Garden diary

Autumn border changes

Arne's garden at Allt-y-bela is a testing ground for his ideas and because of this he often chooses plants and combinations that are outside his usual palette. This year has been a transitional one, where new ideas have been mingled with established planting and augmented by some trial plants.

Some of the new additions have been fantastic, some fit into the established palette and some very definitely do not; others are great in isolation but placed together seem to drag the whole scheme down. At the end of last week we went through the cottage garden and the cutting flowers in the kitchen garden to decide what to keep and what to let go. I really loved Arne's approach to this; we went through the flowers and picked a bunch of them choosing those that complimented each other, leaving those that didn't work. At the end of the process we had two really beautiful bouquets, one which will form the basis of the planting in the cottage garden, and the other which will become the scheme for the cutting garden next year. What particularly struck me was that the difference between one plant working within the group or not was often incredibly small; half a shade of difference in colour or the wrong coloured stem or leaf determined its place in the bunch. Sometimes it's really hard to explain why you think something doesn't quite work, although visually it is undeniable.

Going through the flowers for me really demonstrates why you have to experiment with plants; some of those which really should have worked together just didn't, and though some plants taken individually may appear to be slightly lacking in personality, when brought together their character really shone through, sometimes in unexpected ways.

I love the idea of being able to walk through a part of your garden and being able to pick a vase of flowers which all work together. Allt-y-bela is really good for that in early to mid summer but later in the summer it all starts to feel a little busy and you have to be more selective. I'm really excited that next year the cottage garden will have a personality that develops and subtly changes through the summer and that at this time of year we will have two really exciting schemes to enjoy.

Today we have taken the next step and marked what is staying and what is going. We have been putting off starting to cut anything back until we had everything marked that we wanted and now we can start to get things sorted out.

I know that you shouldn't wish your life away but I really can't wait to see what a difference the planned changes will have.

Words: Steve Lannin

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Mists and fruitfulness


There is a fine low mist hanging over Allt-y-bela this morning in stark contrast to yesterday afternoon when the garden was bathed in sunshine and if you didn't look to closely you could almost be persuaded that it was still summer. The rich ochre of the house stands like a beacon in the chilly morning air. It's mornings like this that remind me why houses were traditionally painted in bright colours as warmth seems to radiate out from its very walls.

It's hard to experience autumn without being reminded that this really is the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. The apple trees in the Allt-y-bela orchard have started to produce good fruit this year despite their youth. This week saw us harvesting some of the trees and our apple rack is already full. We have yet to harvest the step over apples in the kitchen garden, the goblet trained tree in the cottage garden and the trees in the meadow and lawn behind the house. It looks like a great year and it's exciting to think that we are only just starting to see the potential of the trees we have.

One of the really heartening signs of our new-found appreciation for local and British produce is the spread of Apple Days. It seems there isn't a corner of Great Britain that won't have at least one apple day over the next few weeks and I was really pleased to see that we have one very close to us at Allt-y-bela.

Our renewed collective interest in local produce and our shared local heritage give me hope that the destruction of our traditional orchards may finally be over and that the appreciation for what we have left will lead not only to the protection of our ancient orchards, but to a full scale replanting fit for our 21st century needs. Our plans at Allt-y-bela reflect the heritage of this part of Monmouthshire and last year we started planting traditional Perry varieties of pear, which were traditionally grown in this area and thrive in the damp conditions.

Autumn is the final reminder of the year that the garden at Allt-y-bela is designed to be productive as well as beautiful and the closer you look into the garden the more you find that every little opportunity has been used to make space for fruit. The fruit and vegetables that are grown here are all used; gluts are quickly turned into jams, chutneys and juice. There is something very satisfying in knowing that those tomatoes that never ripened, or those damaged apples that fell to earth a little hard, will all be used and appreciated.

As the leaves change colour and the frosts start to bite, having that gooseberry jam is a great way to remind yourself of those heady days of summer when the fruit hung heavy on the branches and your main concern was keeping the squirrels off of them until they were ripe!

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Information about the apple storage chest can be found here.


An October walkabout


There is no disguising the fact that autumn is upon us. I know it's a cliché but I really can't believe how fast the season has gone. I've hugely enjoyed this summer too. Whereas last summer I was scrapping around trying to find my feet, I've been able to enjoy this one far more. Autumn has started to touch the tops of the trees and the warm weather of last week was tempered by biting cold mornings.

Because Allt-y-bela is tucked into the bottom of its own little valley, the sun in the autumn casts long shadows and the light falls in shafts through the trees illuminating individual plants as if a spotlight has been shone on them. On the drive the beech and hawthorn topiary shine out, their tight clipped forms stark against the approaching dusk.

Around the garden there are plenty of plants in flower. The roses in particular are making a fantastic late show this year, and the light is so much kinder after the harsh light of June. The colours and forms, often with morning dew, now seem even more sumptuous and special partly due to the light but also because they have much less competing with them for our attention. Rosa 'Sir Paul Smith' which tumbles over the wall of the cottage garden is spilling a few choice late blooms tantalizingly at nose height from the drive edge, whilst the 'Generous Gardener' continues to live up to its name sending up cluster after cluster of delicate pink flowers.

Autumn is also a great moment for Japanese anemones and we have a couple of particularly beautiful varieties in the garden at Allt-y-bela. Anemone hybrida 'Wild Swan' is a lovely white flower with a pink blush on the back while Anemone hybrida 'Andrea Atkinson' is pure white and planted down by the stream looks beautiful in the evening light.

Over the last year or so we have been adding to the asters in the garden creating some much need late season colour and a few of our new selections have really shone out this autumn. Aster novae-angliae 'Herbstschnee' meaning autumn snow has been a really fantastic addition to the developing border outside the courtyard. With its strong tight habit and profusion of flowers it has defined the look of the front of the house over the past month.

Aster ericoides 'Pink Cloud' has been a lovely light addition to the cottage garden; its habit and colour provide delicate interest in a part of the garden that is dominated now by seed heads and bronzing foliage. Aster novi-belgii 'Fellowship' on the other hand is bright and vibrant purple and lifts the beds outside of the kitchen garden, currently dominated by dahlias.

I am a huge fan of autumn, partly perhaps because the garden is slowing down and I get more time to appreciate it. But mainly I think because the flowers at this time of year seem all the more special. As gardeners we know it won't be long before winter clears away most of the colour again until spring.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Reaping the rewards


Last week saw the very last day of our organic kitchen garden course which has been running right through the growing season and based in the kitchen garden at Allt-y-bela. It was with mixed emotions that we faced that last day; on the one hand it is a great relief for me to no longer have the monthly scrutiny of a very professional grower in the course leader James Clapp, who is currently head grower for Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quatre Saisons in Oxfordshire, along with a group of very talented course participants. On the other hand I was genuinely very sad to say goodbye to the many good friends I have made over the past 8 months. The insight they have had into the garden and especially into the kitchen garden is a very personal one, and they have shared the ups and downs that I have experienced in my first year of vegetable growing. Without exception I have received huge support and encouragement, which have certainly helped sustain me when things have gone wrong.

When the greenhouse arrived a few months ago it was like welcoming an old friend who has come to help you out of a tight corner. I have grown quite a lot in greenhouses over the years - although no vegetables I have to admit! The key with keeping a greenhouse healthy seems to be controlling the temperature and humidity. In practice this usually simply comes down to knowing when and how to ventilate. Because our little greenhouse is relatively sheltered and the summer so gloomy there was never really a need to shade to keep the temperature down so that simplified things further.

By the time the greenhouse was installed it was getting rather late and so more by optimism and hope than any great expectation we filled it to bursting point with tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. The young plants very soon got underway and before I knew it I was twining the stems of the cucumbers ever higher up makeshift string supports towards the apex of the greenhouse roof. We tried two varieties, one of which was Melen, an F1 variety that produced abundant really tasty fruit for months on end, and another White Wonder, a light skinned, oval shaped cucumber which produced huge amounts of bitter and almost inedible fruit!

The tomatoes too were a mixed bunch, we trialled 12 varieties in all, of different shapes, sizes, colours and flavours; all have produced good fruit but some have certainly been tastier than others. My personal favourite was Vialli, a lovely cherry tomato with a balance of flavor I find just divine. As for the peppers, well they are steadily ripening and this little spell of dry warm weather will do them the world of good I'm sure. There is again a real mixture of varieties and I'm hopeful that I will be able to report success in some cases at least.

My little greenhouse has definitely been my piece of comfort in a part of the garden where I feel that I am still struggling to find a real connection. That said there have been some successes, we have had more salad than we could possibly eat, the broad beans and potatoes were really very good and the brassicas have survived the cabbage white onslaught miraculously unscathed. I have also managed to double crop on a decent number of the beds, which for a first attempt isn't at all bad.

I'm not sure yet if we will run another vegetable garden course next year. I've certainly learned a huge amount from this one. Despite the horrors of having your work critically appraised in front of a group I have no doubt that without James and the many friends that I made on the course the garden would look and certainly feel much poorer.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Creating a sense of place


One of the things I love about Arne's gardens is that they all exude a sense of belonging to their landscape. Whether modern or traditional, English, European or American there is a sensitivity and depth to the design which allows it to sit comfortably within its surroundings. Having worked with Arne for a little while now I have picked up breadcrumbs of wisdom about how this might be achieved but when I was offered the chance to sit in on Arne's three day course on creating gardens with a sense of place, I naturally jumped at the chance!

I won't try to condense three days of learning into a few short paragraphs because it would be utterly impossible. What I was struck by though is the extent to which Arne routinely goes to understand the landscape, the clients and the site in order to achieve a successful garden. It goes way beyond making sure that the materiality of the garden is right and that the history is respected. Arne studies his clients and their home; motifs and patterns which occur within the historic fabric of the house may well end up being used as inspiration for garden elements. A treasured possession, a family relic, a much loved painting may be the inspiration for a border's colour scheme. The end result is personal to the client, to the house and to the wider landscape.

Arne creates gardens that are uniquely personal to his clients. To emphasize just how important this is to a successful garden design, he took us to two very different homes; one where a garden has been created and one where the delicate nature of the site, which is epitomised by the house itself, makes creating a garden incredibly challenging.

Our first stop was Llowes Court near Hay on Wye. At first glance everything is much as you might expect; it is a lovely Welsh manor house painted in saffron yellow with well tended barns and a meadow. But something totally unexpected lurks just below the surface of this garden. The first clue was meeting Sue, Llowes Court's rather magnificent owner and creator of the gardens there. She is charming and direct with a glint in her eye that at once leaves you in little doubt that you are in for a treat.

"Where do you want to go first?" she asks Arne, "The mineral pavilion? The birds nest? The Grotto?" Her invitation is like a grandmother offering you sweets when your mother's back is turned. We looked at each other and grinned and leaving our expectations at the gate we happily fall in behind her. I don't really want to describe the garden to you; it's one that needs to be experienced. It is magical though, it is like being transported back to childhood. It's fun, it's confusing, it's totally beguiling but there is an undercurrent of wisdom to it, it's not at all silly nor throw away. The design is considered, modulated and worldly. It is masterful, fearless and energetic. The garden is a reflection of Sue herself and I can't think of a higher compliment for it.

Our second stop was Ciliau, a Welsh farmhouse perched high in the Brecon beacons. On arriving at its gate you drive up a steep and rutted track and are greeted by the back side of some very utilitarian looking tin roofed barns. Pallets of roof tiles and pieces of architectural stone lay stroon about and my first impression was of having arrived at an abandoned farm. On closer inspection though you notice that the gate posts are rough hewn from great gnarled tree trunks and that there are some signs of life.

Nothing quite prepared me for what I found when I rounded the corner into the courtyard of the farm itself. It struck me as something that had been carefully arranged for a painting or perhaps a film set for a period drama. Three wild looking horses, positioned centrally in the yard, looked languidly across at us while a pair of geese eyed us suspiciously from the doorstep. The old house looked in just the correct shade of decay and an old Victorian table sat abandoned in the corner. In places the bedrock jutted straight out of the ground and the land rose slightly towards the house, which lay at just the right distance to allow you to properly drink in the scene. The word bucolic was probably coined for Ciliau.

The house's current tenant is Roger Capps, a renowned master builder, who quietly takes us through the history of the house, most of which I miss as first the cat, and then the horses, seemed to take an unnatural interest in me, first sniffing, then nibbling at my hair. From what I gathered though the house was given its last major tart up in 1590, it has miraculously survived major development ever since. It still has no heating and no bathroom in the house so Roger has built a wonderful bathhouse in the garden. It gets so cold in the winter that Roger has been known to find his house guests asleep on the heated bathhouse floor in the morning. It's a hard life living at Ciliau, which is the only property in the UK to be designated a SSI due to its colony of lesser horseshoe bats that share the house. Roger is a great custodian for Ciliau; he has spent a lifetime working on some of our most treasured buildings. The house is rich with wall paintings and layers of colour. History drips off the very walls. It is beautiful and fragile and in better hands than it could wish for.

I think what I learned most from the course is perhaps what I have learned most from gardening; there are no shortcuts. If you want a garden to be right then you have to be prepared to really work. Gardens reflect people and their interactions with the landscape and both have to work together to create something which lasts. Arne's great skill is at least partly his sensitivity, and then there is his creativity and the ability to bring the elements together. In many ways though the creation or reinvention of a garden is just the beginning of a long-term relationship.

Words and photographs: Steve Lannin


Arne runs a series of garden courses from his home in Monmouthshire each year.

Arne's new book, The Gardens of Arne Maynard, is available to purchase now. Buy signed copies directly from us here or visit your local bookshop.