Garden diary

Longhorns at Allt-y-bela


I'm currently sitting on the grass in the garden theatre soaking up a little sunshine with my laptop on my lap and my boots removed and slung lazily on the bank below. This really doesn't feel like I'm working terribly hard. It doesn't feel very long ago that I was writing a similar introduction huddled inside the doorway of the tool shed while the rain bucketed down and everything was still cold and dark, not that I would have tried to elicit your sympathy then, Allt-y-bela really is a beautiful place to be whether the sun is shining or not.

The fields around the house appear carpeted in buttercups, it's only when you make your way out in to the fields that you discover they are all a good foot high and you could happily sink into the middle of them and lie in a flowery meadow listening to the birdsong and the gentle babbling of the stream hurrying by. I'm not going to do that of course, that might be pushing my luck a little too far!

To the east of the house, where the ground rises steeply, there are fields full of ancient ant hills. The ground here is too steep and has never been cultivated; later in the year the ant hills will be crowned in purple thyme as the wild flowers bloom around them. The fields here are lightly grazed by cattle who make their way down the steep hill in the afternoons to drink from the stream. This idyllic, bucolic landscape, we have recently discovered, is home to at least one colony of rare bees.

I was in the glasshouse a week or so ago checking on the plants. It was a hot day and despite the door and windows being open bees and flies, and occasionally birds, visit and find it hard to leave. On this particular visit I noticed a bee I'd never seen before, I wasn't even sure if he was really a bee at all. He was a little larger than a honey bee but almost fluffy like a bumble bee, the reason he stood out however was his enormous antenna, which were thick, black, shiny and almost the same length as his entire body. I took a photo, picked him up - he was very docile, and released him back into the world where he flew off happily, and resolved to look him up later and see if I could find out what he was.

After a little internet digging I was fairly convinced that he was a long horned bee. To be honest, far from it being an arduous process of comparing markings, body size or anything else, it was simply the huge antenna that gave it away! After contacting a few people who really know about these things it seems that my identification is probably correct and that is a rather wonderful thing. Long horned bees are very rare these days having lost most of their habitat. That rare combination of habitat and climate make the fields around Allt-y-bela, which I tried to describe earlier, a perfect home to these creatures. Now that I had seen one I started looking for them and have found them in profusion throughout the garden especially around the cottage garden at the moment where they are particularly enjoying Centurea montana 'Jordy' and the alliums.

Without those antenna, which were so hard to ignore, I doubt whether I would have ever had any idea that Allt-y-bela was home to such rare creatures, and for every easily identifiable species I have little doubt that many more exist hidden in plain sight by their anonymous looks. It makes me wonder what other wonderful secrets this beautiful hidden valley holds.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer and Steve Lannin



London calling: Chelsea 2016


'Feather-footed through the plashy fens passes the questing vole' writes William Boot in Evelyn Waugh's Scoop. Boot writes a nature column for a national newspaper without ever setting foot in the capital if he can help it. And although I lack the crumbling ancestral home of Boot Magna Hall, I sometimes feel a little like William in Waugh's brilliant satire, to the extent that I try to temper the hyperbole and metaphor when I write. This is never more the case than when I 'go up to London'. It's not that I don't understand the energy or vibrancy it affords, or its culture and excitement, it's rather just that I prefer the peace and pastures of the countryside.

The Chelsea Flower Show is one event that will break my London inertia and actually make me keen to visit, although when crammed into the hot airless depths of the underground, or standing squashed next to a luggage rack on a commuter train, I find my soul crying out for a little sky and air!

Last year I managed to spend the whole day at Chelsea, I left overwhelmed, overtired and footsore. It took me a couple of days to properly unpack all of the information and begin to think coherently about what I had seen. This year I had an afternoon ticket but managed to get in little earlier and touring the show gardens with Arne, who was a gardens judge this year, was a huge treat. I even managed to get on to some of the gardens and it was really interesting looking at the finish and the attention to detail up close, it gave me a real appreciation for the level of craftsmanship that goes in to creating these temporary gardens. It is a little unnerving though looking around a garden with a crowd watching, wishing you would get out of their shot! I felt a little like an animal in a zoo; I have to say though that I thoroughly enjoyed my habitat!

It's the quality that always astounds me at Chelsea. The displays in the floral marquee were faultless, each bloom carefully selected and displayed. The passion and knowledge of the nurserymen who exhibit make me realize how little I really know while at the same time reenergizing my passion to learn. I suppose I have to say though that it is the show gardens that really capture my imagination and this year they were no different. Looking at gardens is so subjective; what works for one person will offend another. Designers' personalities seem to shine through in their garden creations from Diarmuid Gavin's openly challenging and, frankly, bonkers garden complete with rotating topiary, to James Basson's hopelessly cool, laid back garden for L'Occitane. Cleve West's garden for M&G Investments was beautifully planted using a similar palette of plants to that we have been using at Allt-y-bela; the water that flowed through the garden flowed under and over rocks towards a cobbled basin. Water was also used beautifully in Andy Sturgeon's garden for The Daily Telegraph where the hard and soft landscaping elements came together really beautifully. Hugo Bugg's garden for the Royal Bank of Canada had incredible stone structures and was planted very naturalistically. For me though I think my favourite garden may have been The Cloudy Bay Garden by Sam Ovens, with its limited palette of plants, naturalistic style and simple wooden jetty structure it felt like such a breath of fresh air.

Chelsea is one of those great British events, like Wimbledon, when it seems that it's really alright to be British; where London culture meets its more rural cousins and everyone has a lovely time amongst the flowers. For a few short hours we are all equal and united by our shared love of gardens.

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

Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Broader horizons


Over the last few weeks the garden has turned a fresh, lush green. The last of the beech topiary has finally come into leaf and the garden feels complete and ready for summer. Late May is one of the highlights of the gardening year for me when sunny, warm days still have the novelty of spring and strong new growth on every plant has yet to become a chore to control. It's the seasonal variety that partly defines the English garden and the next four or five weeks leading up to the summer solstice is the most satisfying time to be a gardener.

The garden however now begins to suck you into a co-dependent and exclusive relationship. It's a relationship that is rewarding and pleasurable but can also be a little obsessive and oppressive. As the garden grows and blooms the work it demands builds to a crescendo, which won't tail off until mid July. In the mean time the work is frantic.

The trouble with this is that while the garden you work in is consuming your every waking minute (and often sleeping thoughts too), other gardens are also looking at their most lush and florific. In the past I have often missed this most magical time in other gardens because my thoughts are too tied up in my own to even consider visiting them. This year however I am determined to change all of that.

Britain is full of fantastic gardens and as a nation we do seem to be rather preoccupied with this lush green island of ours. Whilst many of our most important and historic gardens are in the safe hands of the National Trust, many are not. Like the great houses of Britain some of the most important have been preserved but many are still in private hands and some lesser houses, no less historic, at least on a local level, are in the caring hands of their owners. Over the years it is this latter group that I have found often to be the more interesting. Gardens that are opened through organisations like the HHA (Historic Houses Association) and importantly the NGS (National Gardens Scheme) offer us the opportunity to visit places that are free from the guiding hands of an expert committee and as such have found their own special character.

So I have set myself the goal of seeing as many of these places as I can this summer; to explore the great and the small, the monumental and the residential, in order to broaden my own horizons, meet other gardening enthusiasts but mostly to break free from the exclusive relationship I have with Allt-y-bela. The result, I hope, will be a freshness gained from other garden styles, plant choices and landscapes that will in turn enhance my own understanding and appreciation for the garden I work in.

Over the past few weeks I have visited Sir Roy Strong's garden at The Laskett, a beautiful arts and crafts garden called Perrycroft near Malvern and Buscot Park in Oxfordshire which is a National Trust garden with a twist; the family still live on site and are clearly still very much involved in the evolution of it.

I really can't recommend visiting gardens enough, there is always something to admire and to be learned and meeting with gardeners and garden creators is always incredibly inspiring. The NGS even have a mobile App these days, which is a great way to discover gardens to visit near you. I'm not sure where I'll be heading this weekend; I might even see you there, wherever it is I'm looking forward to discovering something new and reveling in this country's garden culture. 

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

Photos of Buscot Park: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Granary lattice work


For as long as I've been at Allt-y-bela there have been plans to modify the Granary Lattice. Originally laid out at an angle of about 45 degrees from the granary, the structure was created with Ilex crenata, (a box-like substitute for those not familiar with it), comeplemented by informal planting including Campanula, Agapanthus and Astrantia to name but a few. The Ilex though never really prospered and always looked rather straggly and unhealthy. I think perhaps the conditions were just too wet.

Arne like the idea of retaining and perhaps expanding the lattice using different hedging and planting and a few ideas were mooted but it wasn't really until the Ilex were removed that we began to think a little more seriously about what the new lattice might look like. Arne was keen to use hawthorn for the hedging, keeping it cut very tight so that over time it will build up a knuckled and gnarled look, no doubt full of moss and lichen. The hedging will also reflect elements of the tower, which was inspired by the Italian renaissance but built using local materials and techniques. 

The best time to plant a new hedge is while the plants are dormant and buying hedging plants as bare root plants in winter is cheaper and much easier than buying potted plants later on. Because we have decided to put in the hedge rather later than would normally be the case we have ended up planting bare root hedging in May! Definitely not to be advised but hawthorn is pretty tough stuff so with a little nuturing hopefully all will be well!

Arne has turned the lattice around to face the tower and has used its dimensions to create the new beds. He has added new elements around the front of the house and on the other side of the granary which, over time, will give the lattice a feeling of age, and of having once covered a much greater area. On the eastern side of the granary the new lattice expands on the area previously covered extending to a tall beech topiary. We set out all of the beds using lines measured off a baseline set against the front of the house before spraying the new hedge lines onto the ground. There was no masterplan for this, it was a case of trying out ideas, assessing how they might look and revising them until the balance looked right.

Stripping turf and diging trenches for the new hedges has followed and has been slow, heavy work. An old barn once sat on the site and consequently there is a lot of stone in the ground. The first lines of hedging are now planted with the rest slated to do this week. I've been amazed at the difference the change in orientation has had on the overall feel of the space. In a garden where nothing is square to anything else the tower holds the grounding force, anchoring everythiing around it, and I think that using the tower's orientation and proportion as a basic unit has helped to give the new beds a sense of belonging.

The next stage will be the planting but at the time of writing that isn't entirely pinned down. I love the fluidity and the dynamism that can flow in the garden when Arne is creating.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer


April showers and sunshine


There is no getting away from it; it is very definitely April out there. This week I have been hot, cold, wet and dry. The garden has been soggy, dusty and pretty much everything in between! April feels like the month the weather changes and the fight between the cold clear air, the Atlantic rain and warmer continental air moves through the garden often bringing several seasons in a day. It's the time of year to dress in layers and take your coat 'just in case!'

The beginning of the week was very encouraging, I desperately needed a dry day to mow the lawn before a group from the Garden Museum was due to arrive on Tuesday. My mower had broken down last week and it was returned just in time for the rain to start falling! Luckily Monday started dry and we made good use of it. In the end it was pretty warm and sunny. In truth Tuesday's visit gave me a point of focus and an extra incentive to get the garden looking spick and span. The house and garden come alive when it's full of people, the garden feels complete, and with the sunshine to go with it, it all felt really satisfying to me. I hope it did to Arne too!

The second half of the week came as something of a shock, a cold persistent wind blew in and froze me to the bone on Thursday prompting a rethink in garden clothing! Today a damp dreary rain has set in, the kind of rain that is almost too incidental to really think about and yet the kind that soaks you just the same, I associate it with Cornwall and that soft wet Atlantic rain...

The plants in the garden are responding to the conditions too, the Tulipa whitallii on the drive was fully open in the sunshine earlier in the week but closed tight shut today. The bulbs on the south facing side flowering much earlier than the northern bank where the snakes head fritillaries are still blooming. The snow white crab apple blossom has just begun in isolated spots over the trees while the multitude of buds are flushed reddish pink. Every cool day seems to hold back the progress while each day of warmth coaxes a few more buds to break.

The wisteria on the boot room wall is also just beginning to flower, contrasting against the pale apple blossom with wine red Tulipa 'Ronaldo', the first variety to bloom in the large pots by the door. The colour scheme in the large pots is somewhat different this year moving away from the antique tones towards rich burgundy reds and black. I'm really looking forward to seeing the contrast against the house, I think it will look really warm and luxurious whether the sun is shining or the cold rain is falling!

I like April, I like the crazy weather, but most of all I like to see the garden really coming alive, hedges blossoming and flushing with fresh green and real flowers emerging everywhere. I've got my fingers crossed now for a little more of that sunshine we saw because it felt really good, the forecast is not optimistic, time will tell!

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer & Kristy Ramage