Garden diary

Autumnal magic


Autumn for me is a time for memories. It's the time that you start to look back over your experiences in the summer and they begin to look like golden days when the sunshine lasted until 10 o'clock at night and there seemed to be endless time to enjoy the garden. This is of course a construct, part of our attempts to process and file away memories, but I find that I'm far more conscious of it now compared to other times of the year.

I also find that the memories made at this time of year stay with me for longer and somehow seem more resonant. I think it's partly because I know the next six months are likely to be cold and damp and generally much harder than those which have recently passed. I find that every sunny day seems like the most precious day, and that each flower seems more miraculous. Perhaps that's why I love autumn so much. It allows time for reflection but there is also still so much to appreciate.

One of these really resonant moments happened a couple of weeks ago when I went to Apple Day at Cefn ila, just a few miles away from Allt-y-bela. I had had other plans for that day that had fallen through and was feeling distinctly disappointed. I walked to Cefn ila through the open countryside from Usk and as I walked, my mood slowly improved.

Cefn ila is a site, now owned by The Woodland Trust, on which a lodge house sat until relatively recently. The house has gone and the gardens, orchards and kitchen garden are currently being reclaimed from their dereliction. The Apple Day event was beautifully ramshackle, it felt like a true community affair, no corporate presence and no charge on the gate; just an honest celebration of autumn's bounty. Next to the old walled garden, on an undulating rough pasture, the orchard - semi-ruinous - stood. Gnarled, sometimes damaged, tree branches drooped under the weight of fruit. Amongst it a camp fire was smoldering neither fully alight nor fully extinguished with low simple plank wood benches arranged around. Sat with the orchard behind was a cellist accompanying a lady playing the harp while singing gentle folk songs. I sat mesmerised watching the scene, listening to the light chatter of happy people as they wandered through the little stalls of apple presses and local honey, all the time framed by the rough meadow, orchard and haunting music.

I took a longer route back to Usk through woodlands and open fields with long views collecting odd seasonal delights as I went; skeletal holly leaves, wild rose hips and larch cones. Who can fail to be awed by such beauty.

Back in the garden at Allt-y-bela the beech is changing colour and other leaves are falling, the ground is getting damp and brown and the air smells earthy again. I hope that your autumn is filled with as much magic as mine. 

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Autumn border changes

Arne's garden at Allt-y-bela is a testing ground for his ideas and because of this he often chooses plants and combinations that are outside his usual palette. This year has been a transitional one, where new ideas have been mingled with established planting and augmented by some trial plants.

Some of the new additions have been fantastic, some fit into the established palette and some very definitely do not; others are great in isolation but placed together seem to drag the whole scheme down. At the end of last week we went through the cottage garden and the cutting flowers in the kitchen garden to decide what to keep and what to let go. I really loved Arne's approach to this; we went through the flowers and picked a bunch of them choosing those that complimented each other, leaving those that didn't work. At the end of the process we had two really beautiful bouquets, one which will form the basis of the planting in the cottage garden, and the other which will become the scheme for the cutting garden next year. What particularly struck me was that the difference between one plant working within the group or not was often incredibly small; half a shade of difference in colour or the wrong coloured stem or leaf determined its place in the bunch. Sometimes it's really hard to explain why you think something doesn't quite work, although visually it is undeniable.

Going through the flowers for me really demonstrates why you have to experiment with plants; some of those which really should have worked together just didn't, and though some plants taken individually may appear to be slightly lacking in personality, when brought together their character really shone through, sometimes in unexpected ways.

I love the idea of being able to walk through a part of your garden and being able to pick a vase of flowers which all work together. Allt-y-bela is really good for that in early to mid summer but later in the summer it all starts to feel a little busy and you have to be more selective. I'm really excited that next year the cottage garden will have a personality that develops and subtly changes through the summer and that at this time of year we will have two really exciting schemes to enjoy.

Today we have taken the next step and marked what is staying and what is going. We have been putting off starting to cut anything back until we had everything marked that we wanted and now we can start to get things sorted out.

I know that you shouldn't wish your life away but I really can't wait to see what a difference the planned changes will have.

Words: Steve Lannin

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer


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