Garden diary

Prolonging a good year


It's a typical quiet grey morning at Allt-y-bela. The day, which began dark and drizzly, is slowly waking and the birds in the trees are beginning to make themselves heard. This morning I've come out into the cottage garden to do a little late season dead heading and editing.

Over the last few years my approach to autumn in the cottage garden has radically altered. Before I came to Allt-y-bela I was looking after a much larger garden and we tended to wait until the first frost had been through and finished many of the plants off before we got in with our shears and cut everything down. When I started here I brought that experience with me and cut everything down after it had either finished flowering or it had begun to die back. I soon realised that I was missing a trick.

This year I have pushed my luck in the other direction leaving as much as possible as late as possible before cutting it back. This started back after the digitalis had finished flowering and naturally I wanted to leave it to set seed. I left the veronicastrum too, and then the phlox and lobelia. It's not that I'm not editing each time I go through the bed, I am. I am also deadheading the plants I want to keep flowering, I am still religiously dead heading the dahlias for example. Rather what I am attempting to do is to preserve the best shapes and silhouettes, which are so important with the beautiful low autumn light, while removing anything which has started to decay. I've found that my perception of what is desirable in the border has changed as the seasons have advanced and embracing the change has allowed me to really appreciate the beauty that the cooler weather brings. I've also enjoyed cutting seed heads and dried stems to use amongst autumn flowers which seems to add some authenticity to arrangements at this time of year.

Whether I've got the balance right this year in the cottage garden is perhaps a moot point, I've learned a great deal about ways to appreciate plants after their moment has passed, and perhaps a little about achieving subtlety and balance in the cottage garden.

As I stand here propped against the gatepost of the kitchen garden looking across the cottage garden at the fine oak which is turning to copper it feels to me like the cottage garden is at least in part reflecting the change in season while a few roses and and dahlias continue to valiantly defy the pattern.

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

Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer


The colour change


As a gentle breeze is blowing the first leaves softly through the air I can't help but reflect on what has been a perfect autumn here at Allt-y-bela.

The sheltered valley in which the house sits often protects us from the autumn winds, which strip trees bare seemingly in a few short hours, robbing us of the wonderful spectacle of autumn colour. This year, as the nights have become colder and longer and the trees have turned from thick dark green to golden and copper hues, the air has stayed largely still, preserving leaves and drawing out our enjoyment of them.

The tradition amongst gardeners for going to see autumn colour has always felt a little alien to me. Japanese acers and liquid ambers are undoubtedly incredibly beautiful, yet the shafts of low sunlight through our native hazels and oaks have always held greater fascination for me. Last year I did a three hour round trip to visit a garden famed for its autumn colour only to be blown away by the golden light through the trees beside the river usk a few miles from home.

Allt-y-bela is not really a garden for autumn colour, many of the species grown reflecting and dare I say, enhancing the natural beauty found in the landscape. However look a little more closely and what you find is just as magnificent as anything you might find in other gardens. What Arne is so clever at is using elements with subtlety and artistry, the graduated burnt sugar browns to golden yellows and greens in the leaves of the magnolias are spectacular. The glowing warmth of autumnal tones in the beech add contrast amongst the topiary and draw the eye upwards and out to the hazels on the hillside. The hamamelis offer glimpses of deep luxuriant red in an otherwise pared back palette, inviting you to admire it as a specimen.

Allt-y-bela reflects what is going on in the wider landscape in autumn in a way that few gardens do; there are pockets of colour as well as swathes of green. The chequer tree is beautifully foiled by the bank of elder trees along the river while the medlar, with its great range of colours and hues, stands serenely in a meadow of emerald green. All of this careful use of colour lends the garden an air of authenticity and elegance which is a credit to its creator. I find in the garden at Allt-y-Bela what I love in the autumn landscape and for me at least there is nothing greater.

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

Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Time for the turf


For some gardeners turf becomes their obsession. Maybe their interest has been sparked through a love of golf, or perhaps through a more tactile reason, but the results seem to be similar and the mere mention of a rotary bladed mower will see them bridle visibly. Although I have grown to really appreciate the fine cut of an eleven blade cylinder mower, I have never really subscribed to the turf club. Turf is for those of us lucky enough to live in an amenable climate taken rather for granted; a green backdrop linking our gardens to the landscape and providing open spaces in which to linger.

The lawns at Allt-y-bela are still a work in progress. Whenever a new project is underway it is the lawns, more often than not, that take the bulk of the traffic and suffer the most damage. When the stream was being walled a few years ago the stone was tipped onto boards on the lawns and by the end of the project they were in a very sorry state. As the garden is still under construction we are not expecting the lawns to be the best in the land but I have become rather committed to improving their appearance and general health!

This autumn we have bought a new piece of kit which should help in our endeavour. In previous years we have hired scarifiers to rake through the meadows in order to clear some space for sowing rattle seed. This year we have taken it one step further and bought one.

For those unfamiliar with scarifiers they are in effect just motorised rakes which tend to be used in the autumn to remove thatch and moss from the lawn, once the material is removed you can then re-seed any bare patches and top dress the rest of the lawn. The top dressing is traditionally a mixture of sand and topsoil, usually somewhere in the ratio of 70% sand to 30% soil. The top dressing is particularly useful if your soil is heavy as the sand will be incorporated into the soil altering the texture over time.

Scarifying is also a very useful technique in maintaining a flowering meadow. Once the meadow has been mowed down and the cuttings cleared away, the action of scarifying not only removes any thatch or plant material deep down in the sward, it also opens up soil spaces into which you can sow yellow rattle seed. Yellow rattle is invaluable in keeping the grasses under control in a meadow, which it does by parasitising the grass roots. A meadow in which the grass is strong and healthy is one where the grass will simply outcompete the native wildflowers. Yellow rattle is sown fresh and needs to be in contact with the soil so now is the time to get it done!

We will be scarifying our main lawns twice a year over the next few years in order to produce thicker, healthier lawns. If you wanted to scarify your own lawn this autumn and it isn't too vast then you can do just as good a job with a good spring tine rake. (It's a very good work out as you need to really get in amongst the grass) It's then essential to collect as much raked material as possible, you certainly don't want your hard work going to waste by that thatch getting back into the lawn! If on the other hand you really aren't that keen to spend hours attacking the lawn with a rake then you can hire scarifiers. It may take a little phoning around as not all plant hire companies have them, but they do cut down the work very significantly.

I'm certainly enjoying the challenge of getting the lawns into shape. It may not be a passion of mine but I do enjoy wandering across a summer lawn barefoot, not that that's how I spend my summers at Allt-y-bela of course! I'm looking forward to seeing the difference the work put in now will make next year. The garden at Allt-y-bela is beginning to mature and settle now and as the years go by I hope that our efforts and continued hard work will pay dividends for many years to come.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Autumn Equinox


There's a red oak on the way into Usk from Allt-y-bela whose first few leaves are tentatively beginning to change colour. There's an elder too whose top most leaves, that sit proud of the top of the hedge line, are also turning, and yet the days are still warm. In the middle of the day it's still warm enough to be summer but the darker mornings and mists have arrived heralding the beginning of autumn.

Today (22 September 2016) is the Autumn Equinox and it's the perfect start to autumn; light overnight rain that has refreshed the earth has given way to blue skies and a mellow warmth. In the kitchen garden the nets over the brassicas are jewelled with rain drops as are the multitude of complex little webs which have been carefully constructed by industrious spiders. The sweet peas are still flowering strongly but their moment has long since passed, it no longer feels right to cut these symbols of summer for the house and so I'm letting them quietly run to seed now, enjoying their display in the top corner of the kitchen garden.

Over the past few days I've noticed that our beloved Dahlia 'Naples' has started to look a little stark in the cottage garden, the grey misty days have left them looking very white against the grey green landscape as some of the accompanying flowers have started to recede. Today however they look magnificent in the sunshine, the delicate pinkish tinge of the young flowers adding depth to their display. The asters are emerging now as well, taking over the mantle of those flowers whose glory days have passed, and soon the asters will fully compliment the dahlias lifting the border into one last great display before the cold winter takes them.

The Autumn Equinox is a marker of change in the garden, in the landscape and in the year and it's the change that is so enchanting and beautiful in the garden. Now is a time where you can look forward to the wonders of autumn while revelling in the tail end of summer.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Apples, pears and a drop of honey


As the mornings begin to get chilly, and the first few leaves begin to fall, my attentions turn to autumnal things. It is "the season of mellow fruitfulness", as an old gardening friend of mine would without fail remind me as we reached this point of the year. The garden at Allt-y-bela seems designed to celebrate the changing seasons in a way that very few gardens I have known do. Perhaps it is the changes that take place in the kitchen garden that mark the year, or indeed the changing groups of flowers in the borders, which are cut to make bouquets for the house; the asters are beginning to flower now. The most powerful reflection of this time of year though is the apples beginning to ripen on the trees. Allt-y-bela has a small orchard and step-over apples which bracket the beds in the kitchen garden as well as various other specimens around the garden. It is thought that the house once sat in apple and pear orchards and as the garden slowly matures it's beginning to feel like it might again.

Last year we had our first really productive year of apples. Arne likes to stack the apples from the tree that sits in the drove lawn on the table, which forms a seating area at the base of the kitchen garden wall. Last year that soon became a mound and then threatened to turn into a perilous pyramid of fruit as the supply of apples from just this one tree seemed to be never-ending. In the end we had so much fruit that we had to juice a greater part of it. That juice has lasted us until now, when we are down to our last few bottles. Allt-y-bela has bed and breakfast rooms and our guests have been enjoying the juice from our orchard with their breakfasts. Arne's partner enjoys making jams and chutneys from the garden produce when we have a surplus, so we can never really produce too much from the garden.

This year it doesn't look quite so good in terms of apples, we have a lot more pears this year however! As the orchard matures I'm sure that we will be juicing every year and have our own supply of Allt-y-bela apple juice. It may just be fanciful thinking, but to me the taste is incredibly evocative of a summer in the garden here.  

Another productive element of the garden which comes to fruition at this time of the year is our honey. We have two hives, just a couple of feet from the kitchen garden alongside the cottage garden, and on sunny days in summer the bees are busy taking advantage of the flowers that abound here. Working in such close proximity to these amazing creatures gives a real insight into just how weather dependant their operations are and how precarious their very survival is. I would love to learn how to look after the bees but I have to admit to being a little intimidated when assisting our beekeeper; it seems to go against all of your natural instincts to stay around a hive of agitated bees!

This week our beekeeper came to harvest the honey from our hives. He is very careful to leave the bees with plenty of their own honey to keep as stores to last them through the winter, and in fact they have already started to build new stores of honey closer to the nest, ignoring the new frames which were added a few weeks ago. Our bees have been thriving in the garden and we are all passionate about looking after them properly and helping them to become a successful and productive colony. As part of our arrangement with our beekeeper, we get a proportion of our honey which is used in the same way as our apple juice and the rest is sold as a single location honey, via BC Bees, which is lovely. You really can taste the difference between the various different places.

Although we aren't aiming at any sort of self sufficiency we do seem to be making the most of the land in what is a fairly small area and are now enjoying the fruits of our, and our apian friends', labour.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer