Garden diary

Time for the turf


For some gardeners turf becomes their obsession. Maybe their interest has been sparked through a love of golf, or perhaps through a more tactile reason, but the results seem to be similar and the mere mention of a rotary bladed mower will see them bridle visibly. Although I have grown to really appreciate the fine cut of an eleven blade cylinder mower, I have never really subscribed to the turf club. Turf is for those of us lucky enough to live in an amenable climate taken rather for granted; a green backdrop linking our gardens to the landscape and providing open spaces in which to linger.

The lawns at Allt-y-bela are still a work in progress. Whenever a new project is underway it is the lawns, more often than not, that take the bulk of the traffic and suffer the most damage. When the stream was being walled a few years ago the stone was tipped onto boards on the lawns and by the end of the project they were in a very sorry state. As the garden is still under construction we are not expecting the lawns to be the best in the land but I have become rather committed to improving their appearance and general health!

This autumn we have bought a new piece of kit which should help in our endeavour. In previous years we have hired scarifiers to rake through the meadows in order to clear some space for sowing rattle seed. This year we have taken it one step further and bought one.

For those unfamiliar with scarifiers they are in effect just motorised rakes which tend to be used in the autumn to remove thatch and moss from the lawn, once the material is removed you can then re-seed any bare patches and top dress the rest of the lawn. The top dressing is traditionally a mixture of sand and topsoil, usually somewhere in the ratio of 70% sand to 30% soil. The top dressing is particularly useful if your soil is heavy as the sand will be incorporated into the soil altering the texture over time.

Scarifying is also a very useful technique in maintaining a flowering meadow. Once the meadow has been mowed down and the cuttings cleared away, the action of scarifying not only removes any thatch or plant material deep down in the sward, it also opens up soil spaces into which you can sow yellow rattle seed. Yellow rattle is invaluable in keeping the grasses under control in a meadow, which it does by parasitising the grass roots. A meadow in which the grass is strong and healthy is one where the grass will simply outcompete the native wildflowers. Yellow rattle is sown fresh and needs to be in contact with the soil so now is the time to get it done!

We will be scarifying our main lawns twice a year over the next few years in order to produce thicker, healthier lawns. If you wanted to scarify your own lawn this autumn and it isn't too vast then you can do just as good a job with a good spring tine rake. (It's a very good work out as you need to really get in amongst the grass) It's then essential to collect as much raked material as possible, you certainly don't want your hard work going to waste by that thatch getting back into the lawn! If on the other hand you really aren't that keen to spend hours attacking the lawn with a rake then you can hire scarifiers. It may take a little phoning around as not all plant hire companies have them, but they do cut down the work very significantly.

I'm certainly enjoying the challenge of getting the lawns into shape. It may not be a passion of mine but I do enjoy wandering across a summer lawn barefoot, not that that's how I spend my summers at Allt-y-bela of course! I'm looking forward to seeing the difference the work put in now will make next year. The garden at Allt-y-bela is beginning to mature and settle now and as the years go by I hope that our efforts and continued hard work will pay dividends for many years to come.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Autumn Equinox


There's a red oak on the way into Usk from Allt-y-bela whose first few leaves are tentatively beginning to change colour. There's an elder too whose top most leaves, that sit proud of the top of the hedge line, are also turning, and yet the days are still warm. In the middle of the day it's still warm enough to be summer but the darker mornings and mists have arrived heralding the beginning of autumn.

Today (22 September 2016) is the Autumn Equinox and it's the perfect start to autumn; light overnight rain that has refreshed the earth has given way to blue skies and a mellow warmth. In the kitchen garden the nets over the brassicas are jewelled with rain drops as are the multitude of complex little webs which have been carefully constructed by industrious spiders. The sweet peas are still flowering strongly but their moment has long since passed, it no longer feels right to cut these symbols of summer for the house and so I'm letting them quietly run to seed now, enjoying their display in the top corner of the kitchen garden.

Over the past few days I've noticed that our beloved Dahlia 'Naples' has started to look a little stark in the cottage garden, the grey misty days have left them looking very white against the grey green landscape as some of the accompanying flowers have started to recede. Today however they look magnificent in the sunshine, the delicate pinkish tinge of the young flowers adding depth to their display. The asters are emerging now as well, taking over the mantle of those flowers whose glory days have passed, and soon the asters will fully compliment the dahlias lifting the border into one last great display before the cold winter takes them.

The Autumn Equinox is a marker of change in the garden, in the landscape and in the year and it's the change that is so enchanting and beautiful in the garden. Now is a time where you can look forward to the wonders of autumn while revelling in the tail end of summer.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Apples, pears and a drop of honey


As the mornings begin to get chilly, and the first few leaves begin to fall, my attentions turn to autumnal things. It is "the season of mellow fruitfulness", as an old gardening friend of mine would without fail remind me as we reached this point of the year. The garden at Allt-y-bela seems designed to celebrate the changing seasons in a way that very few gardens I have known do. Perhaps it is the changes that take place in the kitchen garden that mark the year, or indeed the changing groups of flowers in the borders, which are cut to make bouquets for the house; the asters are beginning to flower now. The most powerful reflection of this time of year though is the apples beginning to ripen on the trees. Allt-y-bela has a small orchard and step-over apples which bracket the beds in the kitchen garden as well as various other specimens around the garden. It is thought that the house once sat in apple and pear orchards and as the garden slowly matures it's beginning to feel like it might again.

Last year we had our first really productive year of apples. Arne likes to stack the apples from the tree that sits in the drove lawn on the table, which forms a seating area at the base of the kitchen garden wall. Last year that soon became a mound and then threatened to turn into a perilous pyramid of fruit as the supply of apples from just this one tree seemed to be never-ending. In the end we had so much fruit that we had to juice a greater part of it. That juice has lasted us until now, when we are down to our last few bottles. Allt-y-bela has bed and breakfast rooms and our guests have been enjoying the juice from our orchard with their breakfasts. Arne's partner enjoys making jams and chutneys from the garden produce when we have a surplus, so we can never really produce too much from the garden.

This year it doesn't look quite so good in terms of apples, we have a lot more pears this year however! As the orchard matures I'm sure that we will be juicing every year and have our own supply of Allt-y-bela apple juice. It may just be fanciful thinking, but to me the taste is incredibly evocative of a summer in the garden here.  

Another productive element of the garden which comes to fruition at this time of the year is our honey. We have two hives, just a couple of feet from the kitchen garden alongside the cottage garden, and on sunny days in summer the bees are busy taking advantage of the flowers that abound here. Working in such close proximity to these amazing creatures gives a real insight into just how weather dependant their operations are and how precarious their very survival is. I would love to learn how to look after the bees but I have to admit to being a little intimidated when assisting our beekeeper; it seems to go against all of your natural instincts to stay around a hive of agitated bees!

This week our beekeeper came to harvest the honey from our hives. He is very careful to leave the bees with plenty of their own honey to keep as stores to last them through the winter, and in fact they have already started to build new stores of honey closer to the nest, ignoring the new frames which were added a few weeks ago. Our bees have been thriving in the garden and we are all passionate about looking after them properly and helping them to become a successful and productive colony. As part of our arrangement with our beekeeper, we get a proportion of our honey which is used in the same way as our apple juice and the rest is sold as a single location honey, via BC Bees, which is lovely. You really can taste the difference between the various different places.

Although we aren't aiming at any sort of self sufficiency we do seem to be making the most of the land in what is a fairly small area and are now enjoying the fruits of our, and our apian friends', labour.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer




When I was about six my parents moved to a house which to me seemed to have an enormous garden. Down at the bottom of that garden, beyond a rather tumbledown fence and hedge, lay a steep drop down to a narrow brook, which ran unimpeded for about a quarter of a mile. Much of my childhood was spend in the garden with its various garden rooms and that magical little kingdom beyond the fence, collecting devils' toenails from the shallow stream and looking for 'treasure' amongst the plants and trees. It wasn't until the other day, when while dead-heading dahlias in the cottage garden I discovered one of the Nigella I'd grown in flower, that I realised just how little I had changed in those intervening years.

Gardening gives you a great opportunity to admire nature going about her business on a level that very few other professions allow. Tiny insignificant flowers, like those of hazel in early spring, give you pause; as does the beauty of a spider's web bejewelled with dew on a chilly autumn morning, and all the time, while you go about your tasks, you are drawn to treasures all around you.

Allt-y-bela affords so many treasures that you could probably devote a book to the subject. The wild welsh countryside around the garden often interacts with the more orderly state of things within the garden boundaries to create a vibrancy that lies at the heart of the garden.

The Nigella that first caught my eye is not one that has thrived this year. The seed came from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and is called Nigella 'Delft Blue'. It has a very unusual, almost transparent, quality to the petals and a washed out graded colour radiating out from the centre. It's like no Nigella I've ever seen before and I'd certainly like to give it another try next year. Down at a similar level was the seed head of a scabious with glassy discs forming a spherical drumstick head, staggeringly beautiful when viewed up close, but very easy to miss amongst the floral riot of the cottage garden.

The rain brings another opportunity to admire plants and flowers in a different way. While others may hurry away looking for cover, I would advise a good coat and a more stoic approach, the payoff is well worth the discomfort. There are those plants which we all know look great in the rain but once you start looking around you find that jewel-like raindrops appear as molten tin on Cercis canadensis or Baptisia, while the rain freshens the second flush of roses in the garden at this time of year.

I feel incredibly fortunate to still be able to indulge my childhood passion for finding treasure; it's amazing how little that passion has moved on. I still like to spend my time amongst the plants and the trees admiring bugs and flowers and although I like to think that my taste has matured and refined over the years, the basic drive to discover hasn't.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer




First of all I must apologise to you; in my diary a few weeks ago I promised news of a new project at Allt-y-bela and last week I completely glossed over the fact that I had failed to deliver said news. The truth is that the project has been slightly delayed, I promise that as soon as things get underway I will be out there taking photos and keeping you up to date with progress.

August in the garden at Allt-y-bela is always rather frantic. Before Arne heads off on his annual break he sets me the challenge of getting the meadows cut and the topiary clipped before he gets back at the beginning of September. Last year it pretty much rained through the whole of the month making the meadow cutting impossible, of course no sooner had his plane landed than the sun came out, the temperatures rocketed and it looked for all the world like I just hadn't quite got around to it! I think I did get the topiary cut though. On the plus side because we cut it late it coincided with one of the photoshoots for the Gardens Illustrated series and I think looked rather fine in last month's edition!

This year has been a little different, a very dry July has been followed by an equally dry August and I've found myself spending inordinate amounts of time watering. It has meant that I could pick my time to cut down the meadow, which is all done now and has given me the opportunity to cut topiary too.

After last week's all out attack on the meadows, this week has been spent in a rather more sedate way: I've been cutting the box. In the past I've always tended towards cutting box as soon as I can, the traditional start of the box cutting season being Derby day, and true to form come mid June I was itching to start cutting. There's nothing smarter in a garden than freshly clipped box topiary. Arne likes the box to look slightly fluffier in June and so I had to put my shears on ice for a couple of months but with the season getting on and the threat of box blight weather looming I've been starting to get a little uneasy about getting it cut. The mild damp days of autumn are perfect weather for fungal nasties to take hold and I didn't want to be putting the box under extra pressure at this time, nor having freshly cut leaves as a potential root for infection. What I needed then was a few hot dry days to get the box cut and the start of this week looked perfect.

On Monday I set out to cut the box shapes in the courtyard, there are about 17 shapes in there I think and I just about got those done. Tuesday was big box ball day and I think I got 7 of those done. But on Wednesday things started to go a little awry. I had planned to get the box lattice cut along with two big shapes, but with other things happening cutting stalled a bit leaving me with only about half of it done. With rain forecast for Friday I knew that my plan to get the cloudy box brackets around the kitchen garden done as well was now out of the question and it became a race to get the lattice finished and cleared away before the rain came in. Cue an afternoon of rather frantic clipping! After such a long wait it seems a shame to have had to race over the lattice as fast as I did, jobs you love should be savoured but sometimes weather pressures intervene and your best laid plans....well, you know how it goes.

So it's now Friday and I'm sitting writing this because it's raining. It's been raining since very early this morning and I couldn't be happier, the sky is slate grey which look fabulous and dramatic against the ochre colour of the house and the garden is finally getting a good drink. Will I get all of the topiary finished before Arne gets home, well that depends. If I forget everything else and hedge for a week then yes, I think I will, but if I want to keep the garden ticking over, deadheaded, weeded and mowed then probably not.

I really enjoy the challenge of an August at Allt-y-bela, and one year things will all fall into place and everything will get done in time, until then I'll just keep on clipping!

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

Photos: Britt Willoughby-Dyer