Garden diary

A cut above


I suspect many professional gardeners like myself started out with a pair of very pedestrian secateurs before being introduced to the eponymous Felco no2 by some wise council and from that point they never looked back. Felcos are light, sturdy, powerful, hold a good edge and every piece is replaceable, meaning that with a little care a pair of Felcos will last you a lifetime. Many gardeners will therefore think this comparison post is irrelevant, and I don't mind if you do. Secateurs are perhaps a gardener's most-used tool and, like a choice of footwear, the pair you choose is intensely personal.

Until I was introduced to Niwaki a couple of years ago my Felcos had never left my hip, but the promise of razor sharp, hand forged secateurs turned my head and I bought myself a pair. I love my Niwaki Tobishos and have used them daily ever since, which has led me to wonder about other options I might be missing out on. And of course the all important question: How much do I need to pay for a decent pair of secateurs?

Secateurs should be fairly straightforward to test, they are in effect a sharp cutting blade on a handle with a catch - simple! I have chosen, more or less at random I must confess, six pairs of secateurs which range in price from £22 to £79 and cover a wide range of makes. I have then spent some time cutting roses, top fruit and herbaceous material with each of them to represent the typical lifetime duties of the tools.

Felco No2 £40

I thought I'd better start with the baseline by which all others are judged. Felcos come in a range of sizes and styles to suit every conceivable need. They are all lifetime guaranteed and can be easily dismantled, cleaned, old bits replaced and then put back together. Stories of their endurance are legendary; I personally lost a pair in a compost heap for 9 months, the acid had pitted and eaten away at the aluminium handles but after soaking them in oil for a day or two they were free enough to be stripped down and rebuilt, and although clearly not as good as new they went on to lead a full and varied life.

Holding them again in my hand they feel like an old friend. They are on the chunky side after so much time with the Tobishos (see below), but they are easy to sharpen and hold up to a lot of abuse; they can cope with tough woody material and you are likely to develop a hernia before you will damage the blade.

Rough, tough and dependable, why did I ever leave them? The answer is, they don't feel special. Now I know that that is not only highly subjective but it's also dependant on how much more you want to spend on a pair that does feel 'special'!

Lowe original £35

Most of you may not be familiar with the name Lowe, I know I wasn't, but I was interested to know what had happened to Rolcut secateurs. They used to be everywhere, everyone had a pair, and then they disappeared. In fact I have never used a pair of anvil secateurs since Rolcuts until these arrived a few weeks ago. The story goes that Lowe designed what we know as Rolcut secateurs which were manufactured in the UK under the Rolcut brand. The brand was then discontinued after being bought by Fiskars in the 1990s.

I chose the original pattern without the plastic grip handles, mainly because I prefer the look but also because I wanted to get as close as possible to Rolcuts. The only difference in fact is the catch, which although plastic is very easy to operate and feels good quality, in fact everything feels good quality, the blade is strong and the action feels sturdy, solid and positive. I really enjoy using them. Anvil secateurs have a reputation for bruising and flattening the opposite side of the stem to the blade and in the case of very thick rose stems this is just about noticeable. The cut is very clean however, especially on thicker woody growth where it proved superior to its rivals.

There is a drawback; on light herbaceous stems they are next to useless, chewing fretfully where others positively glide through the soft growth. I so wanted to love these secateurs and in many ways I do, but if you are looking for a single pair of secateurs that will do every job in the garden, then I'm afraid these aren't it. That said I will certainly be using them for tougher work.

Tenartis vintage grape shears £22

I have, for a long time now, had my eyes pealed for a good pair of vintage french grape shears but it's very hard to explain why in a singe sentence. I suppose that many of the best tools I use at Allt-y-bela are vintage handmade tools, they are rugged, strong and have a beauty which has been earned over decades of use. I guess I wanted to know if the same attributes could be found in vintage secateurs. I found these Tenartis on Amazon for a very reasonable price and wanted to see if they would give me a feel for the ergonomics of vintage pruners of the same shape.

They look rather roughly cast with a leather catch that I knew would be annoying. What I wasn't prepared for though was just how tough the steel was - it is almost impossible to get a sharp edge on the blade. After much mucking around and eventually filing down the blade, I finally achieved a tolerably sharp edge. The pruning experience was not really up to scratch to be perfectly honest, although I suppose I didn't really expect it to be. I bought these for their looks, for light home use and flower work and for that they are perfectly adequate. They will also look lovely in the tool shed.

Burgon & Ball Sophie Conran secateurs £25

When we first ran our rose dome course a couple of years ago we asked that people brought along their own secateurs. The result was that many pairs were either blunt or not really up to the task. Last year we bought 12 pairs of these for each guest on the course and being totally honest I chose them because they looked like my much more expensive Japanese pair, were very reasonably priced and were made by a well-known manufacturer. When they arrived, beautifully gift boxed, they very much looked the part too and performed faultlessly through both our rose dome course and our plant supports course.

I felt I should include them here because I had them around the shed, where they reside waiting for our next set of courses. Using them now I am pleasantly surprised at how sharp they are and how well they sharpen - the steel seems to be a really fine quality - and they are tough enough for the rougher tasks, yet precise enough for detailed work. The chunky brass catch looks lovely and works well. In fact my only criticism would be that the bypassed side of the secateur blade is very chunky which makes getting the shear in to tight spaces difficult, I would love to see that edge ground down a little. It's such a small point though and so if you are looking for a quality pair of secateurs, perhaps as a gift, and you don't want to spend a fortune then these are a great buy. They will last forever, cut really well and look beautiful.

Tobisho SR-1 by Niwaki £79

Since arriving at Allt-y-bela I've become increasingly aware of the importance of detail and craftsmanship. The Tobisho SR-1s look perfectly at home here, perhaps with the exception of the slightly jazzy yellow and red covers on the handles. They arrived in a beautiful box, polished and gleaming and have settled to an understated gunmetal grey. I have often thought of removing the plastic covers but I fear I would lose them and also they do protect your hand from the worst of the cold!

The Tobishos are hand-forged from two pieces of very fine steel in a family workshop in Japan, and everything about them feels special. The clacking sound they make is somehow joyous where it should be irritating, so much so that I spent much of my first month using them thinking about how much I loved the sound! The cut too is perfect, razor sharp and precise. They feel like a tool that will help you to become better at your job.

The downsides are two fold, they steel is fragile as I found very early on when I took a knick out of the blade (ouch!) and although they make a lovely sound as the back pieces come together behind the blade, they can become an unwitting trap for a stray thumb. (The same is true for the Sophie Conran pair, and the results are painful and bloody!) The Tobishos are heavy compared to the Felco pair too. However, I love the Tobishos despite, or perhaps partly because of their faults. Using them feels like a privilege although I'm not sure I can explain why.

Bahco Professional £40

The other secateurs here at Allt-y-bela have been bought over time, mostly by myself to try or just because I like the look of them. These Bahcos have been sent for me to try by Arthur & Strange and I must first confess that they are not my usual style. I tend to buy secateurs that are generally all metal and look fairly traditional. The Bahcos are certainly neither. They are designed to be ergonomic and to reduce strain on the wrist from constant use, they are also available in three handle sizes and blade types meaning that you can customise them to suit your needs. They can also be stripped down and every part is replaceable like the Felcos.

Bahco makes good cutting tools. There are few professional gardener's sheds which do not contain a pair of Bahco loppers, probably much like ours, having seen much better days and having faced the worst that gardening has to offer. Ours are battered and the bump stops are pretty perished, the blade however is sharp and they always get the job done. I think that they are great and so it's slightly odd I suppose that I've never tried a pair of Bahco secateurs.

Let's get a negative out of the way first. The catch is slightly awkward and it's quite small and stiff to operate although I think it would wear in with use. The other negative I found was that when pruning up a ladder I tend to want to move the secateurs from hand to hand to reach as much as possible from my position and of course as soon as you change hands with the Bahcos the ergonomics become a little odd, having been designed for one-handed use.

The Bahcos don't make a fuss about getting on with the job, they are very quiet in action, which seems to have a slight bounce, making cutting satisfyingly easy over a longer period of time. I think that the Bahcos will come into their own over time and in some ways a short test perhaps doesn't see them at their best. Of all of the secateurs I've tried it has probably been the Bahcos that I have come back to the most. For me though I wish that they were all metal, I wish that the catch was easier to operate and also that the spring felt a little better secured. They are certainly a great quality tool and you can't fault the cut but if they are going to challenge the likes of Felco it will probably be on the superior ergonomics and that will take a leap of faith. I think they deserve a closer look though.


Did I find an all-round secateur to beat the ubiquitous Felco No2? Probably not. Will I personally go back to the Felcos? Again, probably not. This is perhaps the crux of the matter; the choice of secateurs is incredibly personal. I would encourage everyone to try something different though, especially if you use secateurs every day. Most pruners are fairly inexpensive and each will give you a different experience. I don't think that I will ever stick to one brand or model for too long, next I have my eye on the Tobisho Hiryu which look incredible but come with a price tag to match and the Bahco P3 which seem to combine my love of simplicity and style with hopefully the ruggedness of Bahco's loppers.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer

© Arne Maynard Garden Design 2016 - reproduction of content and / or photographs only by request.


Frosted topiary


There was a genuine air of excitement last week as the first really hard frost of the year hit. The days were very dry and very cold with barely a breath of air moving. At midday the sun rose just high enough over the hills to fill the garden with brilliant clear light, the frost sparkled like jewels and sent us all out into the garden to capture an essence of the magic. William flew his drone high over the house revealing the comparative isolation of the garden while highlighting the patternation which has been created here. Britt used her camera to highlight the sharp forms and layers the frost had revealed also taking time to capture details from angles that always manage to be novel and yet retain a strong sense of place. I, meanwhile followed both and thoroughly enjoyed seeing the garden through different eyes and lenses.

Today is very different. Today is one of the few days that I find myself alone here. The temperature has risen sufficiently to lift the frost but a dull grimey mist hangs low in the valley instead. The transition of a garden from frosty winter wonderland to dull sulky brown is always a bit disappointing, but it does mean that I can resume my bulb planting efforts which is a relief.

I elected to sit outside for my lunch today and so I'm writing from the metal chair on top of the garden theatre wrapped in my ancient ex army coat in an attempt to keep warm. The air is once again very still, but this time I have the garden all to myself. The trees in the fields beyond have taken on ghostly wraith like shapes in the landscape and the only noise is the babbling of the stream as the water travels relentlessly on. I'm getting chilly sitting here so I think I'll move on and get some more bulbs in the ground.

Over the last few weeks the weather has been pretty exciting; first we had huge amounts of water and flooding in the lane and then the cold snap last week. Today feels like a classic British mid-winter day, chilly, damp and brown but in some ways it's almost a relief to have a break from the extremes. It'll be the images captured by Britt and William which will stay in my memory the longest though, and the excitement of capturing the light and cold as the sun rose over the wintery hill.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer

Short film: William Collinson


Frost and fire


There are some activities in gardening that feel like they relate right back deep within our shared history. I find these moments when walking alone through woodland far away from the noise of traffic and the other distractions of modernity. Tending a fire is perhaps the most evocative of these experiences and I still enjoy the heat, the light and the unpredictability of fire that have fascinated people since the beginning of time.

Over the past few days the weather has become very wintery. Chilly, still, sunny days have preceded clear, cold, starry nights and heavy frosts have clothed the garden in icy white. Today began with a temperature of -7C and rose no higher than zero. At this time of year the sun remains very low on the horizon, barely rising above the tree line on the ridge to the north of the house. The result has been beautiful and savage. The months before Christmas tend to be a gentle, gradual cooling with the coldest of the weather arriving in January and February so a -7C in November feels particularly harsh.

Over the last few weeks we have been alternating our time between clearing and tidying the beds for winter and planting bulbs for the spring. I enjoy the duality of these activities; on the one hand you are acknowledging winter as you strip back the year's herbaceous growth, while on the other you are planting little packets of energy ready to emerge as soon as the worst of the cold has passed.

When the frost is as heavy as it has been for the passed few days it is generally advisable to stay off the grass as much as possible. This pushes us further into the landscape in order to find productive work and we have spent the cold days clearing bramble and weeds from along the boundaries beyond the drove. These areas have generally been outside of our reach as we concentrate our efforts closer to the house, but now as we open up the spaces and let in the light again a whole new surge of energy and ideas are promising to enhance and regenerate the space.

The bonfire smokes continually as the fire slowly devours the branches, sticks and stems left there a month or more ago. The heavy cold frost clings to each and every surface, fusing the branches together despite them being only a few centimetres from the flames. Through the garden the smoke is caught by beams of sunlight creating strange light effects and ghostly grey white forms, which seem to hang in the still crisp air.

On previous days the sun has reached down through the southern fields behind the house but today it never got as far as the garden. A mile down the lane in the sun it is 5C warmer and back in the garden the cold has been a bit of a shock to the system. If the winter continues to be cold and crisp we will certainly have more time to bring the more outlying areas under control, and just as importantly create plenty to burn. Today our fire might not have been quite enough to stay the cold but looking into the flames and the smell of woodsmoke is as powerful and compelling as it ever was. 

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer


The chickens of Allt-y-bela


Allt-y-Bela is a wonderful place to visit. The position of the garden tucked up in the base of a narrow valley, the fairytale-like quality of the building and the dreamy garden with its towering topiary and lush planting plus its very human scale all add up to make it very special. The real genius of Allt-y-bela lies in the little details which often surprise and delight visitors. A greater part of these details however are often not fully appreciated after just one visit, but that's not only ok, I think it's preferable. A good garden, like a good book, can take multiple visits with each one revealing new details lost in the original search for the narrative.

At Allt-y-bela it seems as if the animals have been specially chosen to add to the sense of place, from Hudson the Bengal cat who shines gold in the sun and slinks about in the trees, to Thistle the wirehaired pointer who looks like a medieval hunting dog; the animals add another layer to Allt-y-bela.

We've recently aquired a new little flock of chickens in the garden. It's hard to describe exactly what a little group of chickens bring to a garden if you've never stopped and watched them for a little while. I could watch them all day I think. We have six little bantam hens and a young cockerel who is very much still finding his feet, the hens ganged up on him at first and gave him a properly hard time. He's found his strut now though and is mostly quite dignified. He's been chasing off the rogue pheasants which have been wandering down into the garden in ever greater numbers of late. Amongst his little hareem of hens are a couple of slightly dippy birds who are forever getting separated from the group, it's great to watch the cockerel (who I've tentatively named Huw, pending managerial approval.) chasing backwards and forwards across the common as he desperately tries to keep the group together.

Hens are not always a gardener's best friend but these particular ones seem to be fairly good company. They follow me through the beds picking at the bugs I've disturbed but generally, for the moment at least, are content not to dig the beds up. At least one of them has developed a taste for violas which is a little irritating and during our recent crocus planting I discovered to my horror that they will knick off with any unattended bulbs!

It seems strange to me just what a difference these birds have made to the garden; I guess it's just another detail, another layer to the garden, which adds up to the much greater whole.

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

Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer



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