Garden diary

In praise of the dahlia


This year has been particularly good for the dahlias at Allt-y-bela. This time last year we took stock of the range and performance of our dahlias in the cottage garden and decided make some changes. We got rid of them all except for two cultivars: Dahlia 'Cafe au Lait' and D. 'Naples'. We then put together a plan to improve the late season performance of the cottage garden. We asked a local nursery to propagate and bring on our dahlias early in the season (space is at a premium at Allt-y-bela) then when they arrived and were planted out, we set about feeding them weekly and watering them profusely throughout the summer. The autumn display has not disappointed and we've had a constant supply of dahlias for the house without it ever seeming to have an impact on the garden display. I have been ruthless with deadheading though, as soon as a flower begins to fade I've removed it, and these dead heading patrols have been as close to daily as I can manage. Never before have I managed dahlias so intensively and never before have I had such fantastic results!

On the 2nd November I set out on my usual dead heading round and took some pictures of the display which was still showing no signs of slowing. The next day I came in to find a light frost over the garden, walking up to the cottage garden I didn't expect any real damage on the dahlias and at first it looked like all was well, and then I looked more closely; every flower had been damaged and a good proportion of the leaves showed the slight darkened transparency which means that the dahlias are finished. I really couldn't believe it, it seemed so unreal. For the next couple of hours I worked around the garden, hoping that the damage wasn't as complete as it looked, but it had to be faced. By the end of the day all of the dahlias were lifted, cleaned and drying ready for storage with the notable exception of the Dahlia merckii which is still going strong. It's no secret that I've become a Dahlia merckii convert this year and its relative hardiness is just another string to its bow.

We're now in the rather strange position that our sweet peas that we left to set seed are flowering on after the dahlias have gone! It's been a great year for the dahlias and I've certainly learned a lot about how to get them going and keep them flowering. Now it's all over for another year I am rather sad to see them go, it's another sign that winter is closing in!

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer


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




When I was about six my parents moved to a house which to me seemed to have an enormous garden. Down at the bottom of that garden, beyond a rather tumbledown fence and hedge, lay a steep drop down to a narrow brook, which ran unimpeded for about a quarter of a mile. Much of my childhood was spend in the garden with its various garden rooms and that magical little kingdom beyond the fence, collecting devils' toenails from the shallow stream and looking for 'treasure' amongst the plants and trees. It wasn't until the other day, when while dead-heading dahlias in the cottage garden I discovered one of the Nigella I'd grown in flower, that I realised just how little I had changed in those intervening years.

Gardening gives you a great opportunity to admire nature going about her business on a level that very few other professions allow. Tiny insignificant flowers, like those of hazel in early spring, give you pause; as does the beauty of a spider's web bejewelled with dew on a chilly autumn morning, and all the time, while you go about your tasks, you are drawn to treasures all around you.

Allt-y-bela affords so many treasures that you could probably devote a book to the subject. The wild welsh countryside around the garden often interacts with the more orderly state of things within the garden boundaries to create a vibrancy that lies at the heart of the garden.

The Nigella that first caught my eye is not one that has thrived this year. The seed came from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and is called Nigella 'Delft Blue'. It has a very unusual, almost transparent, quality to the petals and a washed out graded colour radiating out from the centre. It's like no Nigella I've ever seen before and I'd certainly like to give it another try next year. Down at a similar level was the seed head of a scabious with glassy discs forming a spherical drumstick head, staggeringly beautiful when viewed up close, but very easy to miss amongst the floral riot of the cottage garden.

The rain brings another opportunity to admire plants and flowers in a different way. While others may hurry away looking for cover, I would advise a good coat and a more stoic approach, the payoff is well worth the discomfort. There are those plants which we all know look great in the rain but once you start looking around you find that jewel-like raindrops appear as molten tin on Cercis canadensis or Baptisia, while the rain freshens the second flush of roses in the garden at this time of year.

I feel incredibly fortunate to still be able to indulge my childhood passion for finding treasure; it's amazing how little that passion has moved on. I still like to spend my time amongst the plants and the trees admiring bugs and flowers and although I like to think that my taste has matured and refined over the years, the basic drive to discover hasn't.

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

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


Cottage garden musings

The cottage garden at Allt-y-bela consists of a mixture of roses, fruit and herbaceous planting. In the winter it is dominated by a large domed beech topiary which stands as a sentinel at the end furthest from the house and is reflected by the naked rose domes. The little cobbled paths, made from river stones Arne collected from the stream, form ribbons of blue grey to frame the panels of planting which in summer are so profuse as to hide them entirely. In the centre is an apple tree beautifully trained into a goblet shape whose limbs spiral up crossing each other as they do so.

The cottage garden has undergone a subtle and beautiful change over the last couple of months. Back in June the borders were dominated by roses with Astrantia, Aquilegia, Allium and Geranium playing the supporting roles. The colours were rich and often dark giving the garden an opulent, exuberant feel, somehow reflecting the energy of the period that leads up to midsummer.

A little over six weeks later and the garden has softened, the colours are a little more gentle and the pallet of plants has evolved too. Where the wine red Astrantia 'Claret' and almost black Centurea montana 'Jordy' once reigned, now light pink phlox has emerged raising itself above the foliage of the plants below gently swaying and moving in the warmth of the August afternoon.

The purple red flowers of Origanum laevigatum 'Rosenkuppel' creep through the undergrowth frequently spilling out over the cobbles, while light pink Nepeta grandiflora 'Dawn to Dusk' and Salvia turkistanica light corners with delicate flowers. Digitalis parviflora adds a strong vertical dimension to the borders drawing the eye back up just as the Veronicastrum did before it. Occasional flourishes of Sanguisorba lend offbeat notes to the composition, breaking the neat verticals with their unruly deep red blooms. Most majestic of all though is the beautiful angel's fishing rods, Dierama 'Merlin'. Their strong strappy arching leaves manage to be both architectural and graceful, and with a profusion of bowing flowering stems, each hung with delicate but rich purple papery fishes, I can think of few finer plants.

The cottage garden is really quite a modest space, even by Allt-y-bela standards. Most people who have a garden will have a larger space than this taken up by this type of plant.  What Arne has managed to do within it is really very special. The garden manages to reflect the changing seasons, right throughout the year, through its clever choice of plants. It manages to successfully navigate the transitions without ever showing gaps. The plants are absolutely shoehorned in and marshalled ruthlessly; if something doesn't work hard enough to keep its place then it is replaced, there is little room for sentimentality.

Allt-y-bela, with its modest spaces, is the perfect canvas for Arne to trial his ideas. The ones which work will find their way out into the wider world and those that don't, well they are just an important step along the road to perfection.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer