Garden diary

Chelsea: a first time for everything


May is a frenetic time in any garden. I think that I probably find it one of the most exciting as well; the rose buds are swelling and all over the garden plants are growing at the fastest rate that they will all year. All of this abundant growth comes with some problems for the gardener; all of a sudden you are faced with a seemingly endless list of time-critical jobs which you must somehow navigate your way through in order to surf the wave of growth.

When Arne first invited me to the Chelsea Flower Show I was understandably excited but as the date got nearer I started to grow slightly uneasy about the prospect of taking time out at this most critical of moments. In fact, the Friday before Chelsea I was very close to phoning Arne to tell him that although I would love to go, I just couldn't spare the time. Luckily though I held my nerve and set off for the capital last Monday afternoon.

For a country chap like myself, arriving in London is always something of a jolt to the system. I love to visit cities when I do get away from the garden, the vibrancy and pace of life is so very different to that which I am used to.

I was lucky enough to be able to arrive at the showground at 7am on Tuesday morning, a full hour before the gates opened and to have a tour around some of the highlights before the crowds arrived. I was also lucky enough to witness some of the reactions from the garden designers, exhibitors and garden builders to their medal awards; it was a timely reminder of the love and effort that goes into the spectacle that is the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

It is such a difficult task to sum up a show like the Chelsea in a few short paragraphs; there were things that I loved, there were things that weren't really me and there was everything conceivable in between. I suppose the one thing theme that ran through the whole show was one of optimism. Chelsea felt like a carnival of horticulture, where everyone could find something to inspire them.

I was amazed by the floral marquee; there is such a wealth of things on display; from floral art, to plant societies and nurseries specializing in almost everything imaginable. Personally, the stand out displays were the Cedric Morris iris which have been lovingly collected by Sarah Cook, and Simon Lockyer's perfectly presented auriculas. I spent many happy hours photographing interesting and unusual plants that I thought Arne might like.

Outside in the show gardens was perhaps where I felt most at home and I was charmed by the artisan gardens, especially the Sculptor's Picnic Garden by Graham Bodle with its strange, yet majestic gnarled arbour. The Trugmaker's Garden by Serena Fremantle and Tina Vallis was another favourite for its relaxed cottage garden planting and its highlighting of an almost forgotten traditional British industry. The Breast Cancer Haven Garden was brought together by some fantastic willow sculptures inspired by nests and contained a beautiful oak leaf shaped sculpture.

The Fresh Gardens were mixed and variously challenging, although I felt drawn to the more traditional planting in gardens like the Breakthrough Breast Cancer Garden. It was refreshing to see a wealth of concepts conveyed through the use of different plants and materials. For me the stand out garden was the Dark Matter Garden; I loved the way it attempted to make sense of the movement of dark matter through sculpture and planting.

The main show gardens were for me dominated by two stand out designs; Dan Pearson's Chatsworth Garden for Laurent-Perrier and James Basson's Perfumers Garden in Grasse for L'Occitaine. I was very aware of the hype surrounding Dan's garden before I viewed it but I was totally blown away by the detail and the frankly flawless presentation. It was jaw-droppingly impressive. James Basson's garden had many parallels with Dan's; it was perfectly put together and felt very much like a garden that had sat in the same spot for many years. They both in different ways showcased a less formal approach to planting; Dan's garden being wild yet somehow pristine and James's garden feeling lived in and real. I desperately wanted to sit down with a glass of wine in James's slice of rural France.

There were some really innovative ideas on display amongst the other show gardens including the Rich Brothers from just down the road in Brecon, who used a moveable shack and fold-out furniture and art to give their garden a really youthful dynamism. I also loved Charlie Albone's water feature in his garden The Time Inbetween which symbolized the sudden loss of his father through the sudden draining of a pool. It was one of those things that you have to see to really appreciate. The anticipation of waiting for the pool to fill, followed by the sudden and dramatic loss of water was really quite affecting.

It's been nearly a week since my day at Chelsea; I spent 13 hours at the show and came away feeling a little overwhelmed. There were other great show gardens and a multitude of floral displays that will stay with me for a very long time but it's Dan's garden, which has given me the most food for thought.

The over-riding feeling though has been one of huge respect for all of the people who make the RHS Chelsea Flower Show what it is; the most prestigious horticultural show in the world. Busy or not I'm going to be making sure that I make time to pay homage to Chelsea and all that in exemplifies a little more regularly in future.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby-Dyer


Leaves spring forth


The last few weeks have seen massive change in the garden just as there has been across the country. Fresh green leaves have clothed the garden's structure once more, bringing with them a greater sense of intimacy. On the driveway the brilliant tulips are mostly finished, replaced now by the self-sown bluebells. Seeing the ranks of new flowers each day makes it feel like the bluebells are spreading before our very eyes. The bluebells have been joined this year by a carpet of yellow archangel (Lamium galeobdolon), the vibrancy of the pairing is just dazzling. Up in the nuttery the archangel is dominant putting on a display the likes of which neither myself or Arne has ever seen before.


