by Laura Rowe
Acclaimed garden designer Arne Maynard moved to the Usk Valley five years ago and has transformed his five acres into a rural haven. Here Laura Rowe talks to Arne about the good life…
You gave up a career as an architect to work as a garden designer. Do you think your training influences your designs?
In all my garden designs I strive to achieve what I call a ‘sense of place’, a particular harmony between a garden and the house it surrounds. Gardens are for enjoying – entertaining, relaxing, contemplating – and without a real link to the house, I don’t believe they can truly work. And because I draw so much inspiration from clients’ houses I am often asked for my opinion on their interiors as well as garden buildings. So yes, I see my garden design work as a natural extension of the architecture training I started with.
What are your greatest influences?
Gardens and gardeners – it has been well documented that I return again and again to Rousham in Oxfordshire. I can never tire of the gardens there. I see myself as a gardener and am always looking for inspiration in the gardens I am fortunate enough to be able to visit. I also draw lots of inspiration from the natural environment – successful plant combinations are so often found in our hedgerows, meadows and verges.
It has been reported that you often advise your clients to grow their own vegetables as a way to get into gardening – why is that?
It’s not so much that I see it as a way of getting clients into gardening but that I think it helps them connect to their own garden. Many of my designs are for large country houses, which naturally lend themselves to a kitchen garden – traditional and contemporary. By encouraging clients to help plan, grow and harvest their own fruit and veg, I hope to really excite them about how their new or extended garden can exist in true harmony with their house, and lives.
Does the climate affect what you grow at Allt-y-bela?
Of course – as it does anywhere. Wales does get high rainfall and we have had to re-divert the stream that runs through the garden here to protect the house from flooding. We have created terraced earthworks at the back of the house allowing us a more free-draining area and we have raised beds in the vegetable garden. But the palette of plants we use has been inspired by the rolling meadows around the house so we’re confident the garden sits naturally within the landscape.
Whenever I visit Usk it always reminds me of Tuscany – what made you want to move to this part of the world? Was it the house, the area, or the garden?
We know Tuscany well and, in fact, we have recently had the house at Allt-y-bela painted a gorgeous Tuscan orange. It looks fabulous. But I’m afraid the only true answer to your question is simply ‘love at first sight’. When we were told the house was up for sale, through the Spitalfields Trust, we knew we had to visit. We had been thinking about leaving the Fens for a couple of years and needed a real escape from London. When we drove down the lane and turned the last corner to see the house – a medieval farmhouse with Renaissance tower – we just had to have it. It felt like we had come home.
Have the edible garden courses grown in popularity over the last few years?
I love growing and harvesting fruit and vegetables and believe that with careful planning and management even the smallest of plots can yield a year-round supply. So I naturally include an edible garden course in the annual course list at Allt-y-bela – it is always the first to sell out!
What are the easiest fruit or vegetables to grow at home?
So many! Where do you start? Of course it’s the smell of tomatoes in a greenhouse that most of us remember from childhood, and tomatoes are really easy from seed and readily available as young plants. You don’t need a greenhouse, just a sunny wall and plenty of rich compost. Pumpkins and courgettes are also really easy and grow quickly so children love watching them ripen. But the list is endless. Brassicas are great if you can keep the caterpillars at bay, broad and runner beans provide quick results, strawberries and raspberries are brilliant and apples and pears, once established, provide years and years of fruit.
Would you recommend starting out in pots or raised beds and then moving onto a proper vegetable patch?
There’s no such thing as a ‘proper’ vegetable patch! If you have the room to set out raised beds I would recommend edging them with step-over apples but fruit and vegetables are not demanding and don’t really mind where they are grown. The sequence in which you plant things is the important bit so spend a bit of time planning in early spring to make the most of your plot.
What should we be planting now?
Late-harvest crops such as carrots, leeks and replenishing salad crops which you have already harvested.
Are there any particular fruit or vegetables that suit the Welsh climate?
We have great success with our salad crops, which are prolific due to the constant moisture we enjoy. We also have excellent yields from apples, pears and crab apples meaning our family and friends enjoy chutneys and pickles and we have enough to store for over winter. I particularly enjoy growing chard – the brightly coloured stems make for a welcome addition to the kitchen garden and it can be used in many different ways in the kitchen. I also love turnips in autumn and Kohl Rabi is lovely sliced and eaten raw or boiled.
Do you use edible plants for decorative purposes as well as for eating?
Absolutely. My kitchen garden entrances feature arched pears and the beds themselves are edged with step-over apples. Both give structure as well as a fruit crop. The front of the house at Allt-y-bela features pleached crab apples. They give height and grandeur to the front walls and offer blossom in spring and a brilliant red autumn crop.
Are your gardens organic and are you an advocate of the practice?
I think many gardeners have moved away from regular use of harsh chemicals in the garden and we all try to steer clear of pesticides to encourage the natural biodiversity of the garden. There are certain plants (including roses) that can struggle without some sort of intervention but at Allt-y-bela we try to opt for natural pesticides (nematodes, etc) to weed out the things we don’t want. The garden here holds hands with the surrounding countryside and so in most cases we leave it to fend for itself. In clients’ gardens this is sometimes not possible but we work with garden staff to encourage natural solutions and try to choose a palette of plants which naturally encourage a diverse range of insects including the brilliant ladybird!
You returned to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show for the first time in 10 years in May. What made you want to get back involved?
Since winning Gold and Best in Show with Piet Oudolf in 2000 for Gardens Illustrated, I have been returning to the show regularly to keep an eye on trends and have been planning a design for a number of years. I am not interested in designing gardens at Chelsea every year and I knew that if I was to return it would be for Champagne Laurent-Perrier. The relationship worked brilliantly and we all enjoyed a wonderful show – the public reaction to the garden was staggering and I am still a little sad to think it is no longer there. Show gardens are so fleeting.
Who cooks the delicious lunches you serve during the day courses?
We know a great local chef, Cindy Thomas of The Food Studio, who comes in for the two-week course calendar to provide homemade refreshments and lunch. I am just too busy with the courses to think about doing this aspect of it myself. But when we have people to stay in the B&B we run from the house, we try to cook ourselves if we are there.
Where do you buy your produce when the kitchen garden isn’t providing a glut?
If we are at Allt-y-bela for the weekend we try to get out to the farmers’ markets in Usk and Monmouth. We buy all our meat from Neil James in Raglan – he has an abattoir at the back of his shop and sources all his meat from within 20 miles so you know it’s the freshest possible. But we always seem to have something we can use from the garden so we don’t tend to need to buy a lot of fresh fruit and veg. And of course, we keep bees so we are lucky enough to be able to enjoy Allt-y-bela honey!
Where do you like to eat out in the local area?
We rarely do – although there is an excellent range on offer in this area. Allt-y-bela is our escape from London and we love spending time here. We love cooking and enjoy having the garden and house to enjoy on the weekends we have here. The food at The Bell at Skenfrith is excellent and we often recommend this to friends. We love The Angel Hotel in Abergavenny, The Foxhunter in Nantyderry serves lovely food, as does The Walnut Tree in Llanddewi Skirrid near Abergavenny.
Have you always been interested in food, too?
One of my earliest gardening memories is of helping my Godmother in her kitchen garden. In the post-war era having a regular supply of fresh food was hugely important. So I think my love of gardening stemmed from the smell of tomatoes in the greenhouse and of picking fresh raspberries from the canes. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love to eat what I had helped to grow!
Where do you think most people go wrong when they try to grow vegetables at home, and what would be your one top tip?
Patience. As with any aspect of gardening it can take a while to understand the plants you are growing and you can’t expect to get great results every time.
Arne hosts a B&B and runs gardening courses and outdoor theatre productions from his gorgeous home, Allt-y-bela, in Usk. For more details visit www.arnemaynard.com.