Garden diary

A wet and windy start


Yesterday the sun finally came out, water vapour rose off every damp surface and from the wide blue sky shafts of light warmed the back of my neck. It was wonderful! By the evening the rain had returned and this morning a cold wind has blown in making the garden feel a good ten degrees colder.

It's certainly been a strange start to the year. The unending rain which drenched the garden throughout December came to a head on Sunday when the river rose up bursting its banks, threatening the house and making the lane impassable, even to four wheel drives. That day I parked about a mile away and hiked across the hill tops before dropping down into the garden. There had been a pause in the rain and I hoped to take advantage of it by clearing the bridges of debris. On my way across I had visions of widespread destruction, mud and chaos, I can't tell you how relieved I was when I arrived to find very little damage at all. The massive investment in drainage had served its purpose well and although the river had been temporary master of the garden, a more normal order was quickly restored.

This week the river has continued to rise and fall back with each passing shower but the general pattern seems to be changing finally. It has left the plants though rather confused. Where I would normally only expect to find a few winter aconites, we have snowdrops and a profusion of hellebores, spring bulbs are bursting up all over the garden and we even have a reticulated iris flowering in the courtyard and bulb meadow!

The garden looks washed clean by the rains, prior to their arrival the garden looked very muddy and dull. The challenge now is to try to get as much garden work done as possible while trying to stay off of the beds and lawns; the soil structure can very easily be damaged now by compaction. This week we have been pruning the step over apples and pear arches in the kitchen garden and are now pruning the crab apples in the courtyard, the frames for which will need replacing now too. We will have to be a little bit frugal with our hazel supply, despite being encircled by hazel coppices there is a finite supply of suitable material and we already have lots of people signed up to come and make rose domes on February 16th.

It's been a wild wet start to the new year here at Allt-y-bela but it's great to be back and I'm really looking forward to being part of the garden over the next 12 months!

Words: Steve Lannin

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer



Replanting the cottage garden


The gardens at Allt-y-bela are a balance between planting, open spaces, landforms and topiary. Each area manages to retain an individual character while still being brought together by the use of materials and the presence of topiary.

The cottage garden, which sits up next to the kitchen garden, is probably the largest area of planting and is held in by the end of the house at one end and a large beech topiary at the other. It's a broadly rectangular space which is divided by tiny cobbled paths that form an incomplete lattice at 45 degrees to the main garden path on one side and the retaining wall on the other.  This area is dominated by herbaceous planting from the late spring to early winter. At this time of year the rose domes, fruit bushes and goblet trained apple maintain the vertical plane and hold the garden together before the spring warmth sets everything moving again at ever increasing pace.

It only seems like a few weeks ago that Arne and I went through the borders looking at what changes could be made and what could be tweaked to improve its performance.  It has been fairly plain that many of the border plants had become overly congested and would benefit from division so last Friday, with the help of Elke who works with Arne at the office in London, and my gardener Owain, we started the rather large task of going through each bed in turn, lifting and dividing the Phlox, Astrantia, Veronicastrum and most of the Sanguisorba, as well as redesigning the planting.

Prior to this we had already removed the geraniums and 90% of the aquilegias. These plants, which dominated the early summer in the borders, have been real stars over the years but Arne was keen to try something new. We are also planning on strengthening up our late summer display with more asters and a few other choice perennials. All of this lifting and dividing left us with a mountain of spare plants, many of which we are trying out in the meadow areas, especially the little piece of ground where the path winds across the stream and up the bank towards the kitchen garden.

By the end of the day we had gone through about two thirds of the beds and they are looking so much better! I can't wait to see the results next year. It will be interesting to find out which plants do well in the meadow and which struggle against the competition.

As for the plants that will be planted to replace the geraniums and aquilegias for early summer colour, well I'm not sure what they will be yet! I'm afraid you will have to watch this space and I will let you know when I do. I hope then we can all look forward to seeing how the border develops over the next 12 months!

Words: Steve Lannin

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Raindrops on the shed roof


The rain is pattering across the shed roof as I sit propped against a ladder on the ancient cobbled floor. Today has been quiet, the kind of quiet you only get deep in the countryside a long way from the hustle and bustle of town life; water, birds, the wind and now rain are almost the only sounds I've heard since arriving here with the dawn this morning.

The rain is cold, not icy cold yet but a long way away from the summer rain that refreshes the earth and smells so wonderful.

Last week we made a final effort to cut the grass; the mild weather has meant that it's continued to grow right through. As I hover mowed across puddles under the leaden sky a delivery man asked me if it was really dry enough to mow. 'Certainly not!' I laughed as it began to rain again!

Being a gardener can leave you doing things that often have people scratching their heads. Watering in the rain is always a good one for that! The truth is that light rain can be the worst thing to happen to a newly establishing plant, it fools you into thinking that the plant has had a decent drink when often the rain alone won't have been nearly enough. There's no such worries today, the ground is completely sodden!

So what's my next task for the day? Emptying the compost bins and mulching some beds, it's really not ideal weather for it, but sometimes you just have to get on with it whatever the weather. I've been waiting for a good frost but it's proving rather elusive!

Quiet rainy days can be a real pleasure when compared to the endless craziness of summer, or at least that's what I keep telling myself!

Words and photograph: Steve Lannin


Winter wreath making


I posted a picture on Instagram yesterday looking down from the common onto the house below; the light was golden and warm against the ochre of the building. It was such a lovely feeling after the seemingly relentless rain of the past few weeks. I'm very mindful however of just how fortunate we have been in the light of what has happened in Cumbria. The reason I mention this picture in particular was that I was struck by just how wintery the scene was, the trees bare and the landscape stripped of colour. I really haven't noticed the change over the last few weeks other than the darkening of the nights.

Spending your time in the garden shelters you from the hustle and bustle of the outside world and I find that Christmas creeps up on me these days in a way that would have seemed impossible in my early twenties, when I worked in various high street shops.

Last week marked a milestone in the year at Allt-y-bela with our last course of 2015 taking place. It was great to see some old friends again and to meet some new ones. Last week's course was run by Becca and Maz from the Garden Gate Flower Company, who earlier in the year ran a course on flower arrangements recreating the style of Dutch master paintings. The results then were incredible and their Christmas wreath and table decoration workshop was no less impressive.

One of the interesting elements of working at Allt-y-bela is that you get access to the vanguard of garden style. It's certainly a huge change from anything I have experienced before and it inspires me to try ideas out and to create my own interpretations on the themes that I see.

The wreaths created were very different from those I have seen and made before, although I am increasingly noticing some of the elements used in their creation. The wreaths were rustic in look and feel, with feathers, dried as well as fresh foliage and flowers with fairly restrained colours. The table decorations too were restrained in pallete but rich in texture and form.

I personally have a bit of a passion for using found material at the moment. I like the idea that my Christmas wreath will be a reflection of what is going on in the countryside around me.  I would like to create a wreath from birch and old mans beard with perhaps just a few hawthorn berries in it. Time however is ticking and the short days in the garden leave less time for foraging for materials. I will certainly take a lot away from last week's course and the wreath that I create this year will be different because of it.

Words: Steve Lannin

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer

If you would like to join us at Allt-y-bela for a garden course or workshop, find out more about our range of 2016 events by clicking here.


Winter arrives at Allt-y-bela


After what seems like weeks of non-stop rain and gusty winds the weather finally calmed down this weekend. The sky cleared and the temperature plummeted, dropping 10 degrees in one day. For me the change was a bit of a shock to the system and out came my woolly hat and the winter clothes!

This morning was my first day at work in full winter mode; the car was properly icy, the drive to work slightly dodgy before arriving at Allt-y-bela to find the garden covered in a thick layer of heavy frost.

The difference in the garden could not be more complete to the previous few weeks where water pouring off the hills has swollen the stream, drowning out the usual tranquility with the busy, bustling sound of fast flowing water. The lawns and beds have been sodden and on the upper reaches of the common the grass has been sliding away under foot to reveal the gleaming, soapy looking soil beneath. Today everything was quiet, even the boisterous stream seemed respectful of the totality of the frost. The lawns hardened and the beds looked solid, yet somehow brittle.

I'm still in the process of clearing out and chopping back the herbaceous growth in the beds around the house and those which are not yet clear were certainly looking weary after the frost. Frost does bring out the beauty of some overlooked plants while bejeweling others. The last rose in bloom on 'Sir Paul Smith', which in summer tumbled over the wall onto the drive in great profusion, looks like a blown glass sculpture, while the leaves of campanula glisten in the morning sun.

The kitchen garden looks weighed down as if under an immense burden; the leeks look half their previous size and the brassicas look bowed, laid low by the ice and cold. Even the lettuce leaves show unexpected beauty through this new frosty filter.

This wintery wonderland that we have woken up to today does not seem destined to last however; rain and strong winds look set to return and temperatures are going to rebound by a few degrees over the course of the week. It's as if we have had a little taste of January in November, a gentle reminder of what is to come and a note to say you should be winding up the bed clearance now, the cold is on the way.

As a gardener I'm always acutely aware of the weather and watch the forecasts with interest. The best predictions though come from watching the sky change over the course of the day as the clouds, pushed by winds high in the atmosphere, roll across us bringing fair weather and foul. You learn to trust your instincts as well - nobody enjoys being caught out in the kind of cold rain that falls this time of year! The clouds are building now and the afternoon light is fading fast, I'd better go and get some work done!

Words: Steve Lannin

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer