, the soil had retained water but was obviously draining well. Those in ordinary flower pots however had struggled to absorb enough water and some had lost a surprising amount of root because of it.

The growing media, as you might expect, is very important and once again we can look to its alpine origins to guide us. Mountainous rock clefts tend to be gritty, free draining and contain thin, low fertility soils. In order to replicate this environment I used equal parts grit, John Innes number 3 - which is a loam based compost - and leaf mould.

My advice would be to create a mixture that feels right in the hand. You get a really good idea of how a mixture will perform by feeling it and you also add air and fully mix the component parts by getting your hands into it. You also get a sense of the soil temperature and moisture content by delving in.

I've now re-potted all of our Primula auricula and lined the edges of the kitchen garden borders with the wonderful little pots. This is giving them plenty of sunlight and a good water in before they return to their winter quarters in the theatre.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer

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A Kitchen Gardener in the making

I used to think that I was something of a rarity; although I have been a professional gardener and Head Gardener for quite a few years now, I have never run a kitchen garden. Gardeners can be divided into several groups but there seems to be a district minority who would much rather grow beautiful flowers and herbaceous borders than follow the strict rigidity imposed upon the kitchen garden - I currently belong to that set.

One of the great attractions of coming to Allt-y-bela was to open up my mind and experience to productive gardening. In college we all learn to varying degrees about the fundamentals of vegetable gardens and there has been a huge revival in the art of vegetable gardening in recent years both as a rewarding and therapeutic activity.

The kitchen garden at Allt-y-bela is about two thirds the size of an allotment. It's the kind of size that most people could probably fit into their home garden should they wish to do so. When I took it over the kitchen garden at Allt-y-bela it was already very beautifully looked after and productive so as a newcomer that gave me the advantage of a good head-start without the fallback of a good excuse if things went wrong!

As part of my own education at Allt-y-bela a very nice chap by the name of James Clapp has agreed to come and advise me on the best methods of productive gardening. James has a vast amount of experience in market gardening and has not only the knowledge of best practice but also the hard won experience of putting these theories into practice in the real world.

The upshot of this is that we have decided to open up my education to others! We have designed a kitchen gardening course starting early in the new year which will follow the garden here at Allt-y-bela through the trials and triumphs of a growing season whilst passing on the essential knowledge to the course participants which will include site specific advice.

James is currently helping me to plan a crop rotation through the next twelve years here and being organic (he's become known to me as 'Organic James') his first piece of advice to me as I bombarded him with tales of caterpillar-based woe was, "It's really very simple, start with getting the soil right, it forms the basis of everything that comes after it. If the soil is not right then you will suffer far more from pests and diseases and once you have those everything you do is just palliative care."

I'm really looking forward to implementing his ideas, and one of the advantages to being a total amateur in this area of gardening is that I am not in the least bit precious about what I have been doing up until now and I can't wait to see what will happen when we fully implement the new rotation early next year.

Click here (live) to find details of the Kitchen Gardening Through the Years course. If you are interested in becoming a better vegetable gardener then James' huge wealth of knowledge, along with his charm and good humour, could be just the boost you need to get to the next level.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer