Garden diary

Much Ado in the Garden Theatre

Last week passed by me in a flash of good food, good people and frantic gardening! After preparing for the courses the week before, last week was spent keeping everything ship shape for the production of Much Ado About Nothing, which took place in the garden theatre on Saturday night. My plan for the week was fairly simple; cut a little topiary, cut the grass and then generally enjoy meeting the many interesting people who come on Arne's courses. But the unexpectedly warm weather, which was preceeded by rain, meant the garden decided now was the time to put on a major growth spurt. Some areas of grass needed cutting twice and the fairly content borders all shot up and then started collapsing all over the place! Best laid plans and all that.....

That said I would have been in a bit of a spin last week anyway trying to make the garden look as lovely as possible for all of the people who were due to visit. When I finally threw in the towel on Friday evening, after my fuel supply ran completely dry, I felt the garden looked as good as it possibly could have. I could relax and enjoy the garden on Saturday night.

The forecast for Saturday was worrying; heavy rain was due to pulse through late morning before drying up and being fairly mild by the late afternoon and into the evening. Last year we had almost perfect weather but I have heard tales of previous years when the rain was so heavy that the actors, sheltered by umbrellas, were almost inaudible! Although there is obviously nothing you can do about the weather, I would have been bitterly disappointed if rain had spoiled guests' experience of the garden this year.

I was sitting in my kitchen (drinking tea) when the rain started around lunch time. It was bouncing heavily off of the paths outside, making a tremendous racket. Shortly afterwards a friend of mine arrived from across the border feeling a little pessimistic about the chances of a warm evening. By mid afternoon the rain had cleared but waves of deep, heavy rain-leaden clouds passed by over head. By the time we were ready to leave it was still rather dull but had warmed up considerably; the sort of savage, quick heat that builds before thunder!

Arriving at Allt-y-bela it was obvious that the rain there had been intense, but it was dry and people were arriving en mass with folding chairs, picnics, blankets and that typical British optimism that causes us, as a nation, to put on and to attend outdoor events despite our famously changeable climate!

I really needn't have worried, the weather was perfectly behaved; the rain had refreshed the garden and the evening was milder than last year. The production, set against the barn wall in the fading evening mid-summer light, was magical and as the sun finally set over the house, the play drew to a perfectly timed close.

Lying back in the grass on the top of the theatre banks was a truly lovely conclusion to my first year in this unique garden.

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

Photographs: Britt Willloughby Dyer

The play was performed by The Willow Globe Company. 


One year on...

I always find there is a moment in early June when you realize that somehow, without really being able to understand how, you are getting behind in the garden. Luckily over the years I have learned to recognize and accept this momentary panic and to take the necessary steps to correct it - this usually entails dashing about like a headless chicken pulling weeds as if your life depended on it.

It was on Tuesday as I was sitting at the kitchen table having a dubiously earned cup of tea with Pat, the frankly irreplaceable housekeeper, when she dropped into conversation the state of play for the next week or so. It looked something like this: A tour for the professional Gardeners' Guild on Friday, Arne's courses next Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and then our annual summer production in the garden theatre on Saturday. All of a sudden my calm demeanor disappeared and the familiar feelings of barely concealed panic returned with a vengeance. I knew that all of this was coming of course; I just hadn't realised how close it all was!

Arne usually condenses his main courses into a couple of weeks around mid summer and around the time of the play and it is during these few weeks that the garden is seen by the most people. Consequently it becomes the most important time of the year in the garden at Allt-y-bela. This year it is all condensed down into one week with a garnish of professional gardeners -eek!

It was this time last year that I was packing my final boxes and moving to Usk to start work here. I finished my previous job on the Friday, spent a couple of busy days moving furniture and boxes in cars to start work on the Monday, again one of the busiest weeks of the year. Last year however all of the hard work had been done before I started and although those first few weeks were a whirlwind of people, courses, information and gardening, the foundations had been well laid for the transition. I was then, and am now, very grateful that they were!

So here I am, one year on and what can I say? I love the garden more today than I did the day I started. I certainly understand the way it all works a lot more clearly, and I definitely feel much more settled. Moving jobs is a stressful time and starting a gardening job in mid summer is certainly not for the faint hearted. I feel like I know the basics now and hopefully I will have many more years here to perfect what I have learned and to learn more as the garden changes and develops.

Back in the here and now and it's Friday afternoon. I'm feeling much more positive about the garden; most things are in their rightful places and the parts that need the most attention are the least visible. (There is always Monday to sort out those areas!) The group of gardeners came this morning and were incredibly supportive and seemed to be genuinely enchanted by the garden. Next week I will start cutting the box topiary while Arne leads his courses, it's the part of the job I love the most and the gentle clacking of shears shouldn't be too distracting for those who have come to share a little of Arne's wisdom and some of the magic of Allt-y-bela. I look forward to meeting those of you who are attending.

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

Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer


We still have a few tickets left for the production of William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, to be performed in the Garden Theatre at Allt-y-bela on Saturday 20 June. Bring a picnic and enjoy the garden before the play starts at 7pm.

Click here for details.


Grass in all its glory

I've set myself a task this week. It would be very easy to keep writing weekly diaries on subjects I know well, but sometimes it's good to force yourself outside of your comfort zone and try something a little different. Every year at about this time I marvel at the unsung beauty of our native grasses in flower. Even a gardener like myself, who in their career has had relatively little to do with grasses, would be hard pressed not to appreciate the diversity of wild grasses that can be found in and around our gardens.

I set out this morning, trug in hand, with an aim to see how many individual grass species in flower at the moment I could find. My hope was to manage six. I would expect there to be dozens of grass species present in the garden here but as my very first grass collecting adventure I set my sights at a fairly achieveable level.

The garden at Allt-y-bela boasts a range of habitats to suit different species, with areas of damp shade to fairly dry sun and as I went about the garden I certainly noticed the difference both in species and in the relative vigour of those species. In the bulb lawn for example there were a surprising diversity of species but they were all less vigorous than in other parts of the garden. Up on the common, where we have been heavily sowing yellow rattle to reduce the vigor of the grass there, the difference was even more stark with some species looking really very sad indeed.

The best spot in the whole garden seemed to be the first bank in the earth works which rises up to the kitchen garden on the north side of the house; the slope itself is fairly dry and south facing without too much yellow rattle. I was going to mow it short a couple of weeks ago but other jobs have prevented me from getting to it - I'm so glad I haven't managed it yet!

So how many species did I find? I think I found 14 species which were sufficiently different for me to attempt to identify them. With my grasses laid out on the studio table I hit the internet with gusto but I quickly realized that to correctly identify grasses you really need to be able to study the structures in detail and the relatively low quality pictures weren't going to be much use. I've been a bit of a fan of botanical drawing and painting for some years now to the extent that I've recently picked up the paintbrush and started to have a go myself and so I invested in a book on native grasses of the British Isles and waited somewhat impatiently for it to arrive. The consequence being that I missed my usual garden diary deadline, I hope you can forgive me! To make matters worse I have failed to come up with a list of species that I'm confident enough to publish.

My experiment has been a success I think, not because I now know the range of grass species in the garden (in fact I am possibly less confident now that I know what I have), but rather that I have been inspired to find out more and to look more closely at the green element of our gardens that we perhaps take the most for granted.

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

Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Leaves spring forth


The last few weeks have seen massive change in the garden just as there has been across the country. Fresh green leaves have clothed the garden's structure once more, bringing with them a greater sense of intimacy. On the driveway the brilliant tulips are mostly finished, replaced now by the self-sown bluebells. Seeing the ranks of new flowers each day makes it feel like the bluebells are spreading before our very eyes. The bluebells have been joined this year by a carpet of yellow archangel (Lamium galeobdolon), the vibrancy of the pairing is just dazzling. Up in the nuttery the archangel is dominant putting on a display the likes of which neither myself or Arne has ever seen before.


In the trees above something exciting is happening; Arne has been planting roses into the trees here for the past few years but over the last 12 months they have picked up and really gone for it, winding their way up through the branches in search of light. Rosa 'Madame Alfred Carriere', a beautiful white climber with a pink blush, has just opened her first flower of the year offering a tantalising taste of the beauty to come. Arne wants the trees hung with roses and not just smaller flowered rambling types, but full flowered scented roses will hang over the entranceway in years to come, dropping petals like confetti over the wild flower strewn drive.


Over the last few weeks the beech topiary and spiral have been shedding last year's leaves, adding a slightly jarring autumnal note to the early summer scene. They have now been replaced by fresh green or wine red new leaves. It always surprises me at this time of year just how fast the change can take place, from barren winter tree to lush, fresh and green, seemingly overnight!


Behind the house the service tree (Sorbus torminalis) is flowering for the very first time. This once abundant tree is now relatively rare, the fruits, known as chequers were used to flavour beer before the introduction of hops. The service tree now sits at the edge of the garden near to perry cider pear trees which would undoubtedly have been grown around the house in centuries past.


As I write I am moving quickly through the garden, past the kitchen garden in which the vegetables, warmed by the recent sun and encouraged by the extending day length, are beginning to grow well. And also past the Primula auricula theatre, in which the auriculas are rewarding us for the time spent re-potting them last year by giving us the best flowering display in years: I couldn't be more pleased with them.


It's up in the herbaceous beds where the changes are really noticeable. We had a huge clear out of alliums earlier in the year as they had started to take over and smother the other plants. The ones we have left are looking fantastic and are just about to break their buds, and it looks like we've got the balance just about right! Elsewhere in the beds the peonies are looking magnificent in flower; Paeonia mlokosewitschii, better known as 'molly the witch' is looking particularly good. They are joined in flower by Aquilegia, Astrantia, Geranium pheum, Centurea 'Jordy' and Anthriscus 'Ravenswing'.


Our lovely little 6x8 greenhouse is nearly ready to be put into place by the kitchen garden as well. We have levelled a base area and will build it any day now where it will be home to tomatoes, chillies and aubergine, as well as providing a nursery for young seedlings. It feels like the final piece of the jigsaw in that part of the garden and I can't wait for the first wet day when I can spend a bit of time in there.


Just along from the greenhouse are our bees. The bees used to live behind the studio barn but had to be moved while the work took place to construct the garden theatre last year. Apparently you have to move bees less than three feet or more than three miles for them to accept the change. They arrived back at Allt-y-bela last week after a year long absence and perhaps because I was so interested to get a front row seat, or perhaps because they had been shut in all night, I got quite badly stung when they ventured out including a rather nasty sting below my right eye!


I must confess that I was slightly cautious after that introduction, although wasp stings are something of an occupational hazard, I'm not sure I have ever been stung by a bee before! I needn't have worried though, the bees have settled in again and are far too busy now to even give me a second look It's good to have them here and we are due to get another hive in the next week or so although I might just keep my distance this time for the first few hours!

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

Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Are you inspired by Steve's Garden Diary to write about gardens? If so, see our courses page for details of Open Ground Writing Workshops at Allt-y-bela this year.



Gardener wanted: opportunity at Allt-y-bela


Ever since I joined this wonderful industry there has been talk of a skills shortage and through my previous positions I have found first hand how difficult it is to recruit good gardeners. The truth seems to be that gardening doesn't particularly appeal to young people, gardening was certainly never spoken about as a potential career when I was at school and although I dearly hope that things have changed since then, I doubt it has.

I think that gardening suffers a little from the stigma it is something that retired people do as a hobby and although I would, of course, happily extol the virtues of gardening all day long (and often do to anyone who will listen!) I have to admit that I understand some of the causes for gardening's skills shortage.

The sometimes scandalously low wages, the exploitative nature of some of the larger employers, the lack of affordable housing for low paid workers and the image of gardening as relatively unskilled work, has eroded the position of gardener from its Victorian heyday to the rather sad state of affairs that we find today.

There is good news of course; the movement towards localism, the appreciation of craft and a really exciting crop of garden designers are helping to revitilise gardening and to put horticulture back in the public consiousness.

I have been very lucky to have received encouragement and support throughout my career; from my first tentative steps in the industry until now there have been great, passionate people who have helped and encouraged me at every step of the way. My own journey is very much a work in progress and Arne and the great people he works with are continuing to help me to learn and grow.

I have long felt a responsibility to encourage burgeoning talent myself and to try to give something back to this most generous of industries. All of this, of course, is a rather long winded way of saying that I need a bit of help at Allt-y-bela! Arne has great ambition for the garden here and we are increasingly seeing times when more could be done to reach a higher level if we had an extra pair of hands.

We are looking for someone in the early stages of their horticultural career (maybe it hasn't really started yet) with a passion, and a desire, to garden to the best of their ability. The person we need is not afraid of hard and heavy work (there are some hills around here) and they are not afraid to get a little bit wet along the way! Initially we are looking for someone for a day or so a week and they will probably need to be fairly local too.

What we can offer in return, besides modest renumeration, would be the opportunity to work here in Arne's beautiful garden in a supportive environment with endless opportunities for learning.

We felt it was really important to reach out in this way, through people who really love what Arne does, to try to find that passionate hardworking person who would truly appreciate the experience of working at Allt-y-bela. If you think you might know someone who would be interested, or indeed if you are interested yourself, then please get in touch. We would love to hear from you and be given the opportunity to help you in your horticultural development.

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

Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer


If you are interested in the position of assistant gardener at Allt-y-bela, please send your current CV and covering note to Steve Lannin by email to: