Garden diary

Enter: The Dahlia


One of the many wonderful things about having a garden is being able to pop outside and cut a few flowers for the house. Whether you choose to pick wild flowers and grasses, astrantia or phlox from the borders or specially grown beauties like sweet peas, there are few things that brighten up a home more than flowers.

At Allt-y-bela the picking usually starts with wild narcissi in early spring, followed by tulips and then wild flowers and stems from the herbaceous borders, before moving on to sweet peas, chosen here for their scent as well as their colour. But now it is the turn of the dahlia to take centre stage.

This year has been a great year for the dahlias at Allt-y-bela; the plants have been stronger and taller and more floriferous than last year. The flowers have also been bigger and their colours truer. Amongst the many dahlias in the garden Dahlia 'Vancouver' has become a firm favourite of mine. It has a cactus type flower with an opulent purple edge, which fades towards the centre. It really looks stunning as a single specimen in a vase. Arne has a particular weakness for Dahlia 'Naples' which is a very sophisticated flower; double but very neat and sculptural, it is a kind of antique white, rare and special, it's definitely one for the connoisseur.

In the kitchen garden are two small beds which are devoted to cutting flowers, in the spring they are packed with hundreds of tulips which go to brightening the various rooms in the house and at this time of year they are full not only of dahlias but also sweet peas, cosmos and gladioli. This year as something of a departure from the norm we have grown vegetables including sweetcorn, peppers and squash, as well as edible flowers such as calendula and nasturtiums, amongst the cutting flowers.

As ever though nothing stands still at Allt-y-bela and this year we have used one of the beds in which we grew potatoes to trial some new dahlias. We have three new varieties; D. 'Veronne's Obsidian', D. 'Glorie van Noordwijk' and D. 'Classic Swan Lake'. The latter is a dark leafed, dark stemmed variety with creamy semi double flowers while D. 'Veronne's Obsidian' has unusual, almost black, pinwheel flowers that are very unique. D. 'Glorie van Noordwijk' is perhaps a tone lighter than the colour of the house at Allt-y-bela and I can immediately see its appeal. Its flowers are cactus type, strong and bright with just a hint of translucence.

Each of these new additions has something out of the ordinary to offer. The nice thing is that none of them would have been my choice, I'm much less brave when it comes to experimenting with strong colours and unusual forms, but I certainly wouldn't rule out my writing in a year or two's time of my complete addiction to any one of them. Innovation requires risk and whilst Arne continues to innovate my horizons continue to broaden.

Words: Steve Lannin

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Effortless order


I was once told that the mark of a truly great gardener is the ability to leave no trace of their having been there at all. Good gardening should look effortless. This is both a blessing and a curse; on the one hand you have a garden with continuity which evolves through the seasons without there appearing to be any major upheaval, on the other hand this can be misinterpreted as overstaffing. I've seen this happen many times and it's very sad.

Gardening is often quite messy and challenging physically but there are few greater pleasures than showing people around a garden, which has been thoroughly prepared to look spontaneous and unprepared!

There are broadly three types of jobs in the garden; those which entail a huge amount of work but look as if you have done very little, those in which you do very little but it looks as if you have done a lot, and those in which you do a lot and it shows! I suppose I could add those where you do little and it shows, but we won't go into that!

Possibly the most obvious example of jobs where a little effort goes a long way is lawn mowing. Borders might be well prepared, flowers dead headed and pots in perfect condition, but a tatty looking lawn will spoil everything. At Sudeley Castle there is a lawn which is full of lumps and bumps, the evidence of former gardens and buildings, where a close cut and neat stripe utterly transforms it into a piece of English garden perfection! Arne would quite possibly despair of me if he came home to find stripes in the lawn at Allt-y-bela - it really isn't that kind of garden - but the point holds just the same.

The pleached crab apples around the courtyard at Allt-y-bela have been looking a bit wayward for some time now; every time I go to take a picture for Instagram or Twitter I just can't bring myself to post it. The new vertical growth has obscured the delicate horizontals which frame the house front and have turned the thin veil across the façade into a virtual wall of green. The crab apples are pruned in much the same way as our eating apples using the modified Lorrette system, which calls for the new growth to be cut back to four or five buds above the basal rosette. It's important not to do this too early because if you do you will get a second flush of new growth from the point just below the cut. The idea of cutting it now is that it is too late in the season for the tree to put lots of energy into new vegetative growth and so its redirects that energy into the fruit. 

What this all means in practice is a lovely sunny day, enjoying the clacking sound of your secateurs shortening the new growth. At the end of the day you end up with a barrow load of clippings and one very neat façade. Combine that with a little mowing and you have a very smart looking house for comparatively little effort!    

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Cottage garden musings

The cottage garden at Allt-y-bela consists of a mixture of roses, fruit and herbaceous planting. In the winter it is dominated by a large domed beech topiary which stands as a sentinel at the end furthest from the house and is reflected by the naked rose domes. The little cobbled paths, made from river stones Arne collected from the stream, form ribbons of blue grey to frame the panels of planting which in summer are so profuse as to hide them entirely. In the centre is an apple tree beautifully trained into a goblet shape whose limbs spiral up crossing each other as they do so.

The cottage garden has undergone a subtle and beautiful change over the last couple of months. Back in June the borders were dominated by roses with Astrantia, Aquilegia, Allium and Geranium playing the supporting roles. The colours were rich and often dark giving the garden an opulent, exuberant feel, somehow reflecting the energy of the period that leads up to midsummer.

A little over six weeks later and the garden has softened, the colours are a little more gentle and the pallet of plants has evolved too. Where the wine red Astrantia 'Claret' and almost black Centurea montana 'Jordy' once reigned, now light pink phlox has emerged raising itself above the foliage of the plants below gently swaying and moving in the warmth of the August afternoon.

The purple red flowers of Origanum laevigatum 'Rosenkuppel' creep through the undergrowth frequently spilling out over the cobbles, while light pink Nepeta grandiflora 'Dawn to Dusk' and Salvia turkistanica light corners with delicate flowers. Digitalis parviflora adds a strong vertical dimension to the borders drawing the eye back up just as the Veronicastrum did before it. Occasional flourishes of Sanguisorba lend offbeat notes to the composition, breaking the neat verticals with their unruly deep red blooms. Most majestic of all though is the beautiful angel's fishing rods, Dierama 'Merlin'. Their strong strappy arching leaves manage to be both architectural and graceful, and with a profusion of bowing flowering stems, each hung with delicate but rich purple papery fishes, I can think of few finer plants.

The cottage garden is really quite a modest space, even by Allt-y-bela standards. Most people who have a garden will have a larger space than this taken up by this type of plant.  What Arne has managed to do within it is really very special. The garden manages to reflect the changing seasons, right throughout the year, through its clever choice of plants. It manages to successfully navigate the transitions without ever showing gaps. The plants are absolutely shoehorned in and marshalled ruthlessly; if something doesn't work hard enough to keep its place then it is replaced, there is little room for sentimentality.

Allt-y-bela, with its modest spaces, is the perfect canvas for Arne to trial his ideas. The ones which work will find their way out into the wider world and those that don't, well they are just an important step along the road to perfection.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer



A new book: The Gardens of Arne Maynard

Gardening for Arne has allowed me a glimpse into the workings of a major garden design business and I have found it fascinating. Arne has enormous amounts of energy and ideas spark from him like an electric current; it's deeply impressive and can be a little intimidating. Arne's team of designers, plants people and project managers systematically turn his inspiration and ideas into reality. It's all done with such efficiency that you can easily forget the complex precision that each project requires.

On arriving at Allt-y-bela just over a year ago I began to hear individual projects being discussed by Arne and the team. Names including Kingsmead Mill, Bowling Green and Haddon Hall were regularly mentioned, along with a whole host of others; I was impatient to hear about them all and perhaps visit some along the way!

The other great work which has been progressing alongside all of Arne's current projects has been his new book. That too has been fascinating to watch develop and catch little snapshots of the process.

The Gardens of Arne Maynard features a choice selection of Arne's most mature projects and explains how he has designed, built and then maintained them. It takes you from the client brief through Arne's design process to completion and beyond with achingly beautiful photography showing the gardens not just at their peak in midsummer but throughout the seasons. The book perfectly illustrates how the different design elements work through the year and because Arne has purposefully avoided editing out deadheads and misplaced tools, it is a celebration of gardens as they truly are and how we actually experience and garden them.

In addition to the main garden chapters are subchapters of garden essentials; these are elements that have become signatures in Arne's gardens and include kitchen gardens, roses, topiary and craftsmanship. These subchapters give the book a truly authentic feel.

I have watched this book progress since I started gardening here. As with any book, it has been a labour of love and one which has taken a whole team of people to produce. One of the most exciting times I can remember was seeing the studio table, which is a good 14 feet long, covered in photographs for Arne to sort though and decide which ones to use in the book. I remember the weather was horrible - a true mid-winter day - but the studio was warm, light and alive with activity. I couldn't help but come in to enjoy watching the process and to shelter from the dull, cold garden.

Another day that sticks in my mind was when the cover photograph was being chosen. With such wonderful photography throughout the book it was difficult enough to whittle it down to a choice of three, let alone choose a final image. It was a privilege to hear and to be a very minor part of the discussions.

The garden at Allt-y-bela is featured in the new book and my great hope was that some of the pictures of the garden would have been taken during my time gardening here. I'm thrilled to say that there are quite a few! As a gardener there is nothing that gives me greater satisfaction than seeing my work really appreciated and there cannot be a greater reward than having your work featured in such a beautiful book!

The first advance copies of the new book arrived here a week or so ago and I can't tell you how excited we all were to finally see it. I'm pleased to report that it is every bit a gorgeous as we all hoped it would be. With its release day set for September 10th I have to admit to having put my name down for four copies! They aren't all for me! It's worth noting that if you order them through Arne's website they will be signed by Arne and will include an exclusive bookmark. Something tells me he is going to be spending an awful lot of time signing books this autumn!

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

Photographs: Britt Dyer and William Collinson

You can pre-order signed copies of the book here (UK orders only).

The book will be published by Merrell on 10 September 2015 and will be widely available in the UK, USA and Canada.



Growth and clippings


One of the wonderful things about being a gardener is that you grow and change with the garden over the years. As your understanding deepens and your technique improves you are able to focus your energy on the details which define the garden in which you work. It is these details that will eventually become the hallmarks of your work.

Working at Allt-y-bela has acted as a supercharger on this process. Arne is hugely inspiring to work with and has set off a real explosion of creativity in me; some of my ideas have worked better than I could have hoped, while others have not had quite the desired effect, but they are all steps along the road to defining my gardening practice.

One of the areas of gardening which I feel define me as a gardener is my topiary; I love cutting topiary. The best lessons I had came from watching another gardener cut very tall, complex topiary while I acted as ballast on the elaborately constructed frame which was used to access the hedge. I loved seeing how he used the tool in various ways while moving around very little. This contrasted hugely to my constant dashing about, frenzied technique that left me exhausted each day. I might not have learned to cut in quite such a calm and dignified manner, but I did learn some important lessons in mechanical economy.

When I started here at Allt-y-bela I inherited a pair of point nosed hedging shears which had been used to cut a lot of the topiary. Beech hedges in particularly benefit from being cut by shears as a hedge cutter tears the leaves to sheds and results in a tatty finish. Having never cut beech topiary and never really used shears except for a little box clipping I was nervous about having to produce the quality of finish that Arne would expect, using a technique and practice completely different from anything I had done before. Last year I got by, I cut mostly with a hedge cutter to achieve the lines and tidied up with shears. The results were ok.

This year I reached for my trusty hedge cutter to start to cut the yew topiaries only to have it break down after a couple of minutes.  Still in the hedging mood I decided to cut some of the beech with shears and this year it felt much more natural, in fact I rather enjoyed it. The clacking of shears is certainly more relaxing than the deafening whine of a petrol hedge cutter. I'm not a convert yet by any means, but my range of techniques is expanding and my preferences are changing because of it.

Growth is not something that is confined to the plants in the garden; in helping gardens to grow, gardens help us to grow also.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby-Dyer