Garden diary

Still learning, every day

Over the last few months I have had the pleasure to sit in on some of our garden courses at Allt-y-bela; I'm currently learning to grow the very best vegetables with James Clapp who is head grower for Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir and I have made a hedgerow basket with Judy Hartley, which I am currently using as a foraging basket for herbalist Catherine Marshall who is running a workshop at Allt-y-bela in July. Most recently I have had my eyes opened to some of the amazing intricacies of plant propagation by Marina Christopher of Phoenix Perennial Plants who is currently growing plants for a multitude of Chelsea Flower Show gardens, she knows all of the hot trends that will dominate the gardens this year but she's keeping very tight lipped I'm afraid!

Marina is a scientist by training and she brings her knowledge of biological systems together with her experience as a grower to the fore when she demonstrates her techniques. Marina is very aware of the importance of the growing media to the health and well being of her plants and she has designed her own range of composts from seed sowing mixes to potting mixtures and the one thing that unites them is her love of grit! I was amazed at just how gritty her mixtures are but of course it is not just any grit; the grit Marina uses is only available from one quarry and she has spent years finding the optimum size and shape. The grit keeps the soil texture open but also holds the moisture across its surface. Marina's mixes can be up to 80% grit for cuttings! One of the great things about using a gritty mixture is that the roots become very easy to separate when you come to pot up. If they are not though, or if they are a bit long for the new module or pot, don't do what most of us are tempted to do and curl the roots around to fit them all in, do what Marina does, chop them off to fit!

When I first saw Marina do this she had a pot of cuttings which had been sitting a little too long in their pot and had become root bound. She turned the pot out and chopped the pot contents in half to a barely stifled gasp from her audience! It is better to cut the roots and let the plant recover than to mess about trying to untangle roots. These old roots are likely to die anyway and although it might look a bit brutal and is certainly pretty unorthodox, her results ultimately speak for themselves. Marina's techniques have been honed in a very high-pressure environment where there really is no room for sentimentality; her techniques however are easily adapted for those of us who grow on a slightly more modest scale.

There are a few places left on some of our other courses this year including Arne's Curiosity Cabinet of Plants course on the 23rd of April where Arne will be introducing some of the rare and unusual plants he loves and divulging some of his secrets about how to source these rare gems.

To find out more about Arne's courses and to book a place, click here

Words: Steve Lannin

Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Easter at Allt-y-bela

Easter in the garden is a time to celebrate new life; it's a time of plants emerging from the cold earth and of breaking buds. This Easter is particularly exciting for me as it is my first one at Allt-y-bela and there is something very special about seeing this particular little hidden valley coming back to life. The winter hasn't been a particularly hard one, or indeed a particularly wet one. We seem to have been spared the extremes this year and I suspect that the weather forecasters will soon be telling us that the winter was marginally warmer than average and marginally drier as well. 

I like to take the time to walk around the garden whenever I can to just look at things and to see what has changed but also to notice what is staying the same. It's terribly easy as a gardener to let the subtlety of changes in the garden pass you by. We are all rushing to catch up on the jobs which should really be done by now whilst fighting off the first flush of spring weeds. One of the lovely things about Allt-y-bela is that it is tucked at the very end of a tiny Welsh lane which is banked and hedged on either side. The banks are absolutely full of wild flowers and right now they are bursting with primsoses and as you approach the house the primroses and the occasional oxlip seems to be spreading in from the lane towards the house amongst the ranks of daffodils.

On the common the snakes head fritillaries are starting to break through and bud up and it's a massive relief to see them. Back in the autumn I spent days crawling around planting several thousand of them before watching tentatively to make sure they weren't eaten by some of the native fauna! Some of the other bulbs I planted in the autumn are up now too. The crown imperials have been fragrancing the drive with their very particular odour. They appear somewhat crushed this year, however I'm sure that next year they will be standing stately and tall.

Around the back of the house, within the informal box parterre, our new Magnolia has no such trouble commanding space. Its lovely open goblet form is going to look beautiful in leaf and it serves to break up the domination of the evergreen structure. The herbaceous plants are also starting to break through now, with Aconitum, Delphinium and Aster all now visible. I particularly love the herbaceous peonies which push through like a purple red fist before spreading their leaves.

Allt-y-bela is defined as a garden by its location and for me one of its key geographical plants is the hazel, which grows so abundantly in the valley here.  Over the past week the hazel buds have started to break and fresh green leaves have been emerging. There is nothing that heralds the true arrival of spring like the hazel coming into leaf and here at Allt-y-bela spring has truly arrived!

Words: Steve Lannin

Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Sowing with reckless abandon

With Easter approaching and the weather warming up, a childlike zeal is released in the gardener. The short, cold days of winter seem to be over now and we are all straining at the leash, desperate to get back into the garden and grow something!

At Allt-y-bela we have recently taken delivery of a couple of cold frames which have now been placed against the southern gable of the old barn. Soil warming cables have been installed under the ground within the frames to speed up seed germination and I have been sowing seeds with careless abandon! I also bought some lovely wooden seed trays to sow into, along with some really strong module trays. Both should last for years to come. 

So where am I up to? I have now planted all of our potatoes into the kitchen garden; we are growing 'Charlotte', a lovely salad potato, 'Anoe' which is an early cultivar and a new one to me and 'Ratte' and 'Mayan Gold', both main crop cultivars bred from an ancient variety of potato grown in Peru 7,000 years ago. I have also planted out a variety of broad bean called 'Hangdown Green', which James Clapp assures us is one of the very best. I will be putting in our onion sets very soon but we still have some Cavolo Nero in the bed, which Arne is currently eating his way through!

I have been sowing beetroot and oriental salads along with lettuce, chard, radish, rocket, spinach and onions and most of it has now germinated which is very exciting. I will also be sowing some seeds into seed beds outside over the next week or so and covering the beds with fleece to protect the seedlings and to help raise the soil temperature. Arne has never been massively keen to use fleece in his garden at Allt-y-bela for aesthetic reasons but has been convinced to give it a go this year by James who is running our organic kitchen garden course. In searching out the best fleece to use we came across some green fleece which we are currently trying out in the garden. It will be interesting to see the effect it has - I'm expecting the darker colour will absorb more heat but maybe admit less light . I will let you know how we get on with it.

We are also expecting a new greenhouse to arrive soon so I have moved our compost bins from beside the kitchen garden to accommodate it, and we are currently trying out making our own compost tea! There are exciting times ahead in the garden as things begin to grow once more but it's worth remembering that it is still very early and we may yet experience some hard frosts. But it's a great time to be getting back out in the garden and revelling in the joys that spring brings!

Words: Steve Lannin, gardener at Allt-y-bela

Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer



A star-studded spring carpet

The garden is bursting into life now and it's the turn of bulbs to really show their worth. Those little packets of energy and life, which seemed so inert back in the autumn, have metamorphosized into jewel-like flowers which now pepper the grass and borders. Layers of later flowering species are pushing up leaves through the still-cold ground, promising not just a continuation of this display, but a building of it, like that of a firework display building to a dazzling crescendo. Ours will be an explosion of rare and beautiful tulips, alliums and cammassia, but I'm getting ahead of myself!

Right now the bulb lawn is the star in the garden, a dense matrix of Crocus tomassinianus, Crocus 'Prins Claus' and C. 'Cream Beauty'. The couple of hundred C. 'Prins Claus' I planted in the autumn have been swallowed up into the display, a constant process of building in layers of bulbs each year, which lends the garden its feeling of age despite its relative youth. Amongst the crocus are reticulated Iris: beautiful, complex little flowers no more than six inches high with all of the stately beauty of I. siberica but in miniature. We have several varieties of these lovely little flowers including Iris 'Alida' which is light blue, I. 'George', which is a deep purple as well as I. 'Pauline' and I. 'JS Dijt'.  The courtyard is also home to Iris reticulata has I. 'Katherine Hodgkin' which is a hybrid and I have seen variously described as ethereal, breathtakingly intricate and as subtle as a painted paperweight; it is very unusual and very beautiful. The courtyard is also bursting with crocus but due to its warm south facing aspect, many are already past their best.

The river banks here at Allt-y-bela have been concealing a rather wonderful secret which it has been giving teasing glimpses of for some time now. Now that the weather is warming up though, the secret is out; there are hellebores right up and down the banks of the river as it meanders through the garden and each that emerges has been more stunning than the last. We have white doubles, rose hued singles, rich dark velvet reds and purples each one an individual selected for its unique appearance. Hellebores hybridise freely giving a huge range of forms and colours.

It would be impossible to write about the amazing abundant flowering bulbs at Allt-y-bela without talking about the narcissi. They, along with the earlier snowdrops, have been instrumental in establishing the gardens here and it is very difficult to image the garden without them. There were none when Arne arrived at Allt-y-bela but he has since planted tens of thousands, which, for a compact country garden like this one, is an awful lot! It is probably the equivalent of gardening activity having taken place here over many generations, although unlike a traditional country garden where countless varieties would have been put in dependent on the fashion of the day here at Allt-y-bela there is only one species and that is Narcissus lobularis which gives the effect of a mass planting that you might find at a great country estate garden. It neatly reflects the importance the house once held in its prime location on the main road to Chepstow.

Words: Steve Lannin, gardener at Allt-y-bela

Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer


01 Crocus_Prins_Claus_in_lawn_photo_Britt_Willoughby_Dyer02 Iris_retculata_photo_Britt_Willoughby_Dyer03 Iris_reticulata_George_photo_Britt_Willoughby_Dyer04 Chinadoxa_photo_Britt_Willouhgby_Dyer05 Tulips_protected_photo_Britt_Willoughby_Dyer06 Hellebore_photo_Britt_Willoughby_Dyer07 Narcissus_lobularis_driveway_photo_Britt_Willoughby_Dyer

Creative March madness

The last few weeks have been a bit of a blur here at Allt-y-bela; we've had James' organic kitchen garden course, followed by our rose dome and plant supports workshop and finally a two day course on basket making. Each week has bought new enthusiastic groups to Allt-y-bela to learn, share experiences, gain inspiration and to have fun. The one thing that seems to unite all of the courses I have seen or been involved with here is that everyone seems to enjoy their day and usually make new friends. Gardening, at its heart, is a life affirming, joyous activity and most of us who are involved in it are only too happy to share our thoughts and experiences with others.

Arne has been growing roses over domes constructed each year from hazel for many years now, but the secret really got out when he used them in his Chelsea Flower Show garden for Laurent-Perrier in 2012. Since then people have been trying to replicate them with differing levels of success. This year Arne decided it was time to run a workshop to show people how he has been building them in his garden and the response was that the course very quickly sold out. We ran it over two days because of the level of demand and everybody went home with rose domes and other creative plant supports bulging out of their cars, the sun shone and we all had a lot of fun.

Last week Judy Hartley came to teach a two-day course in hedgerow basket making. I had been working on a rather thin excuse that my inclusion on the course would help me to make better woven plant supports in the garden; luckily Arne saved me the trouble by encouraging me to join in! The two days were totally magical, often perplexing and ultimately extremely satisfying. At the beginning, Judy promised us that we would never look at a basket in the same way again and she was right. I can't pass a basket now without trying to work out how it was made, all baskets are still made by hand and the variety and skills on display are mind-boggling. At the end of the two days we all took home baskets, which we were all very proud of, and interestingly each finished basket clearly reflected facets of our own personalities. It was amazing that given the same set of materials, the same instruction and the same amount of time that each of us produced something so personal. I thought I was making a rather neat little basket, which in fact turned out about three times the size I was expecting!  It seems to have become a favourite with my cats at home, I'm not sure that that was quite my intention but it gives me a good excuse to try making another!

Later this month we have Marina Christopher coming back to host a one-day plant propagation master class. She gave a very short talk as part of one of our courses last year and we all sat mesmerised as she explained away myths and misunderstandings with refreshingly scientific explanations on why some methods work and why some don't. I'm looking forward to having a pencil and paper at the ready this time to make some serious notes, she is truly inspirational, I think there are a couple of places still available for the day but I'm hoping that there will still be room for me! I would certainly recommend coming to listen to her, after last time I was ready to take an unpaid internship at her nursery, just to learn a little of her magic!

Words: Steve Lannin - gardener at Allt-y-bela

Photos: Kristy Ramage and Britt Willoughby Dyer