Garden diary

Frost and fire

 

There are some activities in gardening that feel like they relate right back deep within our shared history. I find these moments when walking alone through woodland far away from the noise of traffic and the other distractions of modernity. Tending a fire is perhaps the most evocative of these experiences and I still enjoy the heat, the light and the unpredictability of fire that have fascinated people since the beginning of time.

Over the past few days the weather has become very wintery. Chilly, still, sunny days have preceded clear, cold, starry nights and heavy frosts have clothed the garden in icy white. Today began with a temperature of -7C and rose no higher than zero. At this time of year the sun remains very low on the horizon, barely rising above the tree line on the ridge to the north of the house. The result has been beautiful and savage. The months before Christmas tend to be a gentle, gradual cooling with the coldest of the weather arriving in January and February so a -7C in November feels particularly harsh.

Over the last few weeks we have been alternating our time between clearing and tidying the beds for winter and planting bulbs for the spring. I enjoy the duality of these activities; on the one hand you are acknowledging winter as you strip back the year's herbaceous growth, while on the other you are planting little packets of energy ready to emerge as soon as the worst of the cold has passed.

When the frost is as heavy as it has been for the passed few days it is generally advisable to stay off the grass as much as possible. This pushes us further into the landscape in order to find productive work and we have spent the cold days clearing bramble and weeds from along the boundaries beyond the drove. These areas have generally been outside of our reach as we concentrate our efforts closer to the house, but now as we open up the spaces and let in the light again a whole new surge of energy and ideas are promising to enhance and regenerate the space.

The bonfire smokes continually as the fire slowly devours the branches, sticks and stems left there a month or more ago. The heavy cold frost clings to each and every surface, fusing the branches together despite them being only a few centimetres from the flames. Through the garden the smoke is caught by beams of sunlight creating strange light effects and ghostly grey white forms, which seem to hang in the still crisp air.

On previous days the sun has reached down through the southern fields behind the house but today it never got as far as the garden. A mile down the lane in the sun it is 5C warmer and back in the garden the cold has been a bit of a shock to the system. If the winter continues to be cold and crisp we will certainly have more time to bring the more outlying areas under control, and just as importantly create plenty to burn. Today our fire might not have been quite enough to stay the cold but looking into the flames and the smell of woodsmoke is as powerful and compelling as it ever was. 

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer

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The chickens of Allt-y-bela

 

Allt-y-Bela is a wonderful place to visit. The position of the garden tucked up in the base of a narrow valley, the fairytale-like quality of the building and the dreamy garden with its towering topiary and lush planting plus its very human scale all add up to make it very special. The real genius of Allt-y-bela lies in the little details which often surprise and delight visitors. A greater part of these details however are often not fully appreciated after just one visit, but that's not only ok, I think it's preferable. A good garden, like a good book, can take multiple visits with each one revealing new details lost in the original search for the narrative.

At Allt-y-bela it seems as if the animals have been specially chosen to add to the sense of place, from Hudson the Bengal cat who shines gold in the sun and slinks about in the trees, to Thistle the wirehaired pointer who looks like a medieval hunting dog; the animals add another layer to Allt-y-bela.

We've recently aquired a new little flock of chickens in the garden. It's hard to describe exactly what a little group of chickens bring to a garden if you've never stopped and watched them for a little while. I could watch them all day I think. We have six little bantam hens and a young cockerel who is very much still finding his feet, the hens ganged up on him at first and gave him a properly hard time. He's found his strut now though and is mostly quite dignified. He's been chasing off the rogue pheasants which have been wandering down into the garden in ever greater numbers of late. Amongst his little hareem of hens are a couple of slightly dippy birds who are forever getting separated from the group, it's great to watch the cockerel (who I've tentatively named Huw, pending managerial approval.) chasing backwards and forwards across the common as he desperately tries to keep the group together.

Hens are not always a gardener's best friend but these particular ones seem to be fairly good company. They follow me through the beds picking at the bugs I've disturbed but generally, for the moment at least, are content not to dig the beds up. At least one of them has developed a taste for violas which is a little irritating and during our recent crocus planting I discovered to my horror that they will knick off with any unattended bulbs!

It seems strange to me just what a difference these birds have made to the garden; I guess it's just another detail, another layer to the garden, which adds up to the much greater whole.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer

 

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In praise of the dahlia

 

This year has been particularly good for the dahlias at Allt-y-bela. This time last year we took stock of the range and performance of our dahlias in the cottage garden and decided make some changes. We got rid of them all except for two cultivars: Dahlia 'Cafe au Lait' and D. 'Naples'. We then put together a plan to improve the late season performance of the cottage garden. We asked a local nursery to propagate and bring on our dahlias early in the season (space is at a premium at Allt-y-bela) then when they arrived and were planted out, we set about feeding them weekly and watering them profusely throughout the summer. The autumn display has not disappointed and we've had a constant supply of dahlias for the house without it ever seeming to have an impact on the garden display. I have been ruthless with deadheading though, as soon as a flower begins to fade I've removed it, and these dead heading patrols have been as close to daily as I can manage. Never before have I managed dahlias so intensively and never before have I had such fantastic results!

