Garden diary

A word on hedging

I should probably preface this blog by admitting that I'm something of a hedge cutting addict. For me there are few things in life more rewarding than turning a scruffy hedge or topiary into a crisp architectural foil for beautiful planting.

Hedging and topiary are used in different ways to create different effects but they can in fact be interchanged pretty freely to block views, to direct movement, to give winter structure and to act as a backdrop for the the more flamboyant garden elements!

Hedges form the backbone of the garden but can be overlooked for the beauty they posses in themselves. Topiary is the antidote to this unfair, but often intentional recessive quality. Topiary is attention grabbing and here at Ally-y-bela that is probably best represented in the courtyard where a full cast of box and yew shapes create a real sense of drama.

The clouded box hedge on the northern side of the house highlights where the usual distinction between hedge and topiary can be blurred, taking the traditional roll of box as an edging plant and giving it form and interest that, at times, almost upstages the border plants.

The majority of the hedging and topiary at Allt-y-bela consists of yew, box and beech. Both yew and box are traditionally used because they form dense, uniform hedges. Yew is much more suited to hedges as it is naturally stronger when it is taller, and box, a scrubby loose bush in the wild, is much more suitable for forming smaller rounded shapes.

Beech is an interesting choice for topiary, it can form very large and complicated shapes and is very strong. It loses its leaves in winter and so becomes a much lighter garden element than when in full leaf during the summer.

I should also confess to being rather a fan of loud petrol driven cutters for cutting most hedges and topiary although the choice of cutting tool is a very personal matter. I do however use small hedge shears to cut the box!

The hedging and topiary cutting at Allt-y-bela goes on right throughout the summer, the plan is to get at least two cuts across the yew topiaries this year. The majority of the topiaries at Allt-y-bela are relatively new and are still in the process of being formed. Topiaries and hedges, especially of yew and box, can be incredibly long lived and the process of cutting helps to keep them in a juvenile form.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer

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 road less travelled

Allt-y-bela is approached by way of a very long, very narrow lane with occasional grass growing down its centre and tall hedges that enclose the road that, at this time of year, burst with wild flowers. It is a beautiful approach, during which the pressures of modernity seem to be stripped back.

At the very end of the lane, down an informal gravel drive, you begin to see topiary; some, like the enormous beech, are very definite statements of arrival and others, such as the hawthorn, hint at a more playful side to the garden. The drive winds on until you finally come upon the house, cornered by a renaissance tower and painted a rich ochre colour. It really is quite a sight, yet somehow not out of keeping with the rural landscape that surrounds it.

The impression you get from Allt-y-bela is one of relaxed informality, simplicity and, importantly, of history. The garden looks in many ways as if it might have sat by the house for hundreds of years, which, for a designer known for his 'sense of place', is perhaps to be expected. But the myths of the garden's simplicity and of its history are both dispelled in different ways. The garden to me looks effortless, and the effort that goes into making a garden look effortless is usually extreme!

Immediately in front of the house is a small sunny courtyard, enclosed by pleached crab apple trees and containing the very rarest of bulbs and plants. Opposite is the design studio, housed in a converted granary.

A stream runs through this side of the garden which has recently been enclosed with drystone walling, a traditional treatment in this part of the world where. left unchecked, the water can flow very fast and high re-sculpting the river banks almost with every heavy down pour. On the other side of the stream an amphitheatre has been created looking down on a grass 'stage' at the back of the studio barn. From this very contemporary piece of landscaping the garden starts to return to a more natural state with banks of wild flowers and a small orchard.

Behind the house on its northern side is a small de-constructed parterre of box interspersed with herbaceous planting and roses which transitions into another sculpted lawn which again morphs into wild flowers on the edge of the garden, to the west of the back lawn is a circular purple beech hedge of interlocking spirals alongside yew, beech and box topiary in all shapes and sizes! To the east is a kitchen garden which in many ways is the beating heart of the garden; it was the first area to be built, fresh home grown food being one of the main drivers of the gardening here. The scale is large domestic rather than anything very grand, it looks in many ways like a dream allotment, if you've ever wished for a beautiful plot in which to grow vegetables then its very likely that the kitchen garden at Allt-y-bela is what you had in mind! Opposite the kitchen garden is the fruit garden where you will find currents, gooseberries, apples and pears amongst a riot of colour; this is also the main herbaceous beds and they are punctuated by roses trained into domes. The pathways which lead in amongst the planting are narrow and cobbled and the plants spill into the path; you cannot help but be involved in this kind of planting!

The stream sides are stocked with primula and sanguisorba and the garden is filled with topiary. The Studio overlooks a bed that I haven't yet fully explored but which contains, I have just remembered, a particularly unusual rose that I need to photograph. The wild flower meadows are punctuated with plants that would more usually be found in a border but which have their origins in open grasslands; there is a huge amount to discover!

Over the coming weeks and months I will try to explore each area in a little more detail whilst also talking a bit about the work I'm doing in the garden. I will try to plot the changes in the garden through the seasons and to show you not only the best of what we have here but also an insight into some of the challenges we face.

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

Photos: 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