Garden diary

Naturalising crevice-loving ferns

The natural theatre at Allt-y-bela was constructed back in the spring and is a combination of sculpted grass banks and dry stone walling. The river which snakes through the grounds at the base of the new amphitheatre was also enclosed with drystone walling to protect the banks and create a natural stage behind the granary. The stone work which looked so new just a few months ago is already beginning to green up with mosses and lichens with a few plants and ferns taking up residence.

In order to help the process along a little we have bought some ferns to plant in the crevices along the walls. It's very easy to get carried away when buying plants and to opt for larger specimens in order to add to the initial impact of the planting and this can be a good option. Often though it is better to choose smaller specimens and to let them grow into the spaces in your garden. Plants are usually grown in peat or composts based on light organic matter which is usually quite different from the local soil environment they will be exposed to when planted out into open ground. This can mean it actually takes much longer for larger plants to establish in the new environment. In this case we needed small plants in order to physically fit them into the gaps in the stonework. We opted for plants in 9cm pots and took time to check the size of the rootball to make sure they would be suitable.

We chose three different ferns to use in the walls, we wanted to have a certain amount of variety whilst attempting to create the impression that communities of ferns had naturally developed. We chose ferns that would be found in walls and hedgerows in this area. It is always worth noting plants that grow wild in your area and use the information when planning design elements of your garden that are intended to look natural.

We chose the Maidenhair spleenwort (Adiantum trichomanes), Harts Tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium) and The common Polypody (Polypody vulgare) which grows on the moss on trees and on walls in cornwall and should hopefully appreciate the damp welsh climate.

To plant them we got down into the stream bed and looked for suitable crevices; we have tried not to plant the ferns too low as the stream level fluctuates with rainfall and we don't want our new plants to be washed away after the first big storm! The planting is fairly straightforward; it's important to pack the rootball firmly into the base of the crevice while trying not to damage the roots. I tended to squash the rootball into the approximate shape before attempting to insert it into the walls. Once the fern is firmly in the wall it is then important that it has some suitable media to get its root into; in an older established wall soil will have filtered down into the cracks between the stones but here because the walls are new we packed a little soil into the cracks around the fern to help the process along, a splash of water then settled the soil into the stones.

The next really important element is to try to get the spacing right between the plants, the human mind seems to be hardwired to create patterns and in order to get the naturally colonised look we are aiming for it was vital to be mindful of this. I'm hoping that over the winter the stones will continue to take on their new green sheen and that the ferns will grow and thrive and in time start to colonise the other unplanted crevices. The whole effect will soften the impact of the stone work while adding another layer of detail to the garden. 

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer

A collection of three ferns ready for planting

A 21st Century gardener

When I started working at Allt-y-bela there were some things I noticed immediately and some things that have taken a while to become apparent. As a gardener you instinctively assess a garden based on things like ease of access, garden features and planting, and you come to a set of rough conclusions about what the major jobs in the garden will be and how this will effect your work over the course of a year.

One of the first things I noticed at Allt-y-bela was the lack of 3G. This might sound a little strange but smart phones and mobile internet access have become increasingly important to gardeners like myself. When I first became a gardener I had to set aside time to check and send emails, now I can do that anywhere in the garden. If a piece of machinery breaks down I can look for information on the internet, and if I still can't fix it I can look for a local engineer, find their contact information and organise a repair.

All of this is very practical but the major use of mobile internet comes from being able to access a world of horticultural information on the move. It's now very simple to search for information relating to plant identification, pests and diseases and cultural information. In recent years many of the major gardens in the UK have started using GPS technology to chart the plant collections in their gardens and in this way create vast amounts of data charting the changes not only from year to year and bed to bed, but from plant to plant.

Probably the last comparable revolution came in the form of photography which would have revolutionised the way that wealthy garden owners tracked the changes in their gardens over time. The rise in the importance of social media this century has given a new lease of life to this approach. Although the majority of garden photographs that are posted on major social media sites are not intentionally providing historic cultural information, I have found myself looking back over a previous year's posts noting how different the garden looks when compared to the previous year and linking this to seasonal variations in climate for example.

Social media also helps us to keep in touch with the world beyond our own garden (a place us gardeners often forget exists), it inspires us, and when we get positive feedback from posts, it drives us on to do better!

Allt-y-bela is a very inspirational place to be and one in which I feel privileged to spend time. I hope that I am able to convey some of that magic through these blogs and through the pictures I post to Twitter.

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

Centaurea 'Jordy'Wisteria on the house at Allt-y-belaAbstract reflections in the stream at Allt-y-bela

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