On the 2nd November I set out on my usual dead heading round and took some pictures of the display which was still showing no signs of slowing. The next day I came in to find a light frost over the garden, walking up to the cottage garden I didn't expect any real damage on the dahlias and at first it looked like all was well, and then I looked more closely; every flower had been damaged and a good proportion of the leaves showed the slight darkened transparency which means that the dahlias are finished. I really couldn't believe it, it seemed so unreal. For the next couple of hours I worked around the garden, hoping that the damage wasn't as complete as it looked, but it had to be faced. By the end of the day all of the dahlias were lifted, cleaned and drying ready for storage with the notable exception of the Dahlia merckii which is still going strong. It's no secret that I've become a Dahlia merckii convert this year and its relative hardiness is just another string to its bow.

We're now in the rather strange position that our sweet peas that we left to set seed are flowering on after the dahlias have gone! It's been a great year for the dahlias and I've certainly learned a lot about how to get them going and keep them flowering. Now it's all over for another year I am rather sad to see them go, it's another sign that winter is closing in!

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer

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Burying treasure

 

As regular readers will no doubt be aware I am something of a fan of bulbs, or perhaps more specifically the flowering display produced by bulbs. Bulbs give you a huge amount of value for your time and monetary investment, especially the bulbs we use to naturalise and leave in the ground year round.

Last week we set about changing over our main containers from their summer clothes to their winter ones. There are few jobs in the garden which speak more clearly about the changes about to take place than the planting of bulbs in the autumn, it almost feels like an acknowledgment that the coming months are going to be very different than those which have passed but that there is a belief that when the sun returns these little packets of energy will burst into life and celebrate with floral fireworks!

We've worked our containers very hard this summer and they have mostly responded by giving us extremely large and abundant growth. A few pots however have become waterlogged and fetid. Over time old roots and debris have built up in the base of the pots and although we often replace the top soil we haven't been down to the depths and changed everything for quite some time. I won't bore you with the details of my emptying the pots, but one thing which was apparent was the care taken when mixing the previous compost and I was determined to do just as good a mix to replace it.

There are lots of things to think about when choosing a compost for containers, chief among them being creating a suitable environment for whatever you intend to plant. As our pots will have a wide range of different plants I set out to make a general mix which should provide a good mixture of qualities. We've made some particularly good compost this year and this along with some of our leaf mould became key ingredients. I also added a little grit, top soil and John Innes, mixing it all on a board until I felt happy with its consistency. I might also have checked with the boss, just to be on the safe side!

Over the last year we have started to build up and layer our seasonal planter display, hopefully giving a more sophisticated appearance and next spring will be no exception, in fact our plans are to have a more complex and coherent display than ever before. Our pots have a greater sense of sophistication too, we have picked a palette of plants and bulbs and varied the mix throughout the pots so that while they will all have the same threads through them, the pattern will alter.

The bulb choice is also a little different: this year we have gone for viridiflora tulips which have a flash of green up the petals in whites and apricot, and wallflowers in creamy white. I'm really excited to see the results. We've spent more time this year both in the planning and in the preparation of our spring display and there really is nothing like good preparation to give you the feeling of anticipation!

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

Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer

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Prolonging a good year

 

It's a typical quiet grey morning at Allt-y-bela. The day, which began dark and drizzly, is slowly waking and the birds in the trees are beginning to make themselves heard. This morning I've come out into the cottage garden to do a little late season dead heading and editing.

Over the last few years my approach to autumn in the cottage garden has radically altered. Before I came to Allt-y-bela I was looking after a much larger garden and we tended to wait until the first frost had been through and finished many of the plants off before we got in with our shears and cut everything down. When I started here I brought that experience with me and cut everything down after it had either finished flowering or it had begun to die back. I soon realised that I was missing a trick.

This year I have pushed my luck in the other direction leaving as much as possible as late as possible before cutting it back. This started back after the digitalis had finished flowering and naturally I wanted to leave it to set seed. I left the veronicastrum too, and then the phlox and lobelia. It's not that I'm not editing each time I go through the bed, I am. I am also deadheading the plants I want to keep flowering, I am still religiously dead heading the dahlias for example. Rather what I am attempting to do is to preserve the best shapes and silhouettes, which are so important with the beautiful low autumn light, while removing anything which has started to decay. I've found that my perception of what is desirable in the border has changed as the seasons have advanced and embracing the change has allowed me to really appreciate the beauty that the cooler weather brings. I've also enjoyed cutting seed heads and dried stems to use amongst autumn flowers which seems to add some authenticity to arrangements at this time of year.

Whether I've got the balance right this year in the cottage garden is perhaps a moot point, I've learned a great deal about ways to appreciate plants after their moment has passed, and perhaps a little about achieving subtlety and balance in the cottage garden.

As I stand here propped against the gatepost of the kitchen garden looking across the cottage garden at the fine oak which is turning to copper it feels to me like the cottage garden is at least in part reflecting the change in season while a few roses and and dahlias continue to valiantly defy the pattern.

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

Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer

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