Garden diary

A trip to Sussex

As part of our kitchen gardening course we recently visited two very different gardens in Sussex. The first, a private garden with an old walled kitchen garden at its core and which Arne has been involved with for over ten years, and West Dean Gardens, a beautifully restored Victorian vegetable garden.

In their Victorian heyday walled gardens buzzed with industry as all powerful head gardeners manipulated and toiled to produce the earliest, biggest and tastiest food crops for their masters in the great house. These spaces were built when labour was cheap and estates were largely self-sufficient communities, much like the monasteries before them. After the two World Wars, country estates went into decline as death duties took their toll and many great houses were lost and those that remained were run on a much more modest basis. The first world war especially decimated a generation of working men and much of their knowledge was lost with them.

Many of these walled kitchen gardens have survived in various states of repair and while some of them are still used in much the same way as they were originally intended, most of them have either had to adapt to a new purpose or sit idle until a viable use can be found for them.

Our garden visits neatly covered the ways in which we are reusing and reimagining these spaces. West Dean is perhaps the most straight forward. West Dean College is nationally renowned for its craft courses so it is perhaps no surprise to find it home to an outstanding homage to the Victorian kitchen garden.  The rebirth of the kitchen garden has been masterminded by Jim Buckland and Sarah Waine who took the run down remains of a once great walled garden and reimagined how it may have functioned in its heyday. I say reimagined rather than restored because what they have done is not a straight restoration. It is more reminiscent of what a Victorian head gardener might have done with the space if they were around today, so there are concessions for mechanization within the structure for example but also a much greater range of fruit tree pruning on display. Jim has passionately recreated a plethora of fruit tree shapes which have probably never been seen before in England and they alone make West Dean a great place to visit. Sarah has a truly Victorian grasp over glasshouse production, and rattles through facts and figures relating to each crop with intimidating authority. The garden reflects the rigidity and austerity of its original function; I found it hugely impressive yet also slightly sterile.

Our visit to the private house was something entirely different. The house is Queen Anne in style with later additions and is immaculately kept by a great team of gardeners. The garden has a lake, beautiful borders, perfect topiary and a wild flower meadow so superbly balanced in the species on display that it looks slightly unreal. It was the kitchen garden that we were really there to see however. When Arne started designing this garden the walled garden had retained an original bed layout and paths, complete with aged fruit trees lining them. Arne chose to keep all of the original structure and to use it in a new way; where West Dean is a phenomenal recreation of the Victorian kitchen garden this garden is more like the evolution. Because the structure has been retained the space keeps the atmosphere of a kitchen garden without the hard formal efficiency of its Victorian predecessor. Three of the four original beds have been retained for the production of vegetables, fruit and flowers for the house but have been extensively redesigned to include much more structural and material interest while the fourth is a labyrinthine path of tall grasses leading to a small sunken grassed open space. The glass houses and gardeners bothy are all beautifully built and overseen by a head gardener of very rare talent who gardens not only with great efficiency but with a real artist's eye for detail. It really was awe inspiring to experience. His name is Ben Pope and he also writes a blog which I thoroughly recommend. It can be found at 

Both of the gardens have much to be admired but I was really captivated by the private garden. It was a great reminder for me of Arne's great talent for capturing the essence of a place and somehow amplifying its beauty. The gardeners there have every reason to be proud of their efforts. I am hugely grateful that West Dean exists and it offers great inspiration for fruit tree pruning particularly, but I am also glad that the fashion in gardens these days is for softer, more romantic spaces that nurture our sense of well-being even though it is perhaps not as efficient as our Victorian heritage.

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

Photographs: Kristy Ramage


A good year for the roses

Roses are such an integral part of the English garden that it is very difficult to find an angle on which to write about them that hasn't been covered countless times before. Such is our love affair with the rose that it is almost inconceivable there can be a garden in Britain of any real size which is not home to at least a few examples.

Here at Allt-y-bela the roses are a big part of the summer display, furnishing the garden with their colour and filling the hot borders and shady nooks with their wonderful delicate scents. For me, while autumn smells of bonfires and winter of cinnamon and spices, summer smells of roses and there is nothing quite so wonderful as a summer's garden filled with the clean floral scent of the rose.

The trees that tower over the drive at Allt-y-bela are spilling over with Rosa 'Mannington Mauve', R. 'Frances E Lester' and R. 'Kiftsgate', to name but a few. These roses, planted three years ago now, are this year really beginning to take off up into the canopy. In a few years' time the branches will be heavy with the weight of the rose blooms and the petals will cover the drive in a layer of fragrant confetti.

The trees along the stream edge are also overflowing with roses including the glorious Rosa 'Wedding Day', by the steps at the stream crossing, whose blooms open deep primrose yellow before quickly paling to white. It is a simple single flowered rambler which is vigorous enough to climb into the higher reaches of the alder trees by which it has been planted.

In the courtyard by the house the hazel rose domes are adorned with Rosa 'Cardinal de Richelieu', a deep crimson Gallica rose, complimented by the unusual R. 'Louis XIV', with its strong calyx like matt dark purple flowers. Over by the steps to the studio another unusual rose, Rosa chinensis viridiflora, flowers continuously all summer long, its green flowers grabbing your attention just as you really should be concentrating on the steps!

Behind the house the north-facing back wall is quickly being covered by Rosa 'Astra Desmond'; a remarkably strong and healthy rose for a shady wall, little known yet perfect for lighting up a dark corner. Its flowers are an antique off-white and are profuse and long lasting.

Up in the herbaceous beds the rose domes we constructed back in the spring are now invisible, swallowed up by rose blooms. Rosa 'Queen of Denmark', a large blush pink rose with a beautiful heavy soapy scent, benefits hugely from the rose dome structures. The large flowers can pull the stems down causing the over-sized buds to rot in the damp before ever opening. Here they are held upright and the flowers can be seen and appreciated to their potential. Rosa 'Tuscany Superb' is another beneficiary of the domes, as is R. 'William Lobb', a beautiful moss rose and probably the healthiest of its kind, its unusual buds and stems alone make this cultivar worth growing.

The stream, which runs alongside the kitchen garden, drops over a small waterfall at the edge of the herbaceous beds and here, arching over the running water, we find Rosa 'Cecil Brunner', a lovely shell pink rose with a natural arching habit. And completing the picture of a natural rural idyll is the wonderful Rosa 'Paul Smith', magenta pink and hugely floriforous, tumbling in great waves over the herbaceous garden walls onto the driveway.

The roses at Allt-y-bela may have all been chosen and placed with great care, but the effect is a garden that feels very natural.

There are so many beautiful roses here at Allt-y-bela and I really have only named a very few that stand out in my mind when I came to write. It seems that this year is a particularly good one for roses and now is a very good time to enjoy them, especially while we still have this lovely heat!


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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby-Dyer


Much Ado in the Garden Theatre

Last week passed by me in a flash of good food, good people and frantic gardening! After preparing for the courses the week before, last week was spent keeping everything ship shape for the production of Much Ado About Nothing, which took place in the garden theatre on Saturday night. My plan for the week was fairly simple; cut a little topiary, cut the grass and then generally enjoy meeting the many interesting people who come on Arne's courses. But the unexpectedly warm weather, which was preceeded by rain, meant the garden decided now was the time to put on a major growth spurt. Some areas of grass needed cutting twice and the fairly content borders all shot up and then started collapsing all over the place! Best laid plans and all that.....

That said I would have been in a bit of a spin last week anyway trying to make the garden look as lovely as possible for all of the people who were due to visit. When I finally threw in the towel on Friday evening, after my fuel supply ran completely dry, I felt the garden looked as good as it possibly could have. I could relax and enjoy the garden on Saturday night.

The forecast for Saturday was worrying; heavy rain was due to pulse through late morning before drying up and being fairly mild by the late afternoon and into the evening. Last year we had almost perfect weather but I have heard tales of previous years when the rain was so heavy that the actors, sheltered by umbrellas, were almost inaudible! Although there is obviously nothing you can do about the weather, I would have been bitterly disappointed if rain had spoiled guests' experience of the garden this year.

I was sitting in my kitchen (drinking tea) when the rain started around lunch time. It was bouncing heavily off of the paths outside, making a tremendous racket. Shortly afterwards a friend of mine arrived from across the border feeling a little pessimistic about the chances of a warm evening. By mid afternoon the rain had cleared but waves of deep, heavy rain-leaden clouds passed by over head. By the time we were ready to leave it was still rather dull but had warmed up considerably; the sort of savage, quick heat that builds before thunder!

Arriving at Allt-y-bela it was obvious that the rain there had been intense, but it was dry and people were arriving en mass with folding chairs, picnics, blankets and that typical British optimism that causes us, as a nation, to put on and to attend outdoor events despite our famously changeable climate!

I really needn't have worried, the weather was perfectly behaved; the rain had refreshed the garden and the evening was milder than last year. The production, set against the barn wall in the fading evening mid-summer light, was magical and as the sun finally set over the house, the play drew to a perfectly timed close.

Lying back in the grass on the top of the theatre banks was a truly lovely conclusion to my first year in this unique garden.

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

Photographs: Britt Willloughby Dyer

The play was performed by The Willow Globe Company. 


One year on...

I always find there is a moment in early June when you realize that somehow, without really being able to understand how, you are getting behind in the garden. Luckily over the years I have learned to recognize and accept this momentary panic and to take the necessary steps to correct it - this usually entails dashing about like a headless chicken pulling weeds as if your life depended on it.

It was on Tuesday as I was sitting at the kitchen table having a dubiously earned cup of tea with Pat, the frankly irreplaceable housekeeper, when she dropped into conversation the state of play for the next week or so. It looked something like this: A tour for the professional Gardeners' Guild on Friday, Arne's courses next Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and then our annual summer production in the garden theatre on Saturday. All of a sudden my calm demeanor disappeared and the familiar feelings of barely concealed panic returned with a vengeance. I knew that all of this was coming of course; I just hadn't realised how close it all was!

Arne usually condenses his main courses into a couple of weeks around mid summer and around the time of the play and it is during these few weeks that the garden is seen by the most people. Consequently it becomes the most important time of the year in the garden at Allt-y-bela. This year it is all condensed down into one week with a garnish of professional gardeners -eek!

It was this time last year that I was packing my final boxes and moving to Usk to start work here. I finished my previous job on the Friday, spent a couple of busy days moving furniture and boxes in cars to start work on the Monday, again one of the busiest weeks of the year. Last year however all of the hard work had been done before I started and although those first few weeks were a whirlwind of people, courses, information and gardening, the foundations had been well laid for the transition. I was then, and am now, very grateful that they were!

So here I am, one year on and what can I say? I love the garden more today than I did the day I started. I certainly understand the way it all works a lot more clearly, and I definitely feel much more settled. Moving jobs is a stressful time and starting a gardening job in mid summer is certainly not for the faint hearted. I feel like I know the basics now and hopefully I will have many more years here to perfect what I have learned and to learn more as the garden changes and develops.

Back in the here and now and it's Friday afternoon. I'm feeling much more positive about the garden; most things are in their rightful places and the parts that need the most attention are the least visible. (There is always Monday to sort out those areas!) The group of gardeners came this morning and were incredibly supportive and seemed to be genuinely enchanted by the garden. Next week I will start cutting the box topiary while Arne leads his courses, it's the part of the job I love the most and the gentle clacking of shears shouldn't be too distracting for those who have come to share a little of Arne's wisdom and some of the magic of Allt-y-bela. I look forward to meeting those of you who are attending.

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

Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer


We still have a few tickets left for the production of William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, to be performed in the Garden Theatre at Allt-y-bela on Saturday 20 June. Bring a picnic and enjoy the garden before the play starts at 7pm.

Click here for details.


Grass in all its glory

I've set myself a task this week. It would be very easy to keep writing weekly diaries on subjects I know well, but sometimes it's good to force yourself outside of your comfort zone and try something a little different. Every year at about this time I marvel at the unsung beauty of our native grasses in flower. Even a gardener like myself, who in their career has had relatively little to do with grasses, would be hard pressed not to appreciate the diversity of wild grasses that can be found in and around our gardens.

I set out this morning, trug in hand, with an aim to see how many individual grass species in flower at the moment I could find. My hope was to manage six. I would expect there to be dozens of grass species present in the garden here but as my very first grass collecting adventure I set my sights at a fairly achieveable level.

The garden at Allt-y-bela boasts a range of habitats to suit different species, with areas of damp shade to fairly dry sun and as I went about the garden I certainly noticed the difference both in species and in the relative vigour of those species. In the bulb lawn for example there were a surprising diversity of species but they were all less vigorous than in other parts of the garden. Up on the common, where we have been heavily sowing yellow rattle to reduce the vigor of the grass there, the difference was even more stark with some species looking really very sad indeed.

The best spot in the whole garden seemed to be the first bank in the earth works which rises up to the kitchen garden on the north side of the house; the slope itself is fairly dry and south facing without too much yellow rattle. I was going to mow it short a couple of weeks ago but other jobs have prevented me from getting to it - I'm so glad I haven't managed it yet!

So how many species did I find? I think I found 14 species which were sufficiently different for me to attempt to identify them. With my grasses laid out on the studio table I hit the internet with gusto but I quickly realized that to correctly identify grasses you really need to be able to study the structures in detail and the relatively low quality pictures weren't going to be much use. I've been a bit of a fan of botanical drawing and painting for some years now to the extent that I've recently picked up the paintbrush and started to have a go myself and so I invested in a book on native grasses of the British Isles and waited somewhat impatiently for it to arrive. The consequence being that I missed my usual garden diary deadline, I hope you can forgive me! To make matters worse I have failed to come up with a list of species that I'm confident enough to publish.

My experiment has been a success I think, not because I now know the range of grass species in the garden (in fact I am possibly less confident now that I know what I have), but rather that I have been inspired to find out more and to look more closely at the green element of our gardens that we perhaps take the most for granted.

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

Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer