Garden diary

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


A chestnut paling fence


The kitchen garden has always been the heart of the garden at Allt-y-bela and the structure used in its construction has always given the garden a strong sense of identity. The bed layout itself recalls the shapes of beds used during the renaissance and lends the garden a sense of antiquity. The edging boards are made from oak with simple finials at each corner. The crushed stone, which the path is made from, comes from the local quarry. The fencing around the garden consists of oak posts linked by steel bars, forming sections, which were, until a few weeks ago, clad in woven hazel panels.

I think I can safely say that the woven panels were much admired and as they have come towards the end of their lives and started to disintegrate before our eyes, the obvious thing to do would be to replace them with identical duplicates. Personally I loved the old woven panels and was a little worried when Arne told me that he planned to change them for something very different. However, one of the things I have learned from working for Arne is to go with the flow a little bit and to trust him.

Arne's plan was to use chestnut palings; the kind you usually buy as a roll linked together with twisted wire. Arne's plan was a little different however; he wanted to buy the palings individually and wire them on to the steel link bars between the oak posts. At this point I had visions of palisade defenses and ring ditches!

Measuring up for the palings was not particularly reassuring either and when the paling count went above the thousand mark I tried not to listen too closely. Each post was to be wired by hand at three points across its length and so there was inevitably going to be a lot of wiring to do! To source the palings we visited our local friendly woodsman at Moreton Wood who, true to form, cut us exactly the number we needed to the length we needed them. Let the wiring begin!

Luckily after a little internet research we found a wire-twisting tool, which not only saved a lot of work but also no doubt saved our wrists from a very nasty case of repetitive strain injury!

So here we are; plugging away slowly and wiring the new palings to the fence. Fortunately I've had rather a lot of help so far so I can't claim very much credit for how it looks. It has totally changed the shape of the garden visually; while the woven panels seemed to create a long narrow feel to the garden the new palings have widened it back out again. I love the way the light moves across and through the palings and once we have our new gates the garden will be rabbit proof as well.

The really surprising thing for me though is just how contemporary it looks, I think once the weather has worked her magic on it, it will certainly settle down, but right now I'm really enjoying the fresh clean look it has given the garden. We've managed to get just over a half of it complete now and I can't wait to see it finished!

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer




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.