Garden diary

Pruning and sowing: February marks a beginning

 

February is (usually!) the last month of winter and as such it is the last opportunity to complete all winter work. We have been busy at Allt y bela clearing existing borders, creating new borders, completing the pruning of the fruit trees and bushes throughout the garden and of course we have stepped up our work in the kitchen garden. 

Having never pruned quince or medlar before, I approached this task with some trepidation, but as these fruit trees are closely related to apples and pears I soon found my confidence. I learned that quince especially tends to produce a constant flush of epicormic growth that needs to be substantially thinned or completely removed every year.  Both quince and medlar have a tendency to grow 'into themselves' and need to be confidently pruned in order to clear the centre. I am interested to see the fruit that these trees will bear this year and how storing the medlar will be best approached as it needs to be 'bletted', a process of letting it ripen in a cool place until soft and brown.

Over the course of the month we have continued to cut and clear the remaining plant material from the herbaceous borders, which has, we hope, helped to protect the plants from the worst of the winter weather. In addition, we have increased the size of some borders to accommodate more plants and formalised the edges of others with stone. The process of clearing and weeding borders is one of the aspects of horticulture I enjoy the most. It can be daunting if you are approaching a border that has not been touched for a significant amount of time (I once had the task of renovating a garden that had not been worked on for over three years), however, the process of removing and clearing the borders and preparing the ground for the coming growing season builds to a sense of anticipation.

February is also the month that ushers an increased pace in the vegetable growing calendar. Having prepared the soil in December and initiated the planting with garlic and broad beans, the first significant tranche of crops can be sown in February. To help schedule sowing I prepare a box/seed tray with dividing panels that separate the container into monthly labelled sections. Organising seed into the section that corresponds to the month it can be sown the earliest, allows me to rationalise the work. 

With the recent and ongoing very cold and wet weather, we have had a 'false-start' to the season, with the broad beans not initiating growth in the cold frame and needing to be placed in the hot-box.  We'll be monitoring the weather over the coming couple of weeks before deciding on how to progress and I look forward to keeping you updated.

Words: Rhys Griffiths, Head Gardener, Allt y bela

Photographs: William Collinson

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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 wreath making

 

I posted a picture on Instagram yesterday looking down from the common onto the house below; the light was golden and warm against the ochre of the building. It was such a lovely feeling after the seemingly relentless rain of the past few weeks. I'm very mindful however of just how fortunate we have been in the light of what has happened in Cumbria. The reason I mention this picture in particular was that I was struck by just how wintery the scene was, the trees bare and the landscape stripped of colour. I really haven't noticed the change over the last few weeks other than the darkening of the nights.

Spending your time in the garden shelters you from the hustle and bustle of the outside world and I find that Christmas creeps up on me these days in a way that would have seemed impossible in my early twenties, when I worked in various high street shops.

Last week marked a milestone in the year at Allt-y-bela with our last course of 2015 taking place. It was great to see some old friends again and to meet some new ones. Last week's course was run by Becca and Maz from the Garden Gate Flower Company, who earlier in the year ran a course on flower arrangements recreating the style of Dutch master paintings. The results then were incredible and their Christmas wreath and table decoration workshop was no less impressive.

One of the interesting elements of working at Allt-y-bela is that you get access to the vanguard of garden style. It's certainly a huge change from anything I have experienced before and it inspires me to try ideas out and to create my own interpretations on the themes that I see.

The wreaths created were very different from those I have seen and made before, although I am increasingly noticing some of the elements used in their creation. The wreaths were rustic in look and feel, with feathers, dried as well as fresh foliage and flowers with fairly restrained colours. The table decorations too were restrained in pallete but rich in texture and form.

I personally have a bit of a passion for using found material at the moment. I like the idea that my Christmas wreath will be a reflection of what is going on in the countryside around me.  I would like to create a wreath from birch and old mans beard with perhaps just a few hawthorn berries in it. Time however is ticking and the short days in the garden leave less time for foraging for materials. I will certainly take a lot away from last week's course and the wreath that I create this year will be different because of it.

Words: Steve Lannin

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer

If you would like to join us at Allt-y-bela for a garden course or workshop, find out more about our range of 2016 events by clicking here.

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