Garden diary

A carpet of colour


Suddenly in March the garden takes off; the sun begins to warm the soil again, weed seeds everywhere start to germinate and the gardening year begins anew. All of this new-found vigour comes after months of stagnation and can catch the unwary gardener off guard unless you are ready and waiting for it. This March has caught me a little off guard and I've been scrabbling to catch up with the garden and make sure that I'm prepared for the next phase. This has meant a week of digging up nettles (yes we really do have some!) and pulling the first flush of bittercress before those seed pods burst over everything! The garden is greening up again and the ranks of narcissus on the drive have been much more impressive this year. It won't be long before the whole garden is wreathed in flowers.

I wanted just briefly though to take you back a few weeks to talk about the bulb lawn behind the house, which was the star of the show for a few short weeks. The bulb lawn has become a carpet of crocus and reticulated iris, which lifts the mood of the garden just prior to the arrival of spring proper. In many ways it sets the tone for the year to come: a dramatic celebration of the season before being allowed to fizzle out while another part of the garden is having its moment in the limelight. This slightly processional aspect maintains the dynamic feel of the garden and keeps it alive as the areas of greatest intensity move around the house. A visit to Allt-y-bela is never the same two weeks in a row, the modulation of the experience of something really magical and marks the passing seasons beautifully.

We added thousands more bulbs to the bulb lawn last autumn, which is dominated by crocus. Species including Crocus tomasinianus mingle with C. 'Spring Beauty', C. 'Prins Klaus', C. 'Cream Beauty' and C. 'Snow Bunting' to provide ample interest in tone and form. The lawn is punctuated with reticulated iris, which to me are just magic. I love Iris siberica and to see these miniature versions of the same kind of complex foral arrangement so early in the spring is indeed a wonderful sight. The bulb lawn provides a mixture of iris within a common pallete with cultivars such as Iris 'Cantab', I. 'Pauline', I. 'Alida' and my personal favourite Irsi 'JS Dijt',  whose majestic royal purple flowers seem so rare and special at a time of year dominated by cool blues and yellows.

While the bulbs were in full bloom I took a lot of pictures, not just because the display was so beautiful, but as a record of the coverage and density of planting. It was interesting to see areas which were significantly more sparse than others and it's this kind of photographic record-keeping which will prove invaluable in the autumn when out of the blue a single box will arrive containing bulbs. This first box will be followed by another, and then another and the planting will begin again. It's lovely to watch as those bulbs, which came in so many boxes, take their place in the garden, repaying the small amount of work invested over and over again.  

Words: Steve Lannin

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer


A busy week in the garden


It has been a busy time at Allt-y-bela; last week the dry stone walling was completed, we ran a workshop on building bespoke plant supports and on Friday Harriet and Nick from Arne's design studio in London came down to learn to make rose domes.

Arne has always built plant supports in his gardens using the local materials that are to hand; this means that the supports look very natural and fit into the landscape, helping to root the garden in its environment. We tend to use hazel at Allt-y-bela both because we are surrounded by hazel coppices and because it is a fairly durable material. The fact that it only tends to last for one year means that every year we build different supports in slightly different shapes and styles.

A couple of weeks ago Kristy, who was jointly running the plant supports course with me, came to Allt-y-bela for us to plan what we wanted to show on the day and also to help plan our garden plant supports for the year. Kristy is magnificent when it comes to making beautiful objects in and from the garden and we had a lot of fun planning our ideas, we even had a look around the house for inspiration in the patternation within pictures, furniture and even the construction of the house. We may have got slightly carried away! So last Monday Kristy came back to help me build somw of our ideas to show on the course the next day. With heads full of ideas and materials to hand it took us a couple of false starts before we felt like we were on the right lines, and by six in the evening with light rapidly fading we finally laid down our twine!

I love course days at Allt-y-bela. They are always huge fun occassions where I get to eat well and meet lovely people, but this particular day didn't start out especially promisingly. Grey skies, persistent rain, and the wallers racing to finish before everyone arrived, things looked a little tight! The wallers were due to have a stone delivery into the tiny parking area just 45 minutes before the course was due to start! Luckily it all ran like clockwork and by mid morning the rain had stopped too which allowed us to spend all afternoon building the kinds of supports we had talked about in the morning. A good day's building supports usually leads to some anxious moments at the end of the day as people struggle to fit all of their supports into their cars. It's amazing how a car can shrink and a support grow when the two finally meet! Our rose dome course saw us attempting to fit three people and three rose domes into one rather tightly packed hatch back!

Whenever I meet with the staff from Arne's London office they all tend to ask when they can come out to Allt-y-bela and get their hands dirty! Unfortunately they are always so busy that they never seem to find the time. This year though we have started making a plan for them to visit more regularly and to help with specific tasks. It gives me some extra help and I hope it gives them a fun and semi-educational trip! This week saw Harriet and Nick come to help me make rose domes. Both are very talented designers and it was great to see that they had really good rose pruning skills as well. By the end of the day we had three more rose domes, and had had a lot of fun along the way. I really enjoyed it and hope that it will be the first of many!

So, one week, huge amounts of hazel used, plant supports built all over the garden and one very impressive wall completed. It's certainly never dull at Allt-y-bela.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer


A new wall


When I first started gardening I used to refer to all soil as 'mud', much to the chagrin of those who had been gardening for many years. Yet even as I learned more and came to respect the soil for what it is and what it affords us, I still referred to all soil as 'mud'. But I think, if I'm honest, it was now done just to upset the purists! 

Having spent many years working in a garden originally created by the Victorians with its lush deep loam I don't think I ever really understood what real mud was until I spent a year working on a garden restoration in Cumbria. And I'm glad to have had the experience now I'm gardening full time on mud in South Wales!

I first visited Allt-y-Bela in the spring of 2014 when the stream was being canalised and the garden theatre was being constructed. It was a very wet spring and hundreds of tons of local stone was being brought in to built the stream walls; the mud was pretty extreme! Ally-y-Bela sits down in the base of its own little valley with a great deal of silt and clay which quickly becomes unworkable when the rain sweeps across the nearby Brecon Beacons or is funnelled up the Severn estuary.

Arne has a lot of plans for Allt-y-bela and this spring we are going to try to realise some of them. This week saw the start of the work with two local dry stone wallers coming to build a wall around the top yard. True to form after several beautiful clear crisp cold days the work began in pouring rain where wet claggy sticky mud seems to rise up out of the ground and stick to every tool and item of clothing, I've never known mud like the mud at Allt-y-bela, it seems to have one of two states; it's either a heavy watery slurry type slop with the consistency of custard or it is rich chocolate mud pie brown which sticks to every surface and is not unlike a particularly sticky bread dough.

There was a fairly large heap of stone left over when the stream was canalised and it sat in a neat pile in a layby near to the entrance until last summer when a lost truck driver appeared at Allt-y-bela. It was a nightmare scenario because there really isn't anywhere to turn around and the lane is so twisty that it would be almost impossible to reverse back down. We must have spent two hours of tree trimming and shuffling before we could finally release him, our nice neat pile being flattened to create more space to reverse into. That stone is now being used for the walling and we have spent the last two days pulling it back out of the ground through rain, wind, frost and sun! 

Watching craftsmen work is always fascinating and seeing the walls rise up out of the mud is amazing. It's a craft which mixes extremely hard graft with a perfectionist's precision. Dry stone walling is as ancient as trades get, yet the results can look surprisingly contemporary. I suppose that timeless would just about sum up the work of the dry stone waller. 

Arne is incredibly excited to see the change and is intimately involved in every detail. It's not just a garden to him, it's his passion, his life and it's wonderful to see. There is no art without passion and gardening, when it is approached with passion, comes about as close to art as a living, evolving entity can be.

Words: Steve Lannin

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Hellebores abound


It began slowly at first, but as the weeks have gone on there can be no doubt that the winter is in retreat. Despite the fact that we have seen so little cold weather, the days are lengthening again and the darkness is being forced back.

The wild weather and the gloom are being beaten back by the first wave of flowers in the garden; the few lonely aconites were soon joined by the snowdrops, who in turn have been joined by crocus and the first of the narcissi.

You may have already gathered that I'm something of a fan of Instagram and recently I have been seeing lots of collections of flowers laid out like botanical specimens. It struck me that it might be a nice idea to go out into the garden and collect a bloom from each plant in flower on one particular day in early February. What I was slightly unprepared for was just how quickly my basket filled, despite taking only a single snowdrop and a single narcissus bloom.

It then occurred to me that I might need to photograph more than one arrangement perhaps within colour groups. I was collecting hellebore flowers from the river bank by the bridge when I became totally enchanted by their beauty. As a gardener I walk past these flowers every day and fail to notice the diversity, complexity and downright gorgeousness of the flowers. The way that they keep their heads bowed as if in modesty adds, I think, to their charm. Look a little closer and you will fall deeply in love!

The stone at Allt-y-bela has a lovely plummy hew, which is accentuated when wet, and the step up to the workshop which stands alone by the river has a lovely rough hewn texture which seemed a good foil for our collected flowers. When it comes to arranging flowers I have to admit that I feel a little less than confident but the experienced Britt stepped in to help. When we started to add flowers to the arrangement it became clear very quickly that the hellebores demanded an arrangement of their own and placing them allowed us time to really appreciate the flowers in all there majesty.

From there we got a little carried away with photographing them, the colours and textures of the flowers and the stone were so rich and intoxicating, the other flowers barely got a look in which is a shame because they were very beautiful as well. I am definitely going to arrange flowers to photograph in this way again, bringing them together and isolating them from the distractions of the garden really allowed me to appreciate them for their individual contribution to the garden as a greater entity.

What gardening at Allt-y-bela has taught me more than anything is to pay attention to detail and to look that little bit closer, especially to those plants that hide their faces!

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer


A bonfire on a frosty morning


It was -7°C when I arrived at Allt-y-bela on Wednesday morning and it looked like winter had arrived at last. The deep ruts on the drove were frozen solid and sheets of ice an inch thick sat in each of the many footprints that led to the bonfire heap. More in hope than expectation, I took a barrow full of paper, kindling and dry wood up to try to light the fire. Bonfires are wonderful things, they seem to at once connect us to our ancient past, to comfort us and, I always find, are great places to think.

The work of keeping a bonfire going becomes automatic and my brain soon wandered off to thinking about the jobs I needed to get done in the garden, when of course the hard frost had lifted.

My attention this month is beginning to focus on the kitchen garden. Last year was my first real year of vegetable growing and we ran an 8 day course throughout the year led by 'Organic James' (James Clapp), who helped us all not only to grow more successfully, but also to really analyse and think about what is going on when we grow.

Last year's course started with the group of us walking the gardens at Allt-y-bela and digging test pits to examine the soil structure and composition and think about what implications these factors might have on our growing. It was all at once rather radical but also entirely logical.

As the course continued we looked at the more immediate things the aspiring kitchen gardener needs to know, not just what to sow when, but the cultural techniques the professionals use and the crops and varieties that Michelin star chefs are seeking out. It opened up a whole new world to me, and the lessons I learned last year have informed my approach this year.

Last week I sat down with Arne and we talked through what Arne really wants to eat and when. It sounds very obvious but it's very easy to end up growing a great profusion of things that maybe aren't exactly what you want to eat! Last year we ended up with more lettuces than anybody knew what to do with but I didn't sow enough crops for the winter and although we do still have vegetables to eat I'm determined that this time next year we will have more.

I've very pleased to say that James is coming back again this year to run the course again and although I'm not sure there will be space left on it for me this time around, I will certainly be working very closely with him to make the kitchen garden at Allt-y-bela a success.

True to form this year the weather has changed again and is now unseasonably mild and very wet. My next task is going to be lifting and storing the remaining vegetables so that I can get on and mulch the beds ready to start sowing again in a few weeks time. And yes, James will be around to give me that all important insider knowledge. I can't recommend his course enough, if you would like to grow like a pro this year then maybe you should join us at Allt-y-bela and get a real head start in growing the perfect kitchen garden.

Words: Steve Lannin

Photographs: Steve Lannin and Britt Willoughby Dyer

For information about The Organic Kitchen Garden Through the Year course, click here.