Garden diary

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


Granary lattice work


For as long as I've been at Allt-y-bela there have been plans to modify the Granary Lattice. Originally laid out at an angle of about 45 degrees from the granary, the structure was created with Ilex crenata, (a box-like substitute for those not familiar with it), comeplemented by informal planting including Campanula, Agapanthus and Astrantia to name but a few. The Ilex though never really prospered and always looked rather straggly and unhealthy. I think perhaps the conditions were just too wet.

Arne like the idea of retaining and perhaps expanding the lattice using different hedging and planting and a few ideas were mooted but it wasn't really until the Ilex were removed that we began to think a little more seriously about what the new lattice might look like. Arne was keen to use hawthorn for the hedging, keeping it cut very tight so that over time it will build up a knuckled and gnarled look, no doubt full of moss and lichen. The hedging will also reflect elements of the tower, which was inspired by the Italian renaissance but built using local materials and techniques. 

The best time to plant a new hedge is while the plants are dormant and buying hedging plants as bare root plants in winter is cheaper and much easier than buying potted plants later on. Because we have decided to put in the hedge rather later than would normally be the case we have ended up planting bare root hedging in May! Definitely not to be advised but hawthorn is pretty tough stuff so with a little nuturing hopefully all will be well!

Arne has turned the lattice around to face the tower and has used its dimensions to create the new beds. He has added new elements around the front of the house and on the other side of the granary which, over time, will give the lattice a feeling of age, and of having once covered a much greater area. On the eastern side of the granary the new lattice expands on the area previously covered extending to a tall beech topiary. We set out all of the beds using lines measured off a baseline set against the front of the house before spraying the new hedge lines onto the ground. There was no masterplan for this, it was a case of trying out ideas, assessing how they might look and revising them until the balance looked right.

Stripping turf and diging trenches for the new hedges has followed and has been slow, heavy work. An old barn once sat on the site and consequently there is a lot of stone in the ground. The first lines of hedging are now planted with the rest slated to do this week. I've been amazed at the difference the change in orientation has had on the overall feel of the space. In a garden where nothing is square to anything else the tower holds the grounding force, anchoring everythiing around it, and I think that using the tower's orientation and proportion as a basic unit has helped to give the new beds a sense of belonging.

The next stage will be the planting but at the time of writing that isn't entirely pinned down. I love the fluidity and the dynamism that can flow in the garden when Arne is creating.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer


April showers and sunshine


There is no getting away from it; it is very definitely April out there. This week I have been hot, cold, wet and dry. The garden has been soggy, dusty and pretty much everything in between! April feels like the month the weather changes and the fight between the cold clear air, the Atlantic rain and warmer continental air moves through the garden often bringing several seasons in a day. It's the time of year to dress in layers and take your coat 'just in case!'

The beginning of the week was very encouraging, I desperately needed a dry day to mow the lawn before a group from the Garden Museum was due to arrive on Tuesday. My mower had broken down last week and it was returned just in time for the rain to start falling! Luckily Monday started dry and we made good use of it. In the end it was pretty warm and sunny. In truth Tuesday's visit gave me a point of focus and an extra incentive to get the garden looking spick and span. The house and garden come alive when it's full of people, the garden feels complete, and with the sunshine to go with it, it all felt really satisfying to me. I hope it did to Arne too!

The second half of the week came as something of a shock, a cold persistent wind blew in and froze me to the bone on Thursday prompting a rethink in garden clothing! Today a damp dreary rain has set in, the kind of rain that is almost too incidental to really think about and yet the kind that soaks you just the same, I associate it with Cornwall and that soft wet Atlantic rain...

The plants in the garden are responding to the conditions too, the Tulipa whitallii on the drive was fully open in the sunshine earlier in the week but closed tight shut today. The bulbs on the south facing side flowering much earlier than the northern bank where the snakes head fritillaries are still blooming. The snow white crab apple blossom has just begun in isolated spots over the trees while the multitude of buds are flushed reddish pink. Every cool day seems to hold back the progress while each day of warmth coaxes a few more buds to break.

The wisteria on the boot room wall is also just beginning to flower, contrasting against the pale apple blossom with wine red Tulipa 'Ronaldo', the first variety to bloom in the large pots by the door. The colour scheme in the large pots is somewhat different this year moving away from the antique tones towards rich burgundy reds and black. I'm really looking forward to seeing the contrast against the house, I think it will look really warm and luxurious whether the sun is shining or the cold rain is falling!

I like April, I like the crazy weather, but most of all I like to see the garden really coming alive, hedges blossoming and flushing with fresh green and real flowers emerging everywhere. I've got my fingers crossed now for a little more of that sunshine we saw because it felt really good, the forecast is not optimistic, time will tell!

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer & Kristy Ramage


Emerging beauties


Everywhere you look now there are signs of spring. Driving down the winding narrow country lane is becoming a joy again. A few short months ago it was a wet, muddy and occasionally dangerous affair with ice when it was cold and flooding when it was wet. The journey along it this morning was one of transition from winter to summer.

The wood anemones are beginning to bejewel the steep sides of the lane, the reddish tinge of their stems reflected in the warm blush pink of the underside of the young flowers. Dogs Mercury, wild primulas and the first brave bluebells hint at the abundance to come.

Arriving in the garden now, you are greeted with colour, the narcissus might be waning but en mass they are no less a spectacular sight. But the really exciting thing now is what is emerging amongst them; the snakes head fritillaries, which we have been flooding the wilder parts of the garden with, are starting to flower in the darker areas. We've had them for weeks on the sunnier slopes but it is on the common and along the drive in which the majority were planted and they have been giving me moments of quiet panic! There are tulips too, albeit yet to flower, but just seeing them in bud is enough for now!

We have tried a number of new crown imperial varieties this year which are, on the whole, really very beautiful. Fritillaria imperialis 'Early Passion' and F. imperialis 'Early Romance' are far more subtle than the usual harsh dark orange or daffodil yellow but are they any less smelly? To be honest I'm not sure, I've never really minded the smell, which causes some so much consternation!

The return of lush green growth has also meant the return of our old foe, slugs. With the warmth of the spring sun and the reemergence of so much life and joy in the garden right now I can even forgive our slimy mollusc friends for joining in this time of celebration and hope.

Elsewhere in the garden weeds are growing, as is the lawn, and with each mowing the garden is beginning to look tighter and more business-like. In the greenhouse vegetable seedlings are growing on apace and it feels like it won't be long before the kitchen garden is again groaning with produce.

In the bulb lawn our special Anemone parviflora have successfully made it through their first winter and sit like colorful beacons under the multi-stemmed apple trees. Tulipa clusiana are beginning to emerge in the bulb lawn tot and will soon be the dominant species before the long meadow grass takes over through the summer.

All through the garden signs of spring act like signposts on the way towards summer and while April showers remind us that summer hasn't yet arrived, the lengthening days and the warming sun spur me on in making ready for the better days ahead.

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

Photographs: Britt Willougby Dyer


'A host of dancing daffodils'


It will be two years in June since I first arrived at Allt-y-bela, many things have changed and I have discovered so many details and nuances which have delighted me and held my interest through the changing seasons. Last spring was my first chance to enjoy the spectacle of the narcissi in flower. I had seen pictures and had been told about their epic numbers, which had been planted into a relatively small area, and as the leaves first emerged from the cold dormant ground I was excited, but then ultimately disappointed! So many of them came up blind last year and the promise offered by all of that glaucus foliage amassing along the drove turned into not very much at all.

When Arne first arrived at Allt-y-bela there were very few narcissi and no garden to speak of at all. He decided to stick to just one variety and planted Narcissus lobularis; what he lost in diversity he more than made up for in numbers, planting well over 100,000. The result was a unified carpet of delicate pale yellow daffodils, which over the years have seeded around and really started to colonise and naturalise in the garden.

Blind narcissi can occur for numerous reasons, including prolonged dry conditions, when the flower buds for the following year are forming in the summer. The summer before had been dry for a period, which may have caused the flower buds to fail to develop. We decided to feed the bulbs with seaweed meal after flowering in case a lack of suitable nutrition had been the cause of the blindness. All we could do then was wait and hope!

Gardening forces you to be patient, sometimes there is nothing to do but to wait for several months to see if your actions have produced the effects you hope for.

This year the leaves again pushed through the cold soil, a few at first, maybe even slightly sporadically, both Arne and I kept a nervous vigil over them until one or two and then several began to flower. It was too early to tell whether we would get the same disappointingly threadbare display.

The days have warmed over the past couple of weeks, the narcissi are flowering and they look amazing. They have formed a dense carpet of colour which is the perfect sequel to the earlier brilliance of the bulb lawn on the other side of the house. What's more, they are appearing all over the garden, including a few in the bulb lawn itself. I love the purity of the bulb lawn, free from narcissi, but it seems that nature has other ideas and to be honest I've often found that the results are generally better where nature has a hand in the design.

It's sometimes difficult to know to what extent your input in the garden yields results, especially in cases like this. We will certainly feed them with seaweed meal again this year, whether it will help us to avoid another episode of blindness only time will tell, and right now it hardly seems to matter. I have enjoyed the picture perfect narcissi this Easter all the more for last year's disappointment.

Words: Steve Lannin

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer