Bodnant Gardens

Bodnant, for anyone who isn’t familiar with it, is a very large (80 acres) National Trust garden in North Wales, just south of Llandudno. It’s particularly renowned for its large collection of rhododendrons and camelias, which thrive in the acid soil there. The site is on a hillside, with some steep slopes, and picturesque dells. The entrance to the gardens, and the house (which is impressive, but privately owned, and not open to the public) is at the top of the hill. Winding gravel paths lead through dense planting, which at this time of year is very colourful…

I visited on the last day of April, and was surprised at just how many of the rhododendrons were already flowering…

Having always (until recently) gardened on neutral to alkaline soil, I’m still a little unsure of rhododendrons. Their colours are diverse and spectacular, intense, beautiful; but also a bit shocking and outrageous. Verging on the blousy, they can feel like something of a ‘guilty pleasure’.
Another indicator of low ph (as well as damp, humus-rich soil), I spied this Himalayan poppy (Meconopsis x sheldonii) in the understorey…

Still close to the entrance is this beautifully ordered, green and calming parterre with a central fountain…

Still in the Himalayas, this attractive stand of Himalayan birch (Betula utilis, possibly ‘Jacquemontii’) caught my eye. This kind of arrangement has been very popular in garden design for some years…

And I just had to take a photo of this gentian. I had one of these in a pot for many years, though that was a late flowering variety. They have the most intense blue, large flowers – very striking indeed…

Another blue-flowered plant I’ve recently heard a bit about it Omphaloides. I’ve been considering its use as ground cover in moist, shady areas. It was recommended by one of the famous garden designers (I can’t remember which one). I have seen it before, and was unimpressed, but at Bodnant it’s clearly thriving and looks good. As a ‘semi-evergreen’ it should provide some cover over winter, especially in milder winters…

Moving down the hill, the formal gardens give way to a more open, grassy landscape. This avenue appeared even more inviting due to being roped off (presumably because the daffodils have finished)…

Bluebells were just coming out beneath this incredible old, gnarly beech tree. The house, complete with Victorian conservatory, can be seen at the top of the hill…

There must be miles of paths to be walked, and it’s easy to get lost. With all of the bright colours at this time of year its like an enchanted land…

The Pin Mill, with the reflecting pond in front, is perhaps the most famous image from Bodnant gardens. The end of the reflecting pond is one of those magic spots where you just can’t help taking a photograph, even though you know millions got there before you (and many made a much better job of it). This view mirrors the famous view of the Taj Mahal (though on a slightly less grand scale)…

And finally, another choice plant. Another one for the woodland floor, in damp shade, this is a trillium – Trillium erectum…

Some of you may have seen a recent short series documentary about Bodnant, and the on-going efforts to improve the gardens. I found it a bit disappointing. The narrative was a little disjointed, and perhaps somewhat flippant – trying to sensationalise the problems the team encountered. And I don’t think it did the gardens justice. But having seen Bodnant once more for myself, I could see how much work has been put in. There’s more to do, but it’s looking very good indeed.

The documentary highlighted the problems Bodnant has had attracting enough visitors, most likely due to the location, which might be very beautiful, but is also a bit out of the way (which is probably why it’s still beautiful!) The plan was, I believe, to update the gardens to give them the best chance of attracting more visitors. I already knew Bodnant was an amazing place. It’s in an incredible setting, with views towards Snowdonia national park, and the gardens themselves have always been fabulous. From my latest visit, I would say they match any of the larger gardens in the United Kingdom for their beauty, for their plant collections, and for their facilities. For anyone who, like me, loves plants and gardens, Bodnant is unmissable.

text & images © Graham Wright 2021

Another Spring Drought…

For the past few years I’ve written about a prolonged drought at spring – a time when you wouldn’t necessarily expect it. I wondered whether it was just in the Vale of Glamorgan, where I was living until last December. But now I’m in Shropshire, and this year’s drought is like nothing I can remember. Grass is going brown. The 250 litre water butt we installed a few months ago has long since been emptied. And the pond is becoming little more than a muddy puddle…

The alpine flowers look pretty reflected in the water, even if the surface is a bit messy. We inherited the pond, the bridge and an artificial hill with an imitation mountain stream waterfall. Not really our style, but I have to admit that at this time of year the alpine flowers look wonderful…

The darker blue flowers are Lithodora ‘Heavenly Blue’, but beyond that, and the heathers, I’m not sure – alpines are not plants I’ve ever taken much interest in. I suspect there are some alpine phlox in there. They don’t seem to mind the dry weather.

We haven’t had any significant rain for many weeks. Added to that, it’s been mostly sunny, and there’s been a strong, desiccating wind (my OED says ‘desiccative’, but WordPress isn’t so fussy). Not the greatest conditions in which to be creating a new garden. I’ve been moving turf around to set out the beds and the grassy areas, but struggling to stop them drying up altogether. Watering has been a major job, particularly as most of the plants we brought with us are still in pots.

I’m ashamed to say I’ve lost a few, including a small cutting of a fig, some phlox (the border type, rather than alpine varieties), and a yellow bottlebrush/wattle called Melaleuca squarrosa, which was one of a few grown from seed brought back from Australia). The one we planted in our last garden was around seven feet tall by the time we left, but we don’t have any left now. Maybe that’s an excuse to go and buy some more seeds, if ever we’re allowed to travel again.

The plants we bought from Burncoose nursery are all in now, and seem to be hanging on, with regular watering. The buds of the two upright beech trees are swelling and elongating, and I’m looking forward to them opening. The six fruit trees in our mini orchard have been in for longer and are also doing okay. This is Malus (apple!) ‘James Grieve’…

In the raised bed at the end (which will eventually be moved later on in the implementation of my garden plan) we’ve already harvested some of the rhubarb, and the reset strawberry plants are beginning to flower among the rubble…

I’ve been cavalier in moving rhododendrons that were in the way, but they’re coming out now, and I have to admit they are impressive. I may try harder to accommodate them under, and among the structural trees and shrubs in the design. The rich red will really shine out from the understorey. I’m almost excited to see what colours some of the others will be. I hope they survive, though some will need to be moved again, once they’ve finished flowering, and our thin soil is going to need some significant bulking up with organic material if they are to really thrive.

I was initially delighted to discover we had soil that is so easy to work. But in the last few weeks, with the continuing dry, sunny, windy conditions, I’ve seen just how thin it is. The tractors working in the field have raised dust storms, and as I clear more areas of grass and weeds I’ve taken to covering the exposed soil, for fear it will all blow away. It really is a bit like the mid-west here. All we need is some tumble weed. On the plus side, I am looking forward to growing a range of different plants from those I’ve been used to. Echinacea, for instance, and heleniums, which typically didn’t last the winter in the heavy clay of our last garden. Broom seems to do very well here – we have three large plants in the garden, and they are all full of flower, giving off a distinctive, heady aroma. Who needs Chanel?

And the magnolia is finally in full flower. I’m not sure of the variety. Despite having plenty of flowers, it’s something of a disappointment. Magnolia flowers can be damaged by frost; normally it’s the ones that flower early that suffer most. Despite flowering late, many of the flowers on our magnolia are frost damaged, with brown, rotten patches. Those flowers that aren’t affected look good though.

Here’s the full picture…

Actually, it doesn’t look to bad from a distance. It needs some structural pruning to improve the shape. The stems are crossing and congested. There’s another job waiting to be done. I’ll let it finish flowering first.

text & images © graham wright

A New Challenge…

I started this blog to share some of the ideas, experiences and knowledge I’ve gained as a professional gardener. But having given up professional gardening, for the time being at least, does that mean the Pulling Weeds blog is at an end? Not necessarily. Having just moved house, I’ve taken on a new, larger garden. It’s got a lot of gravel and lawned areas, and not nearly enough planting. My plan is to redesