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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Time for the turf

 

For some gardeners turf becomes their obsession. Maybe their interest has been sparked through a love of golf, or perhaps through a more tactile reason, but the results seem to be similar and the mere mention of a rotary bladed mower will see them bridle visibly. Although I have grown to really appreciate the fine cut of an eleven blade cylinder mower, I have never really subscribed to the turf club. Turf is for those of us lucky enough to live in an amenable climate taken rather for granted; a green backdrop linking our gardens to the landscape and providing open spaces in which to linger.

The lawns at Allt-y-bela are still a work in progress. Whenever a new project is underway it is the lawns, more often than not, that take the bulk of the traffic and suffer the most damage. When the stream was being walled a few years ago the stone was tipped onto boards on the lawns and by the end of the project they were in a very sorry state. As the garden is still under construction we are not expecting the lawns to be the best in the land but I have become rather committed to improving their appearance and general health!

This autumn we have bought a new piece of kit which should help in our endeavour. In previous years we have hired scarifiers to rake through the meadows in order to clear some space for sowing rattle seed. This year we have taken it one step further and bought one.

For those unfamiliar with scarifiers they are in effect just motorised rakes which tend to be used in the autumn to remove thatch and moss from the lawn, once the material is removed you can then re-seed any bare patches and top dress the rest of the lawn. The top dressing is traditionally a mixture of sand and topsoil, usually somewhere in the ratio of 70% sand to 30% soil. The top dressing is particularly useful if your soil is heavy as the sand will be incorporated into the soil altering the texture over time.

Scarifying is also a very useful technique in maintaining a flowering meadow. Once the meadow has been mowed down and the cuttings cleared away, the action of scarifying not only removes any thatch or plant material deep down in the sward, it also opens up soil spaces into which you can sow yellow rattle seed. Yellow rattle is invaluable in keeping the grasses under control in a meadow, which it does by parasitising the grass roots. A meadow in which the grass is strong and healthy is one where the grass will simply outcompete the native wildflowers. Yellow rattle is sown fresh and needs to be in contact with the soil so now is the time to get it done!

We will be scarifying our main lawns twice a year over the next few years in order to produce thicker, healthier lawns. If you wanted to scarify your own lawn this autumn and it isn't too vast then you can do just as good a job with a good spring tine rake. (It's a very good work out as you need to really get in amongst the grass) It's then essential to collect as much raked material as possible, you certainly don't want your hard work going to waste by that thatch getting back into the lawn! If on the other hand you really aren't that keen to spend hours attacking the lawn with a rake then you can hire scarifiers. It may take a little phoning around as not all plant hire companies have them, but they do cut down the work very significantly.

I'm certainly enjoying the challenge of getting the lawns into shape. It may not be a passion of mine but I do enjoy wandering across a summer lawn barefoot, not that that's how I spend my summers at Allt-y-bela of course! I'm looking forward to seeing the difference the work put in now will make next year. The garden at Allt-y-bela is beginning to mature and settle now and as the years go by I hope that our efforts and continued hard work will pay dividends for many years to come.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer

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London calling: Chelsea 2016

 

'Feather-footed through the plashy fens passes the questing vole' writes William Boot in Evelyn Waugh's Scoop. Boot writes a nature column for a national newspaper without ever setting foot in the capital if he can help it. And although I lack the crumbling ancestral home of Boot Magna Hall, I sometimes feel a little like William in Waugh's brilliant satire, to the extent that I try to temper the hyperbole and metaphor when I write. This is never more the case than when I 'go up to London'. It's not that I don't understand the energy or vibrancy it affords, or its culture and excitement, it's rather just that I prefer the peace and pastures of the countryside.

The Chelsea Flower Show is one event that will break my London inertia and actually make me keen to visit, although when crammed into the hot airless depths of the underground, or standing squashed next to a luggage rack on a commuter train, I find my soul crying out for a little sky and air!

Last year I managed to spend the whole day at Chelsea, I left overwhelmed, overtired and footsore. It took me a couple of days to properly unpack all of the information and begin to think coherently about what I had seen. This year I had an afternoon ticket but managed to get in little earlier and touring the show gardens with Arne, who was a gardens judge this year, was a huge treat. I even managed to get on to some of the gardens and it was really interesting looking at the finish and the attention to detail up close, it gave me a real appreciation for the level of craftsmanship that goes in to creating these temporary gardens. It is a little unnerving though looking around a garden with a crowd watching, wishing you would get out of their shot! I felt a little like an animal in a zoo; I have to say though that I thoroughly enjoyed my habitat!

It's the quality that always astounds me at Chelsea. The displays in the floral marquee were faultless, each bloom carefully selected and displayed. The passion and knowledge of the nurserymen who exhibit make me realize how little I really know while at the same time reenergizing my passion to learn. I suppose I have to say though that it is the show gardens that really capture my imagination and this year they were no different. Looking at gardens is so subjective; what works for one person will offend another. Designers' personalities seem to shine through in their garden creations from Diarmuid Gavin's openly challenging and, frankly, bonkers garden complete with rotating topiary, to James Basson's hopelessly cool, laid back garden for L'Occitane. Cleve West's garden for M&G Investments was beautifully planted using a similar palette of plants to that we have been using at Allt-y-bela; the water that flowed through the garden flowed under and over rocks towards a cobbled basin. Water was also used beautifully in Andy Sturgeon's garden for The Daily Telegraph where the hard and soft landscaping elements came together really beautifully. Hugo Bugg's garden for the Royal Bank of Canada had incredible stone structures and was planted very naturalistically. For me though I think my favourite garden may have been The Cloudy Bay Garden by Sam Ovens, with its limited palette of plants, naturalistic style and simple wooden jetty structure it felt like such a breath of fresh air.

Chelsea is one of those great British events, like Wimbledon, when it seems that it's really alright to be British; where London culture meets its more rural cousins and everyone has a lovely time amongst the flowers. For a few short hours we are all equal and united by our shared love of gardens.

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

Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer

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Broader horizons

 

Over the last few weeks the garden has turned a fresh, lush green. The last of the beech topiary has finally come into leaf and the garden feels complete and ready for summer. Late May is one of the highlights of the gardening year for me when sunny, warm days still have the novelty of spring and strong new growth on every plant has yet to become a chore to control. It's the seasonal variety that partly defines the English garden and the next four or five weeks leading up to the summer solstice is the most satisfying time to be a gardener.

The garden however now begins to suck you into a co-dependent and exclusive relationship. It's a relationship that is rewarding and pleasurable but can also be a little obsessive and oppressive. As the garden grows and blooms the work it demands builds to a crescendo, which won't tail off until mid July. In the mean time the work is frantic.

The trouble with this is that while the garden you work in is consuming your every waking minute (and often sleeping thoughts too), other gardens are also looking at their most lush and florific. In the past I have often missed this most magical time in other gardens because my thoughts are too tied up in my own to even consider visiting them. This year however I am determined to change all of that.

Britain is full of fantastic gardens and as a nation we do seem to be rather preoccupied with this lush green island of ours. Whilst many of our most important and historic gardens are in the safe hands of the National Trust, many are not. Like the great houses of Britain some of the most important have been preserved but many are still in private hands and some lesser houses, no less historic, at least on a local level, are in the caring hands of their owners. Over the years it is this latter group that I have found often to be the more interesting. Gardens that are opened through organisations like the HHA (Historic Houses Association) and importantly the NGS (National Gardens Scheme) offer us the opportunity to visit places that are free from the guiding hands of an expert committee and as such have found their own special character.

So I have set myself the goal of seeing as many of these places as I can this summer; to explore the great and the small, the monumental and the residential, in order to broaden my own horizons, meet other gardening enthusiasts but mostly to break free from the exclusive relationship I have with Allt-y-bela. The result, I hope, will be a freshness gained from other garden styles, plant choices and landscapes that will in turn enhance my own understanding and appreciation for the garden I work in.

Over the past few weeks I have visited Sir Roy Strong's garden at The Laskett, a beautiful arts and crafts garden called Perrycroft near Malvern and Buscot Park in Oxfordshire which is a National Trust garden with a twist; the family still live on site and are clearly still very much involved in the evolution of it.

I really can't recommend visiting gardens enough, there is always something to admire and to be learned and meeting with gardeners and garden creators is always incredibly inspiring. The NGS even have a mobile App these days, which is a great way to discover gardens to visit near you. I'm not sure where I'll be heading this weekend; I might even see you there, wherever it is I'm looking forward to discovering something new and reveling in this country's garden culture. 

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

Photos of Buscot Park: Britt Willoughby Dyer

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Granary lattice work

 

For as long as I've been at Allt-y-bela there have been plans to modify the Granary Lattice. Originally laid out at an angle of about 45 degrees from the granary, the structure was created with Ilex crenata, (a box-like substitute for those not familiar with it), comeplemented by informal planting including Campanula, Agapanthus and Astrantia to name but a few. The Ilex though never really prospered and always looked rather straggly and unhealthy. I think perhaps the conditions were just too wet.


Arne like the idea of retaining and perhaps expanding the lattice using different hedging and planting and a few ideas were mooted but it wasn't really until the Ilex were removed that we began to think a little more seriously about what the new lattice might look like. Arne was keen to use hawthorn for the hedging, keeping it cut very tight so that over time it will build up a knuckled and gnarled look, no doubt full of moss and lichen. The hedging will also reflect elements of the tower, which was inspired by the Italian renaissance but built using local materials and techniques. 

The best time to plant a new hedge is while the plants are dormant and buying hedging plants as bare root plants in winter is cheaper and much easier than buying potted plants later on. Because we have decided to put in the hedge rather later than would normally be the case we have ended up planting bare root hedging in May! Definitely not to be advised but hawthorn is pretty tough stuff so with a little nuturing hopefully all will be well!


Arne has turned the lattice around to face the tower and has used its dimensions to create the new beds. He has added new elements around the front of the house and on the other side of the granary which, over time, will give the lattice a feeling of age, and of having once covered a much greater area. On the eastern side of the granary the new lattice expands on the area previously covered extending to a tall beech topiary. We set out all of the beds using lines measured off a baseline set against the front of the house before spraying the new hedge lines onto the ground. There was no masterplan for this, it was a case of trying out ideas, assessing how they might look and revising them until the balance looked right.

Stripping turf and diging trenches for the new hedges has followed and has been slow, heavy work. An old barn once sat on the site and consequently there is a lot of stone in the ground. The first lines of hedging are now planted with the rest slated to do this week. I've been amazed at the difference the change in orientation has had on the overall feel of the space. In a garden where nothing is square to anything else the tower holds the grounding force, anchoring everythiing around it, and I think that using the tower's orientation and proportion as a basic unit has helped to give the new beds a sense of belonging.

The next stage will be the planting but at the time of writing that isn't entirely pinned down. I love the fluidity and the dynamism that can flow in the garden when Arne is creating.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer

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