Garden diary

Raindrops on the shed roof


The rain is pattering across the shed roof as I sit propped against a ladder on the ancient cobbled floor. Today has been quiet, the kind of quiet you only get deep in the countryside a long way from the hustle and bustle of town life; water, birds, the wind and now rain are almost the only sounds I've heard since arriving here with the dawn this morning.

The rain is cold, not icy cold yet but a long way away from the summer rain that refreshes the earth and smells so wonderful.

Last week we made a final effort to cut the grass; the mild weather has meant that it's continued to grow right through. As I hover mowed across puddles under the leaden sky a delivery man asked me if it was really dry enough to mow. 'Certainly not!' I laughed as it began to rain again!

Being a gardener can leave you doing things that often have people scratching their heads. Watering in the rain is always a good one for that! The truth is that light rain can be the worst thing to happen to a newly establishing plant, it fools you into thinking that the plant has had a decent drink when often the rain alone won't have been nearly enough. There's no such worries today, the ground is completely sodden!

So what's my next task for the day? Emptying the compost bins and mulching some beds, it's really not ideal weather for it, but sometimes you just have to get on with it whatever the weather. I've been waiting for a good frost but it's proving rather elusive!

Quiet rainy days can be a real pleasure when compared to the endless craziness of summer, or at least that's what I keep telling myself!

Words and photograph: Steve Lannin


Winter wreath making


I posted a picture on Instagram yesterday looking down from the common onto the house below; the light was golden and warm against the ochre of the building. It was such a lovely feeling after the seemingly relentless rain of the past few weeks. I'm very mindful however of just how fortunate we have been in the light of what has happened in Cumbria. The reason I mention this picture in particular was that I was struck by just how wintery the scene was, the trees bare and the landscape stripped of colour. I really haven't noticed the change over the last few weeks other than the darkening of the nights.

Spending your time in the garden shelters you from the hustle and bustle of the outside world and I find that Christmas creeps up on me these days in a way that would have seemed impossible in my early twenties, when I worked in various high street shops.

Last week marked a milestone in the year at Allt-y-bela with our last course of 2015 taking place. It was great to see some old friends again and to meet some new ones. Last week's course was run by Becca and Maz from the Garden Gate Flower Company, who earlier in the year ran a course on flower arrangements recreating the style of Dutch master paintings. The results then were incredible and their Christmas wreath and table decoration workshop was no less impressive.

One of the interesting elements of working at Allt-y-bela is that you get access to the vanguard of garden style. It's certainly a huge change from anything I have experienced before and it inspires me to try ideas out and to create my own interpretations on the themes that I see.

The wreaths created were very different from those I have seen and made before, although I am increasingly noticing some of the elements used in their creation. The wreaths were rustic in look and feel, with feathers, dried as well as fresh foliage and flowers with fairly restrained colours. The table decorations too were restrained in pallete but rich in texture and form.

I personally have a bit of a passion for using found material at the moment. I like the idea that my Christmas wreath will be a reflection of what is going on in the countryside around me.  I would like to create a wreath from birch and old mans beard with perhaps just a few hawthorn berries in it. Time however is ticking and the short days in the garden leave less time for foraging for materials. I will certainly take a lot away from last week's course and the wreath that I create this year will be different because of it.

Words: Steve Lannin

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer

If you would like to join us at Allt-y-bela for a garden course or workshop, find out more about our range of 2016 events by clicking here.


Winter arrives at Allt-y-bela


After what seems like weeks of non-stop rain and gusty winds the weather finally calmed down this weekend. The sky cleared and the temperature plummeted, dropping 10 degrees in one day. For me the change was a bit of a shock to the system and out came my woolly hat and the winter clothes!

This morning was my first day at work in full winter mode; the car was properly icy, the drive to work slightly dodgy before arriving at Allt-y-bela to find the garden covered in a thick layer of heavy frost.

The difference in the garden could not be more complete to the previous few weeks where water pouring off the hills has swollen the stream, drowning out the usual tranquility with the busy, bustling sound of fast flowing water. The lawns and beds have been sodden and on the upper reaches of the common the grass has been sliding away under foot to reveal the gleaming, soapy looking soil beneath. Today everything was quiet, even the boisterous stream seemed respectful of the totality of the frost. The lawns hardened and the beds looked solid, yet somehow brittle.

I'm still in the process of clearing out and chopping back the herbaceous growth in the beds around the house and those which are not yet clear were certainly looking weary after the frost. Frost does bring out the beauty of some overlooked plants while bejeweling others. The last rose in bloom on 'Sir Paul Smith', which in summer tumbled over the wall onto the drive in great profusion, looks like a blown glass sculpture, while the leaves of campanula glisten in the morning sun.

The kitchen garden looks weighed down as if under an immense burden; the leeks look half their previous size and the brassicas look bowed, laid low by the ice and cold. Even the lettuce leaves show unexpected beauty through this new frosty filter.

This wintery wonderland that we have woken up to today does not seem destined to last however; rain and strong winds look set to return and temperatures are going to rebound by a few degrees over the course of the week. It's as if we have had a little taste of January in November, a gentle reminder of what is to come and a note to say you should be winding up the bed clearance now, the cold is on the way.

As a gardener I'm always acutely aware of the weather and watch the forecasts with interest. The best predictions though come from watching the sky change over the course of the day as the clouds, pushed by winds high in the atmosphere, roll across us bringing fair weather and foul. You learn to trust your instincts as well - nobody enjoys being caught out in the kind of cold rain that falls this time of year! The clouds are building now and the afternoon light is fading fast, I'd better go and get some work done!

Words: Steve Lannin

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer


A chestnut paling fence


The kitchen garden has always been the heart of the garden at Allt-y-bela and the structure used in its construction has always given the garden a strong sense of identity. The bed layout itself recalls the shapes of beds used during the renaissance and lends the garden a sense of antiquity. The edging boards are made from oak with simple finials at each corner. The crushed stone, which the path is made from, comes from the local quarry. The fencing around the garden consists of oak posts linked by steel bars, forming sections, which were, until a few weeks ago, clad in woven hazel panels.

I think I can safely say that the woven panels were much admired and as they have come towards the end of their lives and started to disintegrate before our eyes, the obvious thing to do would be to replace them with identical duplicates. Personally I loved the old woven panels and was a little worried when Arne told me that he planned to change them for something very different. However, one of the things I have learned from working for Arne is to go with the flow a little bit and to trust him.

Arne's plan was to use chestnut palings; the kind you usually buy as a roll linked together with twisted wire. Arne's plan was a little different however; he wanted to buy the palings individually and wire them on to the steel link bars between the oak posts. At this point I had visions of palisade defenses and ring ditches!

Measuring up for the palings was not particularly reassuring either and when the paling count went above the thousand mark I tried not to listen too closely. Each post was to be wired by hand at three points across its length and so there was inevitably going to be a lot of wiring to do! To source the palings we visited our local friendly woodsman at Moreton Wood who, true to form, cut us exactly the number we needed to the length we needed them. Let the wiring begin!

Luckily after a little internet research we found a wire-twisting tool, which not only saved a lot of work but also no doubt saved our wrists from a very nasty case of repetitive strain injury!

So here we are; plugging away slowly and wiring the new palings to the fence. Fortunately I've had rather a lot of help so far so I can't claim very much credit for how it looks. It has totally changed the shape of the garden visually; while the woven panels seemed to create a long narrow feel to the garden the new palings have widened it back out again. I love the way the light moves across and through the palings and once we have our new gates the garden will be rabbit proof as well.

The really surprising thing for me though is just how contemporary it looks, I think once the weather has worked her magic on it, it will certainly settle down, but right now I'm really enjoying the fresh clean look it has given the garden. We've managed to get just over a half of it complete now and I can't wait to see it finished!

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer




Autumnal magic


Autumn for me is a time for memories. It's the time that you start to look back over your experiences in the summer and they begin to look like golden days when the sunshine lasted until 10 o'clock at night and there seemed to be endless time to enjoy the garden. This is of course a construct, part of our attempts to process and file away memories, but I find that I'm far more conscious of it now compared to other times of the year.

I also find that the memories made at this time of year stay with me for longer and somehow seem more resonant. I think it's partly because I know the next six months are likely to be cold and damp and generally much harder than those which have recently passed. I find that every sunny day seems like the most precious day, and that each flower seems more miraculous. Perhaps that's why I love autumn so much. It allows time for reflection but there is also still so much to appreciate.

One of these really resonant moments happened a couple of weeks ago when I went to Apple Day at Cefn ila, just a few miles away from Allt-y-bela. I had had other plans for that day that had fallen through and was feeling distinctly disappointed. I walked to Cefn ila through the open countryside from Usk and as I walked, my mood slowly improved.

Cefn ila is a site, now owned by The Woodland Trust, on which a lodge house sat until relatively recently. The house has gone and the gardens, orchards and kitchen garden are currently being reclaimed from their dereliction. The Apple Day event was beautifully ramshackle, it felt like a true community affair, no corporate presence and no charge on the gate; just an honest celebration of autumn's bounty. Next to the old walled garden, on an undulating rough pasture, the orchard - semi-ruinous - stood. Gnarled, sometimes damaged, tree branches drooped under the weight of fruit. Amongst it a camp fire was smoldering neither fully alight nor fully extinguished with low simple plank wood benches arranged around. Sat with the orchard behind was a cellist accompanying a lady playing the harp while singing gentle folk songs. I sat mesmerised watching the scene, listening to the light chatter of happy people as they wandered through the little stalls of apple presses and local honey, all the time framed by the rough meadow, orchard and haunting music.

I took a longer route back to Usk through woodlands and open fields with long views collecting odd seasonal delights as I went; skeletal holly leaves, wild rose hips and larch cones. Who can fail to be awed by such beauty.

Back in the garden at Allt-y-bela the beech is changing colour and other leaves are falling, the ground is getting damp and brown and the air smells earthy again. I hope that your autumn is filled with as much magic as mine. 

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer