Garden diary

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


Autumn breaks

Autumn has been slowly starting to assert herself here at Allt-y-bela with cooler mornings and leaves beginning to adopt their autumnal guise. The late afternoon light, low and slanting through the trees of the wooded hillsides, has been really quite magical and has handed even a very modest photographer like myself some great opportunities to capture the garden in dramatic light.

What we have lacked however is the chill in the air which autumn usually brings or indeed any rain to speak of. It's been well documented that September was the driest on record even here in Wales where rainfall tends to be above the national average. In fact a couple of days last week felt more like August than they did the beginning of October, with the lawns drying out and blue skies stretching across the valley.

As autumn begins to change the pace of garden life I have found the space and time to think about jobs which have seemed beyond my grasp in recent months. The one which I found time for last week was seed collecting! Now, let me start by being very honest; it's rather late in the season to be starting to think about seed collecting, and I have missed out on an awful lot of potential seed, but that said there are still plants in the garden with ripening seed still and I have been collecting those few over the past week or so.

A few weeks ago we had the last of our four part garden course here on 'The Making of the Garden'. The course has followed the garden through the seasons and has led the participants through the seasonal jobs which they can do in their own garden. As a special treat for the last day we had a talk by Marina Christopher from Pheonix Perennial Plants - an experienced nursery women who grows a fantastic range of plants from her nursery in Hampshire.

Marina took us through some of her tips for seed collecting including how to process and store seed. Spurred on by her inspirational talk I took to the garden to collect seed last week. One of the key plants Arne wanted seed from was the black Hollyhock that grows amongst the cobbles in the front courtyard. Its black blooms and lush green foliage contrast beautifully against the golden ocre of the house. One of the joys of seed collecting is anticipating the perfect time to harvest but you can of course cut the flowering stems a little early and let the seed ripen in a cool dry place with good airflow letting the seed shed naturally into a paper bag or onto a sheet of paper. I prefer, where possible, to let the seed ripen naturally on the plant and timing, therefore, is key. One day missed and the seed may be gone.

Hollyhock seeds are things of beauty; arranged like segments of an orange around a central point they have the appearance of a flying saucer held within a velvety casing that holds together even after the seed has been stripped out.

Another target were the great architectural spikes of Digitalis ferruginea that have been adding structure to the herbaceous beds ever since their blooms finished earlier in the summer. Ferruginea, meaning rusty, is a species I hadn't come across until I started working at Allt-y-bela but it is one certainly worth hunting out; the leaves are a strong, glossy dark green and the flowering spikes which rise from the basal rosette are strong, seldom require staking and hold a multitude of small copper, slightly hairly flowers, which are attractive to pollinators.

When collecting seed it is very important to separate the seed from the chaff. Often the chaff contains inhibitors which stop the seed germinating; Marina advises that you put your seeds into a shallow bowl and blow the chaff off, the seed usually being heavier than the chaff.

Seed collecting is such a rewarding thing to do. You get to bulk up your supply of plants for no cost at all, but more than that you get the satisfaction of seeing plants grow in your garden from seeds you have collected yourself and is a great way to exchange plants with friends. It's worth remembering that not all plants come 'true' from seed, meaning that the crossing in pollination will lead to differences in the offspring, however you may end up with something really special indeed that nobody else has. The reward is in the anticipation of that first flower next year.

As I write this today the rain has finally come and the river is flowing again, maybe autumn has now finally arrived!

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

Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Clover and crane flies

One of the challenges of writing a weekly diary is that very often little has changed from one week to the next and this represents something of a quandary. Last week I had a busy previous week for inspiration; we had one of our garden courses at Allt-y-bela, a tour the next day and then the planting of the bulbs began, I was spoilt for choice as to what to write about. This week is a little different however, I'm still planting the bulbs I spoke about last week and other than mowing the lawns and generally keeping the garden looking tidy there really isn't much to tell.

With that in mind, instead of talking about autumn, which would be the obvious choice given that it was the autumn equinox this week, I thought I might share something a little more personal.

Gardening often allows you great chunks of time in which it is just you and your immediate surroundings for company. The job you are undertaking becomes almost automatic and what you are left with is space and time to think and be. I believe this is one of the reasons that gardening can be such good therapy for those whose life has gotten on top of them.

One of the real joys I find comes from observing the life that exists around us largely unseen amidst our hurry to get on with the numberless chores that comprise our day. Birds, insects, creatures large and small and of course plants are all hustling at great pace through their days too, often locked into life and death struggles which can put a gardener's work into perspective.

Now, I don't want to give you the impression that I spend my days hiding in a corner of the garden lying on my stomach watching beetles and crane flies, as lovely as that would be! But when you spend several days crawling around planting thousands of bulbs into grassland you really can't fail to notice the stunning and often bewildering diversity that exists within the confines of the average garden.

As an example to all of this; whilst I was planting Crocus 'Prince Claus' into the bulb lawn at the back of the house, it was the red clover that particularly caught my attention. The beauty of the blooms and the diversity of their colour, size and form was breathtaking. That, coupled with the various stages of flowering and going to seed, inspired me to write this diary entry, and to share with you the hidden world we take for granted.

I know that I'm very lucky to work in a gorgeous environment and also to have the kind of job that allows time for such thoughts, and that most people have neither luxury most of the time. I would encourage you however to set yourself the challenge of spending a little time observing nothing in particular in your own garden. If possible avoid big distracting blooms and look for a change in what appears to be the plain green background of the garden, maybe a native hedge, or some scrub land, or even a lawn.  You will find plenty to interest you, and will probably come away with enough questions to keep you googling for some considerable time after!

Much of the beauty in a garden is found in its simplicity and natural elegance. All of this inspiration came from quiet observation of the natural world; if you are seeking inspiration head straight to the source, I guarantee you won't regret it!

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

Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Snake's heads in the grass

With autumn now well and truly in the air our minds as gardeners start to shift towards next spring. Maybe it's a delaying tactic which encourages us to look beyond the imminent winter and the difficult weather it invariably brings, but it is also the time to be planting spring and summer flowering bulbs.

Most garden centres now stock quite a broad range of bulbs both suitable for borders and also for naturalising into grassland. It's surprising to me as a professional gardener to see so many of the varieties used in historic houses up and down the country so readily available to buy at local garden centres and nurseries. In fact this great egalitarianism represents something of a dilemma for the gardener; do you search ever more widely for new varieties which can't be so easily found, or do you embrace the range of bulbs which is now fairly easily available to all?

Here at Allt-y-bela we are taking the middle line. We are planting great bulbs which are available to all alongside some which you may not have seen before.

The naturalising of bulbs into the margins of a garden is a great way to add a sense of age. Here at Allt-y-bela it is a process that Arne has undertaken right from the start of his time here. Over the years he has planted tens of thousands of snowdrops and daffodils into the areas towards the edge of the garden.

Over the last few days I have started adding another layer to this spring bulb matrix by planting 3,000 snake's head fritillaries (Fritillaria meleagris) into the common and the orchard. These amazing flowers have chequer board like patternation on the flowers and in such numbers form a carpet in mid March, quite unlike anything else. These bulbs must be planted as fresh as possible so if you do go and buy some then make sure they are planted out as soon as you can.

We are also planting Iris 'Autumn Princess' into the common to give us a splash of orange later in the season. We have planted a range of orange flowered plants in the garden which reflect the distinctive colour of the house, and this relatively small iris (50-65cm) should be a great eye-catcher in amongst the long grasses before they are cut down later in the spring. And up amongst the trees we are planting Fritillaria imperialis 'Aurora', a deep orange/red variety which will act as beacons of colour under the dappled light through the alders.

In addition, we are planting white autumn crocus (Colchicum speciosum 'Album') under some of the trees around the streamside and the common but these will not flower until this time next year. They will add a great late burst of colour alongside the autumn flowering cyclamen we planted into the Courtyard last week.

On the back lawn we are adding Crocus 'Prince Claus' to the spring bulb meadow. 'Prince Claus' is a stunning white Crocus with purple striping to the outside of the petals. It is a bunch-flowering crocus which quickly forms into drifts.

On the margins of the driveway we are again planting orange; this time to act as a teaser until the house comes into view; Tulipa whittallii major is a very beautiful species tulip with an almost bi-colour appearance of deep orange and copper. It has a much darker base and should sit beautifully against the purposefully rough grass approach.

If you are thinking of naturalising bulbs in grass it is worth remembering that the flowering period of the bulbs will restrict your mowing regime. If you are planting crocus in a lawn then there will be almost no disruption to mowing as the bulbs will have flowered and died back before the main mowing gets underway in the spring. If, like us, you are planting snake's head fritillaries then you will be unable to mow the lawn much before mid April.

I would also suggest that if you intend to naturalise bulbs that you stick to a relatively small number of species and use large numbers and scale to give the best effect.

Whatever you choose to do, planting perennial bulbs is fantastic value in my opinion. They require very minimal care and will serve the garden year in year out for a generation or more and all for just a couple of pounds spent and very minimal effort to plant. On that note I'd better get back to planting!

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

Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer and William Collinson