Garden diary

A break in the silence

I'm sure by now you have realised I'm one of those people. You know the type; those people who are around one minute and then suddenly seem to just evaporate. You hear nothing from them for months on end and then as suddenly as they disappeared they reappear again, and go on as if nothing at all has happened!

My absence however is not the result of a nasty mowing injury, nor some unexpected disaster befalling the garden absorbing all of my time. The truth is rather more mundane; I've just been really busy! Once you break a habit it becomes increasingly hard to unbreak it! However; with major changes afoot in the garden over the coming weeks, and some big annual tasks to get stuck into as well, I thought it was about time to pop up again and restart my weekly missives from the garden here at Allt-y-bela.

I'm afraid I'm going to leave you hanging a bit on what the next major change in the garden is going to be though. Once work gets underway next week I'll let you in on the secret then keep you up to date with the progress. But that's for next time.

For this week I thought I'd give you a couple more excuses as to why I've been away and sort of walk you through the garden as it is today filling you in on a few things you've missed.

Last year I started taking groups around the garden, with just a few at first. This year it has grown and we've welcomed lots of lovely groups into the garden, in fact at its peak a few weeks ago we were seeing up to three groups a week, which is quite a lot for a little garden like us! So whilst I've seemed silent to you, I've been waffling to garden visitors almost every day! On a garden tour note, if you would like to gather a few friends together and come and see us, you would be very welcome. We intend to offer tours on Thursdays by arrangement, with a minimum group of 10 people, so if you'd like to hear me gabble on in person then do get in touch.

So the garden then; the new hedging in the granary lattice is doing surprisingly well. It went in as bare root plants in May if you remember and I was slightly sceptical of its chances of survival given how late it went in. The weather has been slightly against us - it's been dry, really dry. I don't think we had more than a day or so of rain in the whole of July. That's not to say that it's been lovely and summery though; it's been generally overcast and dull with temperatures slightly on the cool side. There was a brief exception for the three days I was mulching the beds with manure when it was ridiculously hot and the horse flies decided I was definitely a meal worth pursuing - it's not all glamour here!

The kitchen garden is well underway now and we have had a pretty good crop of fruit this year. The potatoes have all been lifted and Arne took a load of fresh garden produce with him when he went away on the boat. I'm not sure how far those potatoes went, but they may have made it to Iceland! With Arne and William away, the race is underway to get some produce ready for their return. Hopefully we should have something for them to eat when they do.

The cottage garden is looking much better this year after our tweaks and changes over the winter. The beds feel much more coherent, the colours are more harmonious and the structural plants feel less congested. The Digitalis ferruginea 'Gigantea' and the Gladiolus papilio 'Ruby' both look particularly special at the moment.

I could go on, after all there is so much to catch up on, but I think I'm going to leave it there for now and focus on the next big development in the garden next time. I'll fill you in on what you've missed as we go!

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby-Dyer


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Longhorns at Allt-y-bela


I'm currently sitting on the grass in the garden theatre soaking up a little sunshine with my laptop on my lap and my boots removed and slung lazily on the bank below. This really doesn't feel like I'm working terribly hard. It doesn't feel very long ago that I was writing a similar introduction huddled inside the doorway of the tool shed while the rain bucketed down and everything was still cold and dark, not that I would have tried to elicit your sympathy then, Allt-y-bela really is a beautiful place to be whether the sun is shining or not.

The fields around the house appear carpeted in buttercups, it's only when you make your way out in to the fields that you discover they are all a good foot high and you could happily sink into the middle of them and lie in a flowery meadow listening to the birdsong and the gentle babbling of the stream hurrying by. I'm not going to do that of course, that might be pushing my luck a little too far!

To the east of the house, where the ground rises steeply, there are fields full of ancient ant hills. The ground here is too steep and has never been cultivated; later in the year the ant hills will be crowned in purple thyme as the wild flowers bloom around them. The fields here are lightly grazed by cattle who make their way down the steep hill in the afternoons to drink from the stream. This idyllic, bucolic landscape, we have recently discovered, is home to at least one colony of rare bees.

I was in the glasshouse a week or so ago checking on the plants. It was a hot day and despite the door and windows being open bees and flies, and occasionally birds, visit and find it hard to leave. On this particular visit I noticed a bee I'd never seen before, I wasn't even sure if he was really a bee at all. He was a little larger than a honey bee but almost fluffy like a bumble bee, the reason he stood out however was his enormous antenna, which were thick, black, shiny and almost the same length as his entire body. I took a photo, picked him up - he was very docile, and released him back into the world where he flew off happily, and resolved to look him up later and see if I could find out what he was.

After a little internet digging I was fairly convinced that he was a long horned bee. To be honest, far from it being an arduous process of comparing markings, body size or anything else, it was simply the huge antenna that gave it away! After contacting a few people who really know about these things it seems that my identification is probably correct and that is a rather wonderful thing. Long horned bees are very rare these days having lost most of their habitat. That rare combination of habitat and climate make the fields around Allt-y-bela, which I tried to describe earlier, a perfect home to these creatures. Now that I had seen one I started looking for them and have found them in profusion throughout the garden especially around the cottage garden at the moment where they are particularly enjoying Centurea montana 'Jordy' and the alliums.

Without those antenna, which were so hard to ignore, I doubt whether I would have ever had any idea that Allt-y-bela was home to such rare creatures, and for every easily identifiable species I have little doubt that many more exist hidden in plain sight by their anonymous looks. It makes me wonder what other wonderful secrets this beautiful hidden valley holds.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer and Steve Lannin



London calling: Chelsea 2016


'Feather-footed through the plashy fens passes the questing vole' writes William Boot in Evelyn Waugh's Scoop. Boot writes a nature column for a national newspaper without ever setting foot in the capital if he can help it. And although I lack the crumbling ancestral home of Boot Magna Hall, I sometimes feel a little like William in Waugh's brilliant satire, to the extent that I try to temper the hyperbole and metaphor when I write. This is never more the case than when I 'go up to London'. It's not that I don't understand the energy or vibrancy it affords, or its culture and excitement, it's rather just that I prefer the peace and pastures of the countryside.

The Chelsea Flower Show is one event that will break my London inertia and actually make me keen to visit, although when crammed into the hot airless depths of the underground, or standing squashed next to a luggage rack on a commuter train, I find my soul crying out for a little sky and air!

Last year I managed to spend the whole day at Chelsea, I left overwhelmed, overtired and footsore. It took me a couple of days to properly unpack all of the information and begin to think coherently about what I had seen. This year I had an afternoon ticket but managed to get in little earlier and touring the show gardens with Arne, who was a gardens judge this year, was a huge treat. I even managed to get on to some of the gardens and it was really interesting looking at the finish and the attention to detail up close, it gave me a real appreciation for the level of craftsmanship that goes in to creating these temporary gardens. It is a little unnerving though looking around a garden with a crowd watching, wishing you would get out of their shot! I felt a little like an animal in a zoo; I have to say though that I thoroughly enjoyed my habitat!

It's the quality that always astounds me at Chelsea. The displays in the floral marquee were faultless, each bloom carefully selected and displayed. The passion and knowledge of the nurserymen who exhibit make me realize how little I really know while at the same time reenergizing my passion to learn. I suppose I have to say though that it is the show gardens that really capture my imagination and this year they were no different. Looking at gardens is so subjective; what works for one person will offend another. Designers' personalities seem to shine through in their garden creations from Diarmuid Gavin's openly challenging and, frankly, bonkers garden complete with rotating topiary, to James Basson's hopelessly cool, laid back garden for L'Occitane. Cleve West's garden for M&G Investments was beautifully planted using a similar palette of plants to that we have been using at Allt-y-bela; the water that flowed through the garden flowed under and over rocks towards a cobbled basin. Water was also used beautifully in Andy Sturgeon's garden for The Daily Telegraph where the hard and soft landscaping elements came together really beautifully. Hugo Bugg's garden for the Royal Bank of Canada had incredible stone structures and was planted very naturalistically. For me though I think my favourite garden may have been The Cloudy Bay Garden by Sam Ovens, with its limited palette of plants, naturalistic style and simple wooden jetty structure it felt like such a breath of fresh air.

Chelsea is one of those great British events, like Wimbledon, when it seems that it's really alright to be British; where London culture meets its more rural cousins and everyone has a lovely time amongst the flowers. For a few short hours we are all equal and united by our shared love of gardens.

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

Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Broader horizons


Over the last few weeks the garden has turned a fresh, lush green. The last of the beech topiary has finally come into leaf and the garden feels complete and ready for summer. Late May is one of the highlights of the gardening year for me when sunny, warm days still have the novelty of spring and strong new growth on every plant has yet to become a chore to control. It's the seasonal variety that partly defines the English garden and the next four or five weeks leading up to the summer solstice is the most satisfying time to be a gardener.

The garden however now begins to suck you into a co-dependent and exclusive relationship. It's a relationship that is rewarding and pleasurable but can also be a little obsessive and oppressive. As the garden grows and blooms the work it demands builds to a crescendo, which won't tail off until mid July. In the mean time the work is frantic.

The trouble with this is that while the garden you work in is consuming your every waking minute (and often sleeping thoughts too), other gardens are also looking at their most lush and florific. In the past I have often missed this most magical time in other gardens because my thoughts are too tied up in my own to even consider visiting them. This year however I am determined to change all of that.

Britain is full of fantastic gardens and as a nation we do seem to be rather preoccupied with this lush green island of ours. Whilst many of our most important and historic gardens are in the safe hands of the National Trust, many are not. Like the great houses of Britain some of the most important have been preserved but many are still in private hands and some lesser houses, no less historic, at least on a local level, are in the caring hands of their owners. Over the years it is this latter group that I have found often to be the more interesting. Gardens that are opened through organisations like the HHA (Historic Houses Association) and importantly the NGS (National Gardens Scheme) offer us the opportunity to visit places that are free from the guiding hands of an expert committee and as such have found their own special character.

So I have set myself the goal of seeing as many of these places as I can this summer; to explore the great and the small, the monumental and the residential, in order to broaden my own horizons, meet other gardening enthusiasts but mostly to break free from the exclusive relationship I have with Allt-y-bela. The result, I hope, will be a freshness gained from other garden styles, plant choices and landscapes that will in turn enhance my own understanding and appreciation for the garden I work in.

Over the past few weeks I have visited Sir Roy Strong's garden at The Laskett, a beautiful arts and crafts garden called Perrycroft near Malvern and Buscot Park in Oxfordshire which is a National Trust garden with a twist; the family still live on site and are clearly still very much involved in the evolution of it.

I really can't recommend visiting gardens enough, there is always something to admire and to be learned and meeting with gardeners and garden creators is always incredibly inspiring. The NGS even have a mobile App these days, which is a great way to discover gardens to visit near you. I'm not sure where I'll be heading this weekend; I might even see you there, wherever it is I'm looking forward to discovering something new and reveling in this country's garden culture. 

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

Photos of Buscot Park: Britt Willoughby Dyer