Garden diary

A gardener's journey

 

I journey to work each day on my bicycle. It is only a short twenty-minute ride from our home which is located in Usk, a small community town in Monmouthshire. (By the way, I'm a road cyclist, so some Lycra is worn, apologies!)

I tend to extend my journey by doing a couple of laps around the town and along the road next to the river. The last few mornings have been fresh to say the least, so I am thankful of a few layers to keep out the chill.

Notable features on my route include a prison with the most incredible Wisteria growing on the exterior walls.; a beautiful arched stone bridge which spans the picturesque river Usk; a Norman castle which overlooks the town and river meadows beyond.

I can see the castle walls from our bedroom window each morning, along with three mature magnolia trees which are currently in full flower. There is also a rather lovely topiary figure, standing sentinel on the castle wall, which has one raised arm, normally aglow in the early morning sunshine. I wake most mornings full of energy and looking forward to the day ahead. During my working career I have tended to start early, which I never minded because those early hours from sunrise onwards can be magical.

When I think back over the years, gardening and cycling have been constants throughout my life. From those early days gardening with my father on his allotment. And the many cycling adventures that I enjoyed with my friends, during long summers exploring the seven hills of Sheffield and glorious Derbyshire. Of course, these were ancient times, before the invention of road safety and intergalactic communication! We travelled without a care in the world, carrying a sandwich and a drink to keep us from starvation, no money, riding without safety helmets and free from mobile phones.

There was one job I had where I worked on a private estate located at Elstead in Surrey. At the time we were living in Cranleigh, which was a 30-mile round trip each day. I recall arriving for the interview on my bicycle. After the interview the owner offered me the job commenting that anybody prepared to cycle that distance for a job, deserved an opportunity. I worked there for just over a year before securing a job working at RHS Wisley

I have always enjoyed an intimate connection with nature, and I have taken comfort that whatever happens, life will endure and will always find a way to inspire and surprise you. During these very challenging times, gardening is a safe haven for many. I appreciate that some readers may not have access to an open space or a garden at the moment and with this in mind, I would like to share Allt y bela with you, starting with my journey to work each morning.

Please be assured that I am totally isolated throughout my journey and do not encounter any other individuals. In fact, all flora and fauna are completely oblivious to our human plight. It makes you reflect on what is truly important during our everyday comings and goings, and the fundamental changes we will experience during the months ahead.

The road to Allt y bela is a single, uneven trackway, surrounded by mixed native hedging, fields and trees. This provides a feeling of enclosure and mystery as you approach. The final section of trackway heads in an easterly direction towards the early morning sunrise.

The hedgerow is currently in flower, with delicate flowers of wild plum, and there are signs of the first shoots of life developing on hawthorn and hazel. The lightest of soft green, like a delicate mist cast from a wand. Most mornings I usually hear the call of a Kestrel on patrol looking for an early breakfast….lucky rodents.

A small stream meanders to the left of the trackway providing a reminder that water brings life. Indeed, during the last couple of weeks, the banks of the stream have been carpeted with wood anemones and celandine, long established and undisturbed. These delicate beauties blanket the margins of the stream leading out into the dappled shade and the fields beyond. If you look beyond the fields and the grazing sheep and lambs, and within the surrounding woodlands, the anemones continue, an ocean of white as far as the eye can see. The woodland canopy is still bare in late March, allowing just the right amount of sunlight to sustain the growth of the anemones, which produce this small wonder of nature.

There is something magical about these few fleeting moments of the day where I ride along in peace, whilst enjoying the sights and sounds around me. I suspect that during the day to day rush of life we do not always appreciate our sensory abilities. I try to take some time out of each day to explore my senses, by closing my eyes for a few moments and just listening to the sounds of nature. The bird song at Allt y bela is so energetic and vibrant, it washes over you like an elixir of life.

I am also making the most of the spring fragrance and blooms with some deep breathing exercises. Plants are particularly showy at this time of year, attracting insects and birds to sample their nectar. Standing in the garden you can feel the vibrance of spring all around you. Funnily enough, Arne and I were exploring the garden together recently and enjoying the fragrance of a viburnum located behind the vegetable garden. Arne commented that it reminded him of a lovely smell you encounter when you visit an old stately home, a fragrance evocative of wood wax and old England! This evoked the same sensory memory for me, having worked many years ago at Chatsworth House. I recall going into the house occasionally to assist the Head Gardener. We were always greeted by the housekeeper either polishing floors or cleaning silver! I wonder how many other sensory memories we all share, but never mention to others.

Of course, Arne and I are taking the best precautions during the working day to maintain a safe distance at all times. We are very fortunate in that we can both work independently in the garden and in the fresh air and away from others.

My brief journey to work is not all plain sailing though. I have to dodge the odd pothole, squirrel and pheasant, all seem to take great delight in either running or flying out in front of me. I swear they wait for my arrival each morning, judging by the frequency of my encounters with them.

For those that do not know, Allt y bela nestles in an isolated valley surrounded by hills, open field and trees, so the final approach is slightly undulating. On arrival, I crest a small rise and I pass through the softly corroded metal gates of the house and garden and my day of gardening begins…..

Whatever the weather, Allt y bela gleams…rendered in a vibrant shade of rusty ochre. The contrast with the landscape is striking, yet totally in harmony with the planting and structural topiary. Shadows from larger trees, backlit by the sun, cast playfully across the building, providing both depth and texture. Over recent weeks Allt y bela has come to life with elegance and grace.

The magnolias have been particularly good this year providing an abundance of flower. A frost did catch one specimen in mid-March, but we still had a good few days where the blooms were at their best. Over the period of a few days, I enjoyed observing the large downy magnolia buds bursting open, to reveal opulent flower petals. The flowers themselves look translucent with heavy dew and back lit by early morning sunlight. Observing these subtle changes is a real joy, and I would encourage us all to take time to enjoy the moments that nature shares with us.

The garden that Arne has created at Allt y bela is truly beautiful. Arne possesses a remarkable awareness regarding planting, subtle texture, colour and how these intertwine with the landscape. It is both playful and elegant.

A recognisably striking feature of the garden is the topiary. I particularly like the subtle changes in tone and texture of the Fagus (beech) that occurs through winter and into spring. Through sunshine and cloud, frost and rain, the topiary provides structure and continuity with the landscape beyond. The leaves of Fagus are a rich copper in early winter and remain abundant on the plant, very much like a winter cloak. By the time spring arrives the leaves have endured the elements and have bleached and faded to soft taupe. They are now starting to fall off the plants as though autumn has returned once again, if briefly. This is to make way for the emergence of soft green foliage which is most welcome and refreshing to behold after their winter dormancy.

The spring meadows have been in flower over the last few weeks filled with iris, crocus, narcissus, cowslips and more recently delicate tulips. Arne and I took great pleasure  exploring the meadows together and counting the colonies of wild orchids that have started to emerge. Arne pointed out to me a parent orchid that had self-seeded. You could see a distinct curve of young orchids due to natural seed dispersal and growth.

A walk through the woodland and along the driveway banks reveals a wealth of growth and flowers from colonies of white and purple fritillaries, narcissus, cowslips and Cammasia.

I have been busy in the vegetable garden over the last few days constructing sweet pea and runner bean supports. I have made these out of coppiced hazel stems which I have been able to cut from two strong hazel stools located next to the stream. It's a simple structure to construct, using eight hazel stems to form a 60cm diameter circle. I use a small steel bar to create a hole, and then push each hazel stem into the soil 12cm deep. If you angle the hazel stems away from the centre, they can then be bent and tied together at the top to form a wigwam. Smaller branches of hazel twigs can then be inserted within the wigwam to provide finer twiggy support for the plants.

The weather has been particularly kind after a very wet winter. With the dry weather and warm sunshine, I have been able to plant out the sweet peas, chitted potatoes, shallots, beet, sea kale, and sow carrots, radish and broad beans. When you look out from the vegetable garden you can see the spring meadow beyond. We planted a collection of young plug plants in late autumn and these appear to be thriving.

The established cowslips on the driveway bank are particularly beautiful growing amongst moss, their soft yellow flowers greet me each morning as I come through the gate. If it were possible to be miniaturised, I would imagine a walk through those mossy cowslips and spring bulbs would be incredible. What a journey that would be…….

Wherever your journey leads over the next few weeks, please stay safe. Happier days will come, days when we can all enjoy gardening and the freedom of nature's beauty once again.

Best Wishes, Dean

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Words: Dean Peckett

Photographs and films: Dean Peckett and Arne Maynard

For more spring inspiration from Allt y bela with Arne and Dean, follow Arne Maynard Garden Design on Instagram. Arne is giving a daily walking tour of a different part of the garden.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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August at Allt y bela

 

When I think of August in the garden I envisage long hot days, parched lawns and burnt out flower beds. In these long hot days I will be cutting yew topiary safe in the knowledge the the heat will generally deter further growth. In this vision of August I will be mowing the meadows, the ground baked hard as iron, the grass already dried out. I'm sure that this vision of August has, at least some basis in reality, but in more recent years it seems that August is always a bit of a disappointment. The really joyful late summer weather won't begin until the children, clad for autumn in new jumpers and blazers head back to school, then the sun will shine and the temperatures recover!

Despite a burst of sunshine over the late bank holiday weekend, this August has been particularly disappointing. I heard that the start of the month was the coldest since 1993, I'm not sure it's improved much since! Now, at the end of the month there is a distinct chill in the mornings, early mists linger longer and there's a hint of changing colour in the hedgerows which funnel you down the narrow lane to Allt y bela.

The upside to this cool, damp weather has been that the garden has stayed green, not only that but it's been growing in the same spirit as if it had been May. That has been something of a challenge to me as my August tasks are to mow the meadows and to cut the topiary. The abundant growth has led to some impressive weed growth and lawns which just won't stop growing!

All in all though I'm pretty grateful that the weather hasn't been too scorching (to say the least!) The cottage garden has continued to produce a mass of flowers for cutting, while in the kitchen garden the profusion of produce has been a little overwhelming. As the month draws to a close and the apples begin to colour it feels more like each sunny day we get is a little more precious than the last, and if September was to prove to be a beautiful sunny warm month, well I'll have no complaints!

Words: Steve Lannin, Head Gardener at Allt y bela

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer

© Arne Maynard Garden Design 2017 - reproduction of content and / or photographs only by request.

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Bathed in sunshine

 

The sun is as strong at this time of year as it is in late August the radio warned me this morning, barely five minutes after I had scraped the ice from my windscreen. Sure enough by 11 o'clock this morning the sun was warm. This time of year brings the first really warm days of the year and the warmest days we have experienced in five or six months. It is heavenly. Somewhere in the trees above the common a woodpecker is busy drumming away as birds sing all around me.

This morning Hudson the cat was excitedly pursuing a stoat around the kitchen garden. Everywhere the garden is waking up but the contrasts at this time of year can make being outside uncomfortable. I was basking in hot sunshine one day last week and the next I was searching out extra coats as I shivered my way through a bitterly cold and breezy day. It feels to me almost like the growing pains of summer, the change is coming and it's inevitable; it's a great feeling.

The pots of tulips are just beginning to flower and I always find it an anxious time. You really want to know that those combinations, which seemed so exiting in November, really live up to their billing. The light in spring can make a huge difference to the success of a combination. Early indications look promising. We've really tried to improve the pot display this year planting maybe three times as many pots as we did the first year I was here. I was making willow support rings for the pots a couple of weeks ago and it seemed to take me forever, despite the fact that most of the pots already had supports. At the end of the day I counted up the rings I had made and reached 36, which is a fair amount of extras!

The Osmanthus topiary we planted a couple of weeks ago is in full flower now and is looking rather fine. Flowering topiary is something new to me but it looks very at home in the garden here. The Osmanthus outside my toolshed is looking (and smelling) particularly good.

Summer might not be here yet but we've had a sneak preview of it over the last week here at Allt-y-bela and it's been rather lovely.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer

© Arne Maynard Garden Design 2017 - reproduction of content and / or photographs only by request.

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A few additions

 

Change is the only constant in life. I feel like I've heard that sentiment expressed in more ways than I can recall. In truth though it has become something of a mantra of mine, reminding me that even the worst situations are transient whilst helping me to enjoy the best moments to their fullest. Working in a garden though, you can hardly fail to appreciate the truth of the matter. Each day, each week, each year, the garden is changing, nature's chaos perverting and adjusting our well considered plans into often wonderful and sometimes frustrating results.

Working in the garden at Allt-y-bela can be incredibly frenetic, energising and perplexing in equal measure. This week has been one of those weeks. It began with preparation for our rose dome building course, my list of worries and things to stress over has become an annual tradition now and I'm learning to stay slightly calmer. Despite some pretty persistent Welsh drizzle in the afternoon contributing to the familiar gardeners plea 'you should have been here yesterday!' the course was great fun and as an army of rose domes were contorted into all manner of shapes and sizes I felt very happy to have been part of the day.

No time to waste however as preparations began the next morning for some new additions to the garden. As I arrived in the lane a very large lorry was waiting and I had more than a suspicion that its contents would be for us.

Luckily for me Arne had arranged his crack team of landscapers to install these massive new plants so I could take part in the really nice bit, the placements and the little tweaks: 'I think it needs to come around 30 degrees clockwise' all very satisfying!

Amongst the new arrivals was a beech tree that Arne has been coveting for more than a decade! Just getting the enormous tree out of the the lorry was a Herculean task, followed by a strange convoy that included the beech tree dangling from a reversing telehandler, the Land Rover and trailer containing a beautiful multi-stemmed Cornus mas dome and a transit flatbed truck with a pair of Osmanthus topiary balls. We must have made an impressive, if a little bizarre, spectacle!

Safely back in the garden the last day and a half have been dominated by the installation of these new plants. Arne and I stood on the drive as he spoke of how this was the last delivery of large plants for Allt-y-bela, before mentioning the 5m tall Magnolia that will be arriving soon!

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer

© Arne Maynard Garden Design 2017 - reproduction of content and / or photographs only by request.

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The first blooms

 

The garden at Allt-y-bela is beginning to spring to life once more. On the droveway and through the woodland snowdrops abound drifting in vast white carpets across the brown green of the winter landscape. There is something magical and heartening to see swathes of ground suddenly coming to life in these dark weeks. Amongst the throng of single native snowdrops, a few double flowers can be found. You can generally tell the doubles by the broader nature of the flowers, the only way to be sure of course is to get down on your hands and knees and have a good look. The rewards certainly make the muddy knees worthwhile but it is a shame we don't get the chance to appreciate them in a more congenial environment.

Along the sides of the drive towards the field gate is a small wild bed filled with winter snowflakes. Winter aconites are beginning to establish there too. The winter snowflakes look a little like a broader stronger snowdrop, their heads still nod in the cold breeze but they are larger and slightly more showy.

The bulb lawn is beginning to show the first signs of life now too, a few short weeks ago I was looking across the grass at the telltale leaves of iris and crocus that offered so much promise and over the course of the last few days the flowers have been breaking out, first a few crocus, then the very first reticulated iris. Each day, come rain or shine, flowers have been emerging.

One of the frustrations I've found in past years is that I never seem to be able to photograph these spring treasures to really do them justice, then, while crawling around on my hands and knees through the mud it occurred to me that it would be rather lovely to bring these flowers into the house and photograph them properly. Around this time last year Allt-y-bela played host to a Dutch Masters flower arranging course, the resulting pictures were so stunnning I was desperate to have a go at recreating a similar sense of light and dark, fine detail and highlights. These early spring bulbs which posses such breathtaking beauty are perhaps slightly overlooked as we dodge the rain and hurry past against the biting cold. Brought indoors, with time to really look and appreciate them, their elegance shines through.

Once inside with our selection of flowers we decided to break them down into three groups; the crocus, the iris and the snowdrop type flowers. I think we could have very easily spent days placing them around the house to photograph. Allt-y-bela is such at atmospheric house, somehow though it always comes back to the older parts of the house, the medieval dining room with its massive stone fireplace and shining polished oak furniture lend themselves so freely to this style of photography.

The bulbs which are in flower now represent the beginning of the year in the garden at Allt-y-bela, there is so much to come, the thought is almost a little overwhelming. But this week, through the incessant rain and frost, these beautiful plants have emerged bringing with them a sense of positivity and hope for the coming year.

Plant information:

1. Left to right; Crocus subs. biflorus, Crocus tomasinianus, Crocus 'Snow Bunting', Crocus 'Cream Beauty'

2. Crocus 'Prins Claus' & Crocus tomasinianus

3. Crocus 'Snow Bunting'

4. Crocus 'Cream Beauty'

5. Left to right; Leucojum vernum 'Snow Flake, Galanthus 'Flore Pleno', Galanthus nivalis

6. Galanthus nivalis

7. Left to right; Iris reticulata 'Pauline', Iris reticulata 'Gordon', Iris reticulata 'Pixie', Iris reticulata 'Katherine Hodgkin', Iris reticulata 'George'

8. Iris reticulata 'Katherine Hodgkin'

9. Iris reticulata 'George'

10. Handtie of Iris reticulata 'Pauline', Iris reticulata 'Gordon', Iris reticulata 'Pixie', Iris reticulata 'Katherine Hodgkin' & Iris reticulata 'George'

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer

© Arne Maynard Garden Design 2017 - reproduction of content and / or photographs only by request.

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