Garden diary

Frosted topiary

 

There was a genuine air of excitement last week as the first really hard frost of the year hit. The days were very dry and very cold with barely a breath of air moving. At midday the sun rose just high enough over the hills to fill the garden with brilliant clear light, the frost sparkled like jewels and sent us all out into the garden to capture an essence of the magic. William flew his drone high over the house revealing the comparative isolation of the garden while highlighting the patternation which has been created here. Britt used her camera to highlight the sharp forms and layers the frost had revealed also taking time to capture details from angles that always manage to be novel and yet retain a strong sense of place. I, meanwhile followed both and thoroughly enjoyed seeing the garden through different eyes and lenses.

Today is very different. Today is one of the few days that I find myself alone here. The temperature has risen sufficiently to lift the frost but a dull grimey mist hangs low in the valley instead. The transition of a garden from frosty winter wonderland to dull sulky brown is always a bit disappointing, but it does mean that I can resume my bulb planting efforts which is a relief.

I elected to sit outside for my lunch today and so I'm writing from the metal chair on top of the garden theatre wrapped in my ancient ex army coat in an attempt to keep warm. The air is once again very still, but this time I have the garden all to myself. The trees in the fields beyond have taken on ghostly wraith like shapes in the landscape and the only noise is the babbling of the stream as the water travels relentlessly on. I'm getting chilly sitting here so I think I'll move on and get some more bulbs in the ground.

Over the last few weeks the weather has been pretty exciting; first we had huge amounts of water and flooding in the lane and then the cold snap last week. Today feels like a classic British mid-winter day, chilly, damp and brown but in some ways it's almost a relief to have a break from the extremes. It'll be the images captured by Britt and William which will stay in my memory the longest though, and the excitement of capturing the light and cold as the sun rose over the wintery hill.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer

Short film: William Collinson

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Frost and fire

 

There are some activities in gardening that feel like they relate right back deep within our shared history. I find these moments when walking alone through woodland far away from the noise of traffic and the other distractions of modernity. Tending a fire is perhaps the most evocative of these experiences and I still enjoy the heat, the light and the unpredictability of fire that have fascinated people since the beginning of time.

Over the past few days the weather has become very wintery. Chilly, still, sunny days have preceded clear, cold, starry nights and heavy frosts have clothed the garden in icy white. Today began with a temperature of -7C and rose no higher than zero. At this time of year the sun remains very low on the horizon, barely rising above the tree line on the ridge to the north of the house. The result has been beautiful and savage. The months before Christmas tend to be a gentle, gradual cooling with the coldest of the weather arriving in January and February so a -7C in November feels particularly harsh.

Over the last few weeks we have been alternating our time between clearing and tidying the beds for winter and planting bulbs for the spring. I enjoy the duality of these activities; on the one hand you are acknowledging winter as you strip back the year's herbaceous growth, while on the other you are planting little packets of energy ready to emerge as soon as the worst of the cold has passed.

When the frost is as heavy as it has been for the passed few days it is generally advisable to stay off the grass as much as possible. This pushes us further into the landscape in order to find productive work and we have spent the cold days clearing bramble and weeds from along the boundaries beyond the drove. These areas have generally been outside of our reach as we concentrate our efforts closer to the house, but now as we open up the spaces and let in the light again a whole new surge of energy and ideas are promising to enhance and regenerate the space.

The bonfire smokes continually as the fire slowly devours the branches, sticks and stems left there a month or more ago. The heavy cold frost clings to each and every surface, fusing the branches together despite them being only a few centimetres from the flames. Through the garden the smoke is caught by beams of sunlight creating strange light effects and ghostly grey white forms, which seem to hang in the still crisp air.

On previous days the sun has reached down through the southern fields behind the house but today it never got as far as the garden. A mile down the lane in the sun it is 5C warmer and back in the garden the cold has been a bit of a shock to the system. If the winter continues to be cold and crisp we will certainly have more time to bring the more outlying areas under control, and just as importantly create plenty to burn. Today our fire might not have been quite enough to stay the cold but looking into the flames and the smell of woodsmoke is as powerful and compelling as it ever was. 

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer

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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

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