In the trees above something exciting is happening; Arne has been planting roses into the trees here for the past few years but over the last 12 months they have picked up and really gone for it, winding their way up through the branches in search of light. Rosa 'Madame Alfred Carriere', a beautiful white climber with a pink blush, has just opened her first flower of the year offering a tantalising taste of the beauty to come. Arne wants the trees hung with roses and not just smaller flowered rambling types, but full flowered scented roses will hang over the entranceway in years to come, dropping petals like confetti over the wild flower strewn drive.


Over the last few weeks the beech topiary and spiral have been shedding last year's leaves, adding a slightly jarring autumnal note to the early summer scene. They have now been replaced by fresh green or wine red new leaves. It always surprises me at this time of year just how fast the change can take place, from barren winter tree to lush, fresh and green, seemingly overnight!


Behind the house the service tree (Sorbus torminalis) is flowering for the very first time. This once abundant tree is now relatively rare, the fruits, known as chequers were used to flavour beer before the introduction of hops. The service tree now sits at the edge of the garden near to perry cider pear trees which would undoubtedly have been grown around the house in centuries past.


As I write I am moving quickly through the garden, past the kitchen garden in which the vegetables, warmed by the recent sun and encouraged by the extending day length, are beginning to grow well. And also past the Primula auricula theatre, in which the auriculas are rewarding us for the time spent re-potting them last year by giving us the best flowering display in years: I couldn't be more pleased with them.


It's up in the herbaceous beds where the changes are really noticeable. We had a huge clear out of alliums earlier in the year as they had started to take over and smother the other plants. The ones we have left are looking fantastic and are just about to break their buds, and it looks like we've got the balance just about right! Elsewhere in the beds the peonies are looking magnificent in flower; Paeonia mlokosewitschii, better known as 'molly the witch' is looking particularly good. They are joined in flower by Aquilegia, Astrantia, Geranium pheum, Centurea 'Jordy' and Anthriscus 'Ravenswing'.


Our lovely little 6x8 greenhouse is nearly ready to be put into place by the kitchen garden as well. We have levelled a base area and will build it any day now where it will be home to tomatoes, chillies and aubergine, as well as providing a nursery for young seedlings. It feels like the final piece of the jigsaw in that part of the garden and I can't wait for the first wet day when I can spend a bit of time in there.


Just along from the greenhouse are our bees. The bees used to live behind the studio barn but had to be moved while the work took place to construct the garden theatre last year. Apparently you have to move bees less than three feet or more than three miles for them to accept the change. They arrived back at Allt-y-bela last week after a year long absence and perhaps because I was so interested to get a front row seat, or perhaps because they had been shut in all night, I got quite badly stung when they ventured out including a rather nasty sting below my right eye!


I must confess that I was slightly cautious after that introduction, although wasp stings are something of an occupational hazard, I'm not sure I have ever been stung by a bee before! I needn't have worried though, the bees have settled in again and are far too busy now to even give me a second look It's good to have them here and we are due to get another hive in the next week or so although I might just keep my distance this time for the first few hours!

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

Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Are you inspired by Steve's Garden Diary to write about gardens? If so, see our courses page for details of Open Ground Writing Workshops at Allt-y-bela this year.



Gardener wanted: opportunity at Allt-y-bela


Ever since I joined this wonderful industry there has been talk of a skills shortage and through my previous positions I have found first hand how difficult it is to recruit good gardeners. The truth seems to be that gardening doesn't particularly appeal to young people, gardening was certainly never spoken about as a potential career when I was at school and although I dearly hope that things have changed since then, I doubt it has.

I think that gardening suffers a little from the stigma it is something that retired people do as a hobby and although I would, of course, happily extol the virtues of gardening all day long (and often do to anyone who will listen!) I have to admit that I understand some of the causes for gardening's skills shortage.

The sometimes scandalously low wages, the exploitative nature of some of the larger employers, the lack of affordable housing for low paid workers and the image of gardening as relatively unskilled work, has eroded the position of gardener from its Victorian heyday to the rather sad state of affairs that we find today.

There is good news of course; the movement towards localism, the appreciation of craft and a really exciting crop of garden designers are helping to revitilise gardening and to put horticulture back in the public consiousness.

I have been very lucky to have received encouragement and support throughout my career; from my first tentative steps in the industry until now there have been great, passionate people who have helped and encouraged me at every step of the way. My own journey is very much a work in progress and Arne and the great people he works with are continuing to help me to learn and grow.

I have long felt a responsibility to encourage burgeoning talent myself and to try to give something back to this most generous of industries. All of this, of course, is a rather long winded way of saying that I need a bit of help at Allt-y-bela! Arne has great ambition for the garden here and we are increasingly seeing times when more could be done to reach a higher level if we had an extra pair of hands.

We are looking for someone in the early stages of their horticultural career (maybe it hasn't really started yet) with a passion, and a desire, to garden to the best of their ability. The person we need is not afraid of hard and heavy work (there are some hills around here) and they are not afraid to get a little bit wet along the way! Initially we are looking for someone for a day or so a week and they will probably need to be fairly local too.

What we can offer in return, besides modest renumeration, would be the opportunity to work here in Arne's beautiful garden in a supportive environment with endless opportunities for learning.

