Garden diary

Mists and fruitfulness


There is a fine low mist hanging over Allt-y-bela this morning in stark contrast to yesterday afternoon when the garden was bathed in sunshine and if you didn't look to closely you could almost be persuaded that it was still summer. The rich ochre of the house stands like a beacon in the chilly morning air. It's mornings like this that remind me why houses were traditionally painted in bright colours as warmth seems to radiate out from its very walls.

It's hard to experience autumn without being reminded that this really is the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. The apple trees in the Allt-y-bela orchard have started to produce good fruit this year despite their youth. This week saw us harvesting some of the trees and our apple rack is already full. We have yet to harvest the step over apples in the kitchen garden, the goblet trained tree in the cottage garden and the trees in the meadow and lawn behind the house. It looks like a great year and it's exciting to think that we are only just starting to see the potential of the trees we have.

One of the really heartening signs of our new-found appreciation for local and British produce is the spread of Apple Days. It seems there isn't a corner of Great Britain that won't have at least one apple day over the next few weeks and I was really pleased to see that we have one very close to us at Allt-y-bela.

Our renewed collective interest in local produce and our shared local heritage give me hope that the destruction of our traditional orchards may finally be over and that the appreciation for what we have left will lead not only to the protection of our ancient orchards, but to a full scale replanting fit for our 21st century needs. Our plans at Allt-y-bela reflect the heritage of this part of Monmouthshire and last year we started planting traditional Perry varieties of pear, which were traditionally grown in this area and thrive in the damp conditions.

Autumn is the final reminder of the year that the garden at Allt-y-bela is designed to be productive as well as beautiful and the closer you look into the garden the more you find that every little opportunity has been used to make space for fruit. The fruit and vegetables that are grown here are all used; gluts are quickly turned into jams, chutneys and juice. There is something very satisfying in knowing that those tomatoes that never ripened, or those damaged apples that fell to earth a little hard, will all be used and appreciated.

As the leaves change colour and the frosts start to bite, having that gooseberry jam is a great way to remind yourself of those heady days of summer when the fruit hung heavy on the branches and your main concern was keeping the squirrels off of them until they were ripe!

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Information about the apple storage chest can be found here.


An October walkabout


There is no disguising the fact that autumn is upon us. I know it's a cliché but I really can't believe how fast the season has gone. I've hugely enjoyed this summer too. Whereas last summer I was scrapping around trying to find my feet, I've been able to enjoy this one far more. Autumn has started to touch the tops of the trees and the warm weather of last week was tempered by biting cold mornings.

Because Allt-y-bela is tucked into the bottom of its own little valley, the sun in the autumn casts long shadows and the light falls in shafts through the trees illuminating individual plants as if a spotlight has been shone on them. On the drive the beech and hawthorn topiary shine out, their tight clipped forms stark against the approaching dusk.

Around the garden there are plenty of plants in flower. The roses in particular are making a fantastic late show this year, and the light is so much kinder after the harsh light of June. The colours and forms, often with morning dew, now seem even more sumptuous and special partly due to the light but also because they have much less competing with them for our attention. Rosa 'Sir Paul Smith' which tumbles over the wall of the cottage garden is spilling a few choice late blooms tantalizingly at nose height from the drive edge, whilst the 'Generous Gardener' continues to live up to its name sending up cluster after cluster of delicate pink flowers.

Autumn is also a great moment for Japanese anemones and we have a couple of particularly beautiful varieties in the garden at Allt-y-bela. Anemone hybrida 'Wild Swan' is a lovely white flower with a pink blush on the back while Anemone hybrida 'Andrea Atkinson' is pure white and planted down by the stream looks beautiful in the evening light.

Over the last year or so we have been adding to the asters in the garden creating some much need late season colour and a few of our new selections have really shone out this autumn. Aster novae-angliae 'Herbstschnee' meaning autumn snow has been a really fantastic addition to the developing border outside the courtyard. With its strong tight habit and profusion of flowers it has defined the look of the front of the house over the past month.

Aster ericoides 'Pink Cloud' has been a lovely light addition to the cottage garden; its habit and colour provide delicate interest in a part of the garden that is dominated now by seed heads and bronzing foliage. Aster novi-belgii 'Fellowship' on the other hand is bright and vibrant purple and lifts the beds outside of the kitchen garden, currently dominated by dahlias.

I am a huge fan of autumn, partly perhaps because the garden is slowing down and I get more time to appreciate it. But mainly I think because the flowers at this time of year seem all the more special. As gardeners we know it won't be long before winter clears away most of the colour again until spring.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Reaping the rewards


Last week saw the very last day of our organic kitchen garden course which has been running right through the growing season and based in the kitchen garden at Allt-y-bela. It was with mixed emotions that we faced that last day; on the one hand it is a great relief for me to no longer have the monthly scrutiny of a very professional grower in the course leader James Clapp, who is currently head grower for Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quatre Saisons in Oxfordshire, along with a group of very talented course participants. On the other hand I was genuinely very sad to say goodbye to the many good friends I have made over the past 8 months. The insight they have had into the garden and especially into the kitchen garden is a very personal one, and they have shared the ups and downs that I have experienced in my first year of vegetable growing. Without exception I have received huge support and encouragement, which have certainly helped sustain me when things have gone wrong.

When the greenhouse arrived a few months ago it was like welcoming an old friend who has come to help you out of a tight corner. I have grown quite a lot in greenhouses over the years - although no vegetables I have to admit! The key with keeping a greenhouse healthy seems to be controlling the temperature and humidity. In practice this usually simply comes down to knowing when and how to ventilate. Because our little greenhouse is relatively sheltered and the summer so gloomy there was never really a need to shade to keep the temperature down so that simplified things further.

By the time the greenhouse was installed it was getting rather late and so more by optimism and hope than any great expectation we filled it to bursting point with tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. The young plants very soon got underway and before I knew it I was twining the stems of the cucumbers ever higher up makeshift string supports towards the apex of the greenhouse roof. We tried two varieties, one of which was Melen, an F1 variety that produced abundant really tasty fruit for months on end, and another White Wonder, a light skinned, oval shaped cucumber which produced huge amounts of bitter and almost inedible fruit!

The tomatoes too were a mixed bunch, we trialled 12 varieties in all, of different shapes, sizes, colours and flavours; all have produced good fruit but some have certainly been tastier than others. My personal favourite was Vialli, a lovely cherry tomato with a balance of flavor I find just divine. As for the peppers, well they are steadily ripening and this little spell of dry warm weather will do them the world of good I'm sure. There is again a real mixture of varieties and I'm hopeful that I will be able to report success in some cases at least.

My little greenhouse has definitely been my piece of comfort in a part of the garden where I feel that I am still struggling to find a real connection. That said there have been some successes, we have had more salad than we could possibly eat, the broad beans and potatoes were really very good and the brassicas have survived the cabbage white onslaught miraculously unscathed. I have also managed to double crop on a decent number of the beds, which for a first attempt isn't at all bad.

I'm not sure yet if we will run another vegetable garden course next year. I've certainly learned a huge amount from this one. Despite the horrors of having your work critically appraised in front of a group I have no doubt that without James and the many friends that I made on the course the garden would look and certainly feel much poorer.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Enter: The Dahlia


One of the many wonderful things about having a garden is being able to pop outside and cut a few flowers for the house. Whether you choose to pick wild flowers and grasses, astrantia or phlox from the borders or specially grown beauties like sweet peas, there are few things that brighten up a home more than flowers.

At Allt-y-bela the picking usually starts with wild narcissi in early spring, followed by tulips and then wild flowers and stems from the herbaceous borders, before moving on to sweet peas, chosen here for their scent as well as their colour. But now it is the turn of the dahlia to take centre stage.

This year has been a great year for the dahlias at Allt-y-bela; the plants have been stronger and taller and more floriferous than last year. The flowers have also been bigger and their colours truer. Amongst the many dahlias in the garden Dahlia 'Vancouver' has become a firm favourite of mine. It has a cactus type flower with an opulent purple edge, which fades towards the centre. It really looks stunning as a single specimen in a vase. Arne has a particular weakness for Dahlia 'Naples' which is a very sophisticated flower; double but very neat and sculptural, it is a kind of antique white, rare and special, it's definitely one for the connoisseur.

In the kitchen garden are two small beds which are devoted to cutting flowers, in the spring they are packed with hundreds of tulips which go to brightening the various rooms in the house and at this time of year they are full not only of dahlias but also sweet peas, cosmos and gladioli. This year as something of a departure from the norm we have grown vegetables including sweetcorn, peppers and squash, as well as edible flowers such as calendula and nasturtiums, amongst the cutting flowers.

As ever though nothing stands still at Allt-y-bela and this year we have used one of the beds in which we grew potatoes to trial some new dahlias. We have three new varieties; D. 'Veronne's Obsidian', D. 'Glorie van Noordwijk' and D. 'Classic Swan Lake'. The latter is a dark leafed, dark stemmed variety with creamy semi double flowers while D. 'Veronne's Obsidian' has unusual, almost black, pinwheel flowers that are very unique. D. 'Glorie van Noordwijk' is perhaps a tone lighter than the colour of the house at Allt-y-bela and I can immediately see its appeal. Its flowers are cactus type, strong and bright with just a hint of translucence.

Each of these new additions has something out of the ordinary to offer. The nice thing is that none of them would have been my choice, I'm much less brave when it comes to experimenting with strong colours and unusual forms, but I certainly wouldn't rule out my writing in a year or two's time of my complete addiction to any one of them. Innovation requires risk and whilst Arne continues to innovate my horizons continue to broaden.

Words: Steve Lannin

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Effortless order


I was once told that the mark of a truly great gardener is the ability to leave no trace of their having been there at all. Good gardening should look effortless. This is both a blessing and a curse; on the one hand you have a garden with continuity which evolves through the seasons without there appearing to be any major upheaval, on the other hand this can be misinterpreted as overstaffing. I've seen this happen many times and it's very sad.

Gardening is often quite messy and challenging physically but there are few greater pleasures than showing people around a garden, which has been thoroughly prepared to look spontaneous and unprepared!

There are broadly three types of jobs in the garden; those which entail a huge amount of work but look as if you have done very little, those in which you do very little but it looks as if you have done a lot, and those in which you do a lot and it shows! I suppose I could add those where you do little and it shows, but we won't go into that!

Possibly the most obvious example of jobs where a little effort goes a long way is lawn mowing. Borders might be well prepared, flowers dead headed and pots in perfect condition, but a tatty looking lawn will spoil everything. At Sudeley Castle there is a lawn which is full of lumps and bumps, the evidence of former gardens and buildings, where a close cut and neat stripe utterly transforms it into a piece of English garden perfection! Arne would quite possibly despair of me if he came home to find stripes in the lawn at Allt-y-bela - it really isn't that kind of garden - but the point holds just the same.

The pleached crab apples around the courtyard at Allt-y-bela have been looking a bit wayward for some time now; every time I go to take a picture for Instagram or Twitter I just can't bring myself to post it. The new vertical growth has obscured the delicate horizontals which frame the house front and have turned the thin veil across the façade into a virtual wall of green. The crab apples are pruned in much the same way as our eating apples using the modified Lorrette system, which calls for the new growth to be cut back to four or five buds above the basal rosette. It's important not to do this too early because if you do you will get a second flush of new growth from the point just below the cut. The idea of cutting it now is that it is too late in the season for the tree to put lots of energy into new vegetative growth and so its redirects that energy into the fruit. 

What this all means in practice is a lovely sunny day, enjoying the clacking sound of your secateurs shortening the new growth. At the end of the day you end up with a barrow load of clippings and one very neat façade. Combine that with a little mowing and you have a very smart looking house for comparatively little effort!    

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer