Garden diary



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


Arranging the borders

There are some times of year in the garden that just feel bountiful. June is one of those times, where everything feels generous and lush. There is usually a time in late September that feels similar, it's like the plants are all rushing to put on the best show possible before the cold comes and cuts them down. It was at this 'last gasp' moment in the garden that last year Arne and I spent a lovely afternoon in the cottage garden picking flowers; looking at which of the plants worked togetehr and which really didn't. It was a fun afternoon but also very useful, pulling all of those flowers together in close quarers really illustrates how the combinations are working.

I sometimes find August a little disappointing - the weather is never as good as it feels it should be and actually the garden can fall into a bit of a lull, especially if it's dry. Foliage can turn coarse and a little glaucous and flowers looked washed out and dull. Our afternoon spent picking back in the autumn does not seem to have been in vain and the colours in the cottage garden feel much more harmonious. This week, with Arne still away, I thought I might take stock of what August has to offer and do a little flower picking myself.

Initially I thought of picking just one bunch from the cottage garden but as soon as I set off, trug and snips in hand, I was arrested by a beautiful phlox in the Granary Lattice. Phlox amplifolia has modest sized purple blooms on a long strong stem and I couldn't pass by without taking a stem or two. In stopping to pick them though I similarly couldn't pass by the soapwort, Saponaria flore plena, which is flowering for the first time and looking particularly clean and bright. The new Echinacea 'Swan Wings' soon followed before I was pulled to the other side of the drive by Crocosmia 'George Davidson' - surely I must be able to find a place in an arrangement for him.

By the time I reached the cottage garden I already has a trug full of flowers. Perhaps August wasn't quite so spartan as I had thought! The cottage garden had plenty of Astrantia major 'Claret', a plant I tend to associate with the early summer. I tried to leave it behind, I really did, but in the end I couldn't. The colour looks as if it's been sprayed on, it's so intense and deep, and it makes such a good foil for other more seasonal flowers that I convinced myself it would work! Another slightly agonising decision was whether to take Clematis viticella 'Mary Rose'. It is so beautiful and so tangled together I risked destroying the display it's made rambling over the 'Queen of Denmark' rose dome. Luckily I managed to tease out a little without making too much of a mess!

My single arrangement was not looking more like three but frankly, I was having too much fun to let it worry me too much. By taking a little of each, I managed to leave very little evidence of my afternoon raid, the only exception perhaps was the Dahlia merckii. This cultivar is new to us this year and I think I must have taken most of the longer flowering sections but it was just too lovely not to have a proper showing of it. I'm generally not the biggest fan of dahlias - I find them a little coarse and ungainly - but D. merckii is definitely one for me. It's much smaller and more delicate than its bigger brasher cousins and with the light behind the flowers they look like Lalique glass.

Putting the flowers together, with more than a little help from Britt, was a joy and seeing them photographed in the house was a real treat. I hope you will agree that the results are rather beautiful. I've put together lists of the main elements for each of the arrangements below just in case you might like to grow them for cutting in your own garden. You can view the full selection of Britt's images in our gallery here.


Arrangement #1

Dahlia merckii

Clematis viticella 'Mary Rose'

Origanum laevigatum 'Rosenkuppel'

Phlox amplifolia

Lobelia 'Hadspen Purple'

Saponaria flore plena


Arrangement #2

Veronicastrum virginicum album

Foeniculum vulgare

Crocosmia 'George Davidson'

Echinacea 'White Swan'

Trapaeolum majus (common nasturtium)


Arrangement #3

Phlox carolina 'Miss Lingard'

Phlox 'Discovery'

Dahlia 'Naples'

Astrantia major 'Claret'

Cosmos 'Antiquity'

Sanguisorba tenuifolia


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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer

Full image gallery: click here


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