Garden diary



First of all I must apologise to you; in my diary a few weeks ago I promised news of a new project at Allt-y-bela and last week I completely glossed over the fact that I had failed to deliver said news. The truth is that the project has been slightly delayed, I promise that as soon as things get underway I will be out there taking photos and keeping you up to date with progress.

August in the garden at Allt-y-bela is always rather frantic. Before Arne heads off on his annual break he sets me the challenge of getting the meadows cut and the topiary clipped before he gets back at the beginning of September. Last year it pretty much rained through the whole of the month making the meadow cutting impossible, of course no sooner had his plane landed than the sun came out, the temperatures rocketed and it looked for all the world like I just hadn't quite got around to it! I think I did get the topiary cut though. On the plus side because we cut it late it coincided with one of the photoshoots for the Gardens Illustrated series and I think looked rather fine in last month's edition!

This year has been a little different, a very dry July has been followed by an equally dry August and I've found myself spending inordinate amounts of time watering. It has meant that I could pick my time to cut down the meadow, which is all done now and has given me the opportunity to cut topiary too.

After last week's all out attack on the meadows, this week has been spent in a rather more sedate way: I've been cutting the box. In the past I've always tended towards cutting box as soon as I can, the traditional start of the box cutting season being Derby day, and true to form come mid June I was itching to start cutting. There's nothing smarter in a garden than freshly clipped box topiary. Arne likes the box to look slightly fluffier in June and so I had to put my shears on ice for a couple of months but with the season getting on and the threat of box blight weather looming I've been starting to get a little uneasy about getting it cut. The mild damp days of autumn are perfect weather for fungal nasties to take hold and I didn't want to be putting the box under extra pressure at this time, nor having freshly cut leaves as a potential root for infection. What I needed then was a few hot dry days to get the box cut and the start of this week looked perfect.

On Monday I set out to cut the box shapes in the courtyard, there are about 17 shapes in there I think and I just about got those done. Tuesday was big box ball day and I think I got 7 of those done. But on Wednesday things started to go a little awry. I had planned to get the box lattice cut along with two big shapes, but with other things happening cutting stalled a bit leaving me with only about half of it done. With rain forecast for Friday I knew that my plan to get the cloudy box brackets around the kitchen garden done as well was now out of the question and it became a race to get the lattice finished and cleared away before the rain came in. Cue an afternoon of rather frantic clipping! After such a long wait it seems a shame to have had to race over the lattice as fast as I did, jobs you love should be savoured but sometimes weather pressures intervene and your best laid plans....well, you know how it goes.

So it's now Friday and I'm sitting writing this because it's raining. It's been raining since very early this morning and I couldn't be happier, the sky is slate grey which look fabulous and dramatic against the ochre colour of the house and the garden is finally getting a good drink. Will I get all of the topiary finished before Arne gets home, well that depends. If I forget everything else and hedge for a week then yes, I think I will, but if I want to keep the garden ticking over, deadheaded, weeded and mowed then probably not.

I really enjoy the challenge of an August at Allt-y-bela, and one year things will all fall into place and everything will get done in time, until then I'll just keep on clipping!

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

Photos: Britt Willoughby-Dyer


Growth and clippings


One of the wonderful things about being a gardener is that you grow and change with the garden over the years. As your understanding deepens and your technique improves you are able to focus your energy on the details which define the garden in which you work. It is these details that will eventually become the hallmarks of your work.

Working at Allt-y-bela has acted as a supercharger on this process. Arne is hugely inspiring to work with and has set off a real explosion of creativity in me; some of my ideas have worked better than I could have hoped, while others have not had quite the desired effect, but they are all steps along the road to defining my gardening practice.

One of the areas of gardening which I feel define me as a gardener is my topiary; I love cutting topiary. The best lessons I had came from watching another gardener cut very tall, complex topiary while I acted as ballast on the elaborately constructed frame which was used to access the hedge. I loved seeing how he used the tool in various ways while moving around very little. This contrasted hugely to my constant dashing about, frenzied technique that left me exhausted each day. I might not have learned to cut in quite such a calm and dignified manner, but I did learn some important lessons in mechanical economy.

When I started here at Allt-y-bela I inherited a pair of point nosed hedging shears which had been used to cut a lot of the topiary. Beech hedges in particularly benefit from being cut by shears as a hedge cutter tears the leaves to sheds and results in a tatty finish. Having never cut beech topiary and never really used shears except for a little box clipping I was nervous about having to produce the quality of finish that Arne would expect, using a technique and practice completely different from anything I had done before. Last year I got by, I cut mostly with a hedge cutter to achieve the lines and tidied up with shears. The results were ok.

This year I reached for my trusty hedge cutter to start to cut the yew topiaries only to have it break down after a couple of minutes.  Still in the hedging mood I decided to cut some of the beech with shears and this year it felt much more natural, in fact I rather enjoyed it. The clacking of shears is certainly more relaxing than the deafening whine of a petrol hedge cutter. I'm not a convert yet by any means, but my range of techniques is expanding and my preferences are changing because of it.

Growth is not something that is confined to the plants in the garden; in helping gardens to grow, gardens help us to grow also.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby-Dyer