We felt it was really important to reach out in this way, through people who really love what Arne does, to try to find that passionate hardworking person who would truly appreciate the experience of working at Allt-y-bela. If you think you might know someone who would be interested, or indeed if you are interested yourself, then please get in touch. We would love to hear from you and be given the opportunity to help you in your horticultural development.

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

Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer


If you are interested in the position of assistant gardener at Allt-y-bela, please send your current CV and covering note to Steve Lannin by email to:


The road to Allt-y-bela

The road to Allt-y-bela, once a bustling highway is now a haven of calm. As you leave the main road behind the lane closes in around you as it winds gently through the rural landscape. Once the main route between Usk and Chepstow the road has become colonized by wild flowers as birds nest and voles busy themselves amongst the undergrowth. In recent weeks the lane has begun to break into bloom making the journey to Allt-y-bela all the more enchanting. The boundary between the lane and the garden has become blurred and although the species gently change as the ground becomes more open in the garden, the flowers in the lane seem to act as beacons on your journey, encouraging you on towards the house.

The lane is quite steeply sided in parts, much like a Cornish lane, and the plants cling to almost vertical surfaces. In its flatter sections it is more damp and dominated by meadowsweet and buttercup. The lane forms the boundary in part to a brook which runs cool beneath the shade of the trees at the field edge; here beneath the trees the wood anemones, which have given us such a brilliant show this year, continue to bloom. On the more open parts of the road the heat of recent weeks has seen them decline and become more ragged.

The dry heat of the sheltered banks has brought the bluebells out early, the upper common is going to be covered in bluebells but they are not quite out yet. The bluebells in the lane are clinging to the drier areas and have been joined by greater stitchwort which weaves its narrow glaucus stems amongst the ragged grass. Dog's mercury is here too, having already flowered it is busy setting seed now in heavy pods which pull the slender flower spikes hard down.

Elsewhere vetch is starting to appear, I love the pea like flowers and the twining tendrils, which snake through the other plants in search for purchase before pushing skyward to flower. Its small blue grey flags glow blue purple in the strong sunlight. Keeping a lower profile are the bright pink striped blooms of herb Robert, its red fleshy stems spiderlike, and there are also wild strawberries here too.

Just occasionally now the red campion is starting to flower, its cerise pink feeling almost out of place amongst its more restrained counterparts. I love its exuberance; it gives you a taste of the bright buoyant colour that is to come later.

Bugle is standing tall amongst the growing grass where the lane opens up slightly, it will soon be lost amongst the grass and so is making the most of this early opportunity to shine. It's by no means the only member of the mint family making an appearance on the lane; there are yellow archangel, whose flowers are almost like those of the orchids, starting to appear all over the garden. We also have catmint flowering, wild violets, celandine and the first cow parsley flowers are beginning to open.

The lane really is a treasure trove of wild delights at this time of year reflected and complimented by the garden. It's a great time of year to take a stroll and look out for wild plants in and near your own garden, they are not only beautiful but will also give you a surprising amount of information about what will or won't thrive in the garden itself.

Words: Steve Lannin

Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Planting with Arne

Arne is at heart a gardener. It is one of the things that defines his work in designing gardens but is perhaps most noticeable to me when he is at home. The first thing Arne does when he arrives home is to look at the garden, and by that I don't mean a quick glance around to check that it all looks ok on the surface, I mean he studies the garden in great detail, which is quite unnerving for a gardener!

Walking around the garden with Arne is a real education; he has an incredibly sharp eye for detail and will spot things way before me, despite the fact that I spend all day, every day here. The level of detail that Arne spots forces you as a gardener to raise your game further than you might have thought possible, and it has become one of my challenges to spot things before Arne does!

One of the other real give-away signs that Arne is a true gardener is that he has a tendency to buy beautiful and unusual plants without a real idea as to where they might go in the garden here. It is quite normal to arrive back after a weekend to find a tray of unusual plants waiting to be housed and whilst we try our best to find a spot for these foundlings as quickly as we can, occasionally some get relegated to the back of the kitchen garden to await an uncertain future.

Arne is verybusy with the business and free days to spend in the garden are few and sometimes far between. At the beginning of last week however Arne conspiratorially mentioned that he might have a free day on Friday to spend in the garden so I ensured that all of the usual weekly tasks were out of the way by Thursday.

We had quite a few tasks lined up for Friday but chief among them was getting the kitchen garden cleared of all the homeless plants which had been marooned there. We had a fantastic day planting but as my day drew to an end there were still plenty left to plant and we hadn't even begun to tackle the other jobs on the list. We worked on into the evening but didn't quite manage to give everything a new home. That is another mark of a true gardener; optimism. We all set out to do the impossible and more often than not we fall short but it doesn't stop us trying again tomorrow!

Most of Arne's displaced plants now have a new home but the work is never finished; this morning Britt arrived with another new plant - a gift from Arne's sister-in-law and plantaholic Elke. It's a lovely wine red climbing monkshood and I'm searching for a spot for it as I write!

Working with Arne at his home means that you never stop learning and you never stop reaching for the next level of beautiful.

Words: Steve Lannin

Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer