Garden diary

Emerging beauties


Everywhere you look now there are signs of spring. Driving down the winding narrow country lane is becoming a joy again. A few short months ago it was a wet, muddy and occasionally dangerous affair with ice when it was cold and flooding when it was wet. The journey along it this morning was one of transition from winter to summer.

The wood anemones are beginning to bejewel the steep sides of the lane, the reddish tinge of their stems reflected in the warm blush pink of the underside of the young flowers. Dogs Mercury, wild primulas and the first brave bluebells hint at the abundance to come.

Arriving in the garden now, you are greeted with colour, the narcissus might be waning but en mass they are no less a spectacular sight. But the really exciting thing now is what is emerging amongst them; the snakes head fritillaries, which we have been flooding the wilder parts of the garden with, are starting to flower in the darker areas. We've had them for weeks on the sunnier slopes but it is on the common and along the drive in which the majority were planted and they have been giving me moments of quiet panic! There are tulips too, albeit yet to flower, but just seeing them in bud is enough for now!

We have tried a number of new crown imperial varieties this year which are, on the whole, really very beautiful. Fritillaria imperialis 'Early Passion' and F. imperialis 'Early Romance' are far more subtle than the usual harsh dark orange or daffodil yellow but are they any less smelly? To be honest I'm not sure, I've never really minded the smell, which causes some so much consternation!

The return of lush green growth has also meant the return of our old foe, slugs. With the warmth of the spring sun and the reemergence of so much life and joy in the garden right now I can even forgive our slimy mollusc friends for joining in this time of celebration and hope.

Elsewhere in the garden weeds are growing, as is the lawn, and with each mowing the garden is beginning to look tighter and more business-like. In the greenhouse vegetable seedlings are growing on apace and it feels like it won't be long before the kitchen garden is again groaning with produce.

In the bulb lawn our special Anemone parviflora have successfully made it through their first winter and sit like colorful beacons under the multi-stemmed apple trees. Tulipa clusiana are beginning to emerge in the bulb lawn tot and will soon be the dominant species before the long meadow grass takes over through the summer.

All through the garden signs of spring act like signposts on the way towards summer and while April showers remind us that summer hasn't yet arrived, the lengthening days and the warming sun spur me on in making ready for the better days ahead.

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

Photographs: Britt Willougby Dyer


'A host of dancing daffodils'


It will be two years in June since I first arrived at Allt-y-bela, many things have changed and I have discovered so many details and nuances which have delighted me and held my interest through the changing seasons. Last spring was my first chance to enjoy the spectacle of the narcissi in flower. I had seen pictures and had been told about their epic numbers, which had been planted into a relatively small area, and as the leaves first emerged from the cold dormant ground I was excited, but then ultimately disappointed! So many of them came up blind last year and the promise offered by all of that glaucus foliage amassing along the drove turned into not very much at all.

When Arne first arrived at Allt-y-bela there were very few narcissi and no garden to speak of at all. He decided to stick to just one variety and planted Narcissus lobularis; what he lost in diversity he more than made up for in numbers, planting well over 100,000. The result was a unified carpet of delicate pale yellow daffodils, which over the years have seeded around and really started to colonise and naturalise in the garden.

Blind narcissi can occur for numerous reasons, including prolonged dry conditions, when the flower buds for the following year are forming in the summer. The summer before had been dry for a period, which may have caused the flower buds to fail to develop. We decided to feed the bulbs with seaweed meal after flowering in case a lack of suitable nutrition had been the cause of the blindness. All we could do then was wait and hope!

Gardening forces you to be patient, sometimes there is nothing to do but to wait for several months to see if your actions have produced the effects you hope for.

This year the leaves again pushed through the cold soil, a few at first, maybe even slightly sporadically, both Arne and I kept a nervous vigil over them until one or two and then several began to flower. It was too early to tell whether we would get the same disappointingly threadbare display.

The days have warmed over the past couple of weeks, the narcissi are flowering and they look amazing. They have formed a dense carpet of colour which is the perfect sequel to the earlier brilliance of the bulb lawn on the other side of the house. What's more, they are appearing all over the garden, including a few in the bulb lawn itself. I love the purity of the bulb lawn, free from narcissi, but it seems that nature has other ideas and to be honest I've often found that the results are generally better where nature has a hand in the design.

It's sometimes difficult to know to what extent your input in the garden yields results, especially in cases like this. We will certainly feed them with seaweed meal again this year, whether it will help us to avoid another episode of blindness only time will tell, and right now it hardly seems to matter. I have enjoyed the picture perfect narcissi this Easter all the more for last year's disappointment.

Words: Steve Lannin

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer


A carpet of colour


Suddenly in March the garden takes off; the sun begins to warm the soil again, weed seeds everywhere start to germinate and the gardening year begins anew. All of this new-found vigour comes after months of stagnation and can catch the unwary gardener off guard unless you are ready and waiting for it. This March has caught me a little off guard and I've been scrabbling to catch up with the garden and make sure that I'm prepared for the next phase. This has meant a week of digging up nettles (yes we really do have some!) and pulling the first flush of bittercress before those seed pods burst over everything! The garden is greening up again and the ranks of narcissus on the drive have been much more impressive this year. It won't be long before the whole garden is wreathed in flowers.

I wanted just briefly though to take you back a few weeks to talk about the bulb lawn behind the house, which was the star of the show for a few short weeks. The bulb lawn has become a carpet of crocus and reticulated iris, which lifts the mood of the garden just prior to the arrival of spring proper. In many ways it sets the tone for the year to come: a dramatic celebration of the season before being allowed to fizzle out while another part of the garden is having its moment in the limelight. This slightly processional aspect maintains the dynamic feel of the garden and keeps it alive as the areas of greatest intensity move around the house. A visit to Allt-y-bela is never the same two weeks in a row, the modulation of the experience of something really magical and marks the passing seasons beautifully.

We added thousands more bulbs to the bulb lawn last autumn, which is dominated by crocus. Species including Crocus tomasinianus mingle with C. 'Spring Beauty', C. 'Prins Klaus', C. 'Cream Beauty' and C. 'Snow Bunting' to provide ample interest in tone and form. The lawn is punctuated with reticulated iris, which to me are just magic. I love Iris siberica and to see these miniature versions of the same kind of complex foral arrangement so early in the spring is indeed a wonderful sight. The bulb lawn provides a mixture of iris within a common pallete with cultivars such as Iris 'Cantab', I. 'Pauline', I. 'Alida' and my personal favourite Irsi 'JS Dijt',  whose majestic royal purple flowers seem so rare and special at a time of year dominated by cool blues and yellows.

While the bulbs were in full bloom I took a lot of pictures, not just because the display was so beautiful, but as a record of the coverage and density of planting. It was interesting to see areas which were significantly more sparse than others and it's this kind of photographic record-keeping which will prove invaluable in the autumn when out of the blue a single box will arrive containing bulbs. This first box will be followed by another, and then another and the planting will begin again. It's lovely to watch as those bulbs, which came in so many boxes, take their place in the garden, repaying the small amount of work invested over and over again.  

Words: Steve Lannin

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer


A busy week in the garden


It has been a busy time at Allt-y-bela; last week the dry stone walling was completed, we ran a workshop on building bespoke plant supports and on Friday Harriet and Nick from Arne's design studio in London came down to learn to make rose domes.

Arne has always built plant supports in his gardens using the local materials that are to hand; this means that the supports look very natural and fit into the landscape, helping to root the garden in its environment. We tend to use hazel at Allt-y-bela both because we are surrounded by hazel coppices and because it is a fairly durable material. The fact that it only tends to last for one year means that every year we build different supports in slightly different shapes and styles.

A couple of weeks ago Kristy, who was jointly running the plant supports course with me, came to Allt-y-bela for us to plan what we wanted to show on the day and also to help plan our garden plant supports for the year. Kristy is magnificent when it comes to making beautiful objects in and from the garden and we had a lot of fun planning our ideas, we even had a look around the house for inspiration in the patternation within pictures, furniture and even the construction of the house. We may have got slightly carried away! So last Monday Kristy came back to help me build somw of our ideas to show on the course the next day. With heads full of ideas and materials to hand it took us a couple of false starts before we felt like we were on the right lines, and by six in the evening with light rapidly fading we finally laid down our twine!

I love course days at Allt-y-bela. They are always huge fun occassions where I get to eat well and meet lovely people, but this particular day didn't start out especially promisingly. Grey skies, persistent rain, and the wallers racing to finish before everyone arrived, things looked a little tight! The wallers were due to have a stone delivery into the tiny parking area just 45 minutes before the course was due to start! Luckily it all ran like clockwork and by mid morning the rain had stopped too which allowed us to spend all afternoon building the kinds of supports we had talked about in the morning. A good day's building supports usually leads to some anxious moments at the end of the day as people struggle to fit all of their supports into their cars. It's amazing how a car can shrink and a support grow when the two finally meet! Our rose dome course saw us attempting to fit three people and three rose domes into one rather tightly packed hatch back!

Whenever I meet with the staff from Arne's London office they all tend to ask when they can come out to Allt-y-bela and get their hands dirty! Unfortunately they are always so busy that they never seem to find the time. This year though we have started making a plan for them to visit more regularly and to help with specific tasks. It gives me some extra help and I hope it gives them a fun and semi-educational trip! This week saw Harriet and Nick come to help me make rose domes. Both are very talented designers and it was great to see that they had really good rose pruning skills as well. By the end of the day we had three more rose domes, and had had a lot of fun along the way. I really enjoyed it and hope that it will be the first of many!

So, one week, huge amounts of hazel used, plant supports built all over the garden and one very impressive wall completed. It's certainly never dull at Allt-y-bela.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer


A new wall


When I first started gardening I used to refer to all soil as 'mud', much to the chagrin of those who had been gardening for many years. Yet even as I learned more and came to respect the soil for what it is and what it affords us, I still referred to all soil as 'mud'. But I think, if I'm honest, it was now done just to upset the purists! 

Having spent many years working in a garden originally created by the Victorians with its lush deep loam I don't think I ever really understood what real mud was until I spent a year working on a garden restoration in Cumbria. And I'm glad to have had the experience now I'm gardening full time on mud in South Wales!

I first visited Allt-y-Bela in the spring of 2014 when the stream was being canalised and the garden theatre was being constructed. It was a very wet spring and hundreds of tons of local stone was being brought in to built the stream walls; the mud was pretty extreme! Ally-y-Bela sits down in the base of its own little valley with a great deal of silt and clay which quickly becomes unworkable when the rain sweeps across the nearby Brecon Beacons or is funnelled up the Severn estuary.

Arne has a lot of plans for Allt-y-bela and this spring we are going to try to realise some of them. This week saw the start of the work with two local dry stone wallers coming to build a wall around the top yard. True to form after several beautiful clear crisp cold days the work began in pouring rain where wet claggy sticky mud seems to rise up out of the ground and stick to every tool and item of clothing, I've never known mud like the mud at Allt-y-bela, it seems to have one of two states; it's either a heavy watery slurry type slop with the consistency of custard or it is rich chocolate mud pie brown which sticks to every surface and is not unlike a particularly sticky bread dough.

There was a fairly large heap of stone left over when the stream was canalised and it sat in a neat pile in a layby near to the entrance until last summer when a lost truck driver appeared at Allt-y-bela. It was a nightmare scenario because there really isn't anywhere to turn around and the lane is so twisty that it would be almost impossible to reverse back down. We must have spent two hours of tree trimming and shuffling before we could finally release him, our nice neat pile being flattened to create more space to reverse into. That stone is now being used for the walling and we have spent the last two days pulling it back out of the ground through rain, wind, frost and sun! 

Watching craftsmen work is always fascinating and seeing the walls rise up out of the mud is amazing. It's a craft which mixes extremely hard graft with a perfectionist's precision. Dry stone walling is as ancient as trades get, yet the results can look surprisingly contemporary. I suppose that timeless would just about sum up the work of the dry stone waller. 

Arne is incredibly excited to see the change and is intimately involved in every detail. It's not just a garden to him, it's his passion, his life and it's wonderful to see. There is no art without passion and gardening, when it is approached with passion, comes about as close to art as a living, evolving entity can be.

Words: Steve Lannin

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer