Garden diary

Hellebores abound


It began slowly at first, but as the weeks have gone on there can be no doubt that the winter is in retreat. Despite the fact that we have seen so little cold weather, the days are lengthening again and the darkness is being forced back.

The wild weather and the gloom are being beaten back by the first wave of flowers in the garden; the few lonely aconites were soon joined by the snowdrops, who in turn have been joined by crocus and the first of the narcissi.

You may have already gathered that I'm something of a fan of Instagram and recently I have been seeing lots of collections of flowers laid out like botanical specimens. It struck me that it might be a nice idea to go out into the garden and collect a bloom from each plant in flower on one particular day in early February. What I was slightly unprepared for was just how quickly my basket filled, despite taking only a single snowdrop and a single narcissus bloom.

It then occurred to me that I might need to photograph more than one arrangement perhaps within colour groups. I was collecting hellebore flowers from the river bank by the bridge when I became totally enchanted by their beauty. As a gardener I walk past these flowers every day and fail to notice the diversity, complexity and downright gorgeousness of the flowers. The way that they keep their heads bowed as if in modesty adds, I think, to their charm. Look a little closer and you will fall deeply in love!

The stone at Allt-y-bela has a lovely plummy hew, which is accentuated when wet, and the step up to the workshop which stands alone by the river has a lovely rough hewn texture which seemed a good foil for our collected flowers. When it comes to arranging flowers I have to admit that I feel a little less than confident but the experienced Britt stepped in to help. When we started to add flowers to the arrangement it became clear very quickly that the hellebores demanded an arrangement of their own and placing them allowed us time to really appreciate the flowers in all there majesty.

From there we got a little carried away with photographing them, the colours and textures of the flowers and the stone were so rich and intoxicating, the other flowers barely got a look in which is a shame because they were very beautiful as well. I am definitely going to arrange flowers to photograph in this way again, bringing them together and isolating them from the distractions of the garden really allowed me to appreciate them for their individual contribution to the garden as a greater entity.

What gardening at Allt-y-bela has taught me more than anything is to pay attention to detail and to look that little bit closer, especially to those plants that hide their faces!

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer


A bonfire on a frosty morning


It was -7°C when I arrived at Allt-y-bela on Wednesday morning and it looked like winter had arrived at last. The deep ruts on the drove were frozen solid and sheets of ice an inch thick sat in each of the many footprints that led to the bonfire heap. More in hope than expectation, I took a barrow full of paper, kindling and dry wood up to try to light the fire. Bonfires are wonderful things, they seem to at once connect us to our ancient past, to comfort us and, I always find, are great places to think.

The work of keeping a bonfire going becomes automatic and my brain soon wandered off to thinking about the jobs I needed to get done in the garden, when of course the hard frost had lifted.

My attention this month is beginning to focus on the kitchen garden. Last year was my first real year of vegetable growing and we ran an 8 day course throughout the year led by 'Organic James' (James Clapp), who helped us all not only to grow more successfully, but also to really analyse and think about what is going on when we grow.

Last year's course started with the group of us walking the gardens at Allt-y-bela and digging test pits to examine the soil structure and composition and think about what implications these factors might have on our growing. It was all at once rather radical but also entirely logical.

As the course continued we looked at the more immediate things the aspiring kitchen gardener needs to know, not just what to sow when, but the cultural techniques the professionals use and the crops and varieties that Michelin star chefs are seeking out. It opened up a whole new world to me, and the lessons I learned last year have informed my approach this year.

Last week I sat down with Arne and we talked through what Arne really wants to eat and when. It sounds very obvious but it's very easy to end up growing a great profusion of things that maybe aren't exactly what you want to eat! Last year we ended up with more lettuces than anybody knew what to do with but I didn't sow enough crops for the winter and although we do still have vegetables to eat I'm determined that this time next year we will have more.

I've very pleased to say that James is coming back again this year to run the course again and although I'm not sure there will be space left on it for me this time around, I will certainly be working very closely with him to make the kitchen garden at Allt-y-bela a success.

True to form this year the weather has changed again and is now unseasonably mild and very wet. My next task is going to be lifting and storing the remaining vegetables so that I can get on and mulch the beds ready to start sowing again in a few weeks time. And yes, James will be around to give me that all important insider knowledge. I can't recommend his course enough, if you would like to grow like a pro this year then maybe you should join us at Allt-y-bela and get a real head start in growing the perfect kitchen garden.

Words: Steve Lannin

Photographs: Steve Lannin and Britt Willoughby Dyer

For information about The Organic Kitchen Garden Through the Year course, click here.


Documenting the garden on Instagram


I was speaking to a friend of mine yesterday, generally putting the world to rights, when the subject of photography came up. Photography, like reading, is something I have grown into and grown to love. I first started taking photographs around the time I started gardening; I am privileged to be surrounded by so many beautiful things every day and it seemed only natural to want to capture moments to print and have around the house.

Summer is such a rush in the garden, there is so much competing for our attention; so many flowers, wild and cultivated, that many things get overlooked. In the winter there seems to be far less on offer. Dark damp days spent huddled up inside your biggest coat can feel like the least inspiring days, when a hot cup of tea and an early finish seem about the best things to hope for. I remember a day a week or so ago on just such a bleak, depressing day when I spotted a daisy flowering on the common. In summer such a thing would never cause me to look twice but on that damp January day that little flower stopped me dead in my tracks and cheered me to a point that is hard to explain. I think it is about hope triumphing over experience. Sometimes we have to dare to dream and these ordinary little flowers seem to offer a token of hope on an otherwise fairly dreary day!

When I started to take pictures for Instagram I planned to try to post a picture taken in the garden that day every working day of the year. Sometimes it's not easy and days like the one I mentioned above are the hardest. Often the light is rubbish, the garden sodden and there is nothing obvious to post. What Instagram does for me those days is to keep me looking. When there is a break in the cloud and the sun suddenly shines through you'll find me frantically chucking my wet muddy gloves on the ground and searching through pockets for my phone. A lot of the time I miss the moment but occasionally I manage to capture what feels like a fair representation of the scene and it's those posts which mean the most to me.

Linked to this is something that should perhaps become a New Year's resolution. I never take pictures when things look bad, and that's a shame. Gardening is about looking at the garden and assessing what could be better and working on it either for a short term benefit or a long term one, but usually both. Those all important 'before' pictures give you a real sense of having made progress in a way that always taking pictures of the nice bits never can.

Getting to spend every day outside in winter can feel like a mixed blessing, but being able not only to enjoy every hour of natural light on these short winter days and getting to experience those wonderful fleeting moments that I'm forever trying to capture is usually reward enough. Add a cup of tea into the bargain and I'm sold!

Words and photographs: Steve Lannin

You can follow Steve and Arne's posts on Instagram here.


A wet and windy start


Yesterday the sun finally came out, water vapour rose off every damp surface and from the wide blue sky shafts of light warmed the back of my neck. It was wonderful! By the evening the rain had returned and this morning a cold wind has blown in making the garden feel a good ten degrees colder.

It's certainly been a strange start to the year. The unending rain which drenched the garden throughout December came to a head on Sunday when the river rose up bursting its banks, threatening the house and making the lane impassable, even to four wheel drives. That day I parked about a mile away and hiked across the hill tops before dropping down into the garden. There had been a pause in the rain and I hoped to take advantage of it by clearing the bridges of debris. On my way across I had visions of widespread destruction, mud and chaos, I can't tell you how relieved I was when I arrived to find very little damage at all. The massive investment in drainage had served its purpose well and although the river had been temporary master of the garden, a more normal order was quickly restored.

This week the river has continued to rise and fall back with each passing shower but the general pattern seems to be changing finally. It has left the plants though rather confused. Where I would normally only expect to find a few winter aconites, we have snowdrops and a profusion of hellebores, spring bulbs are bursting up all over the garden and we even have a reticulated iris flowering in the courtyard and bulb meadow!

The garden looks washed clean by the rains, prior to their arrival the garden looked very muddy and dull. The challenge now is to try to get as much garden work done as possible while trying to stay off of the beds and lawns; the soil structure can very easily be damaged now by compaction. This week we have been pruning the step over apples and pear arches in the kitchen garden and are now pruning the crab apples in the courtyard, the frames for which will need replacing now too. We will have to be a little bit frugal with our hazel supply, despite being encircled by hazel coppices there is a finite supply of suitable material and we already have lots of people signed up to come and make rose domes on February 16th.

It's been a wild wet start to the new year here at Allt-y-bela but it's great to be back and I'm really looking forward to being part of the garden over the next 12 months!

Words: Steve Lannin

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer



Replanting the cottage garden


The gardens at Allt-y-bela are a balance between planting, open spaces, landforms and topiary. Each area manages to retain an individual character while still being brought together by the use of materials and the presence of topiary.

The cottage garden, which sits up next to the kitchen garden, is probably the largest area of planting and is held in by the end of the house at one end and a large beech topiary at the other. It's a broadly rectangular space which is divided by tiny cobbled paths that form an incomplete lattice at 45 degrees to the main garden path on one side and the retaining wall on the other.  This area is dominated by herbaceous planting from the late spring to early winter. At this time of year the rose domes, fruit bushes and goblet trained apple maintain the vertical plane and hold the garden together before the spring warmth sets everything moving again at ever increasing pace.

It only seems like a few weeks ago that Arne and I went through the borders looking at what changes could be made and what could be tweaked to improve its performance.  It has been fairly plain that many of the border plants had become overly congested and would benefit from division so last Friday, with the help of Elke who works with Arne at the office in London, and my gardener Owain, we started the rather large task of going through each bed in turn, lifting and dividing the Phlox, Astrantia, Veronicastrum and most of the Sanguisorba, as well as redesigning the planting.

Prior to this we had already removed the geraniums and 90% of the aquilegias. These plants, which dominated the early summer in the borders, have been real stars over the years but Arne was keen to try something new. We are also planning on strengthening up our late summer display with more asters and a few other choice perennials. All of this lifting and dividing left us with a mountain of spare plants, many of which we are trying out in the meadow areas, especially the little piece of ground where the path winds across the stream and up the bank towards the kitchen garden.

By the end of the day we had gone through about two thirds of the beds and they are looking so much better! I can't wait to see the results next year. It will be interesting to find out which plants do well in the meadow and which struggle against the competition.

As for the plants that will be planted to replace the geraniums and aquilegias for early summer colour, well I'm not sure what they will be yet! I'm afraid you will have to watch this space and I will let you know when I do. I hope then we can all look forward to seeing how the border develops over the next 12 months!

Words: Steve Lannin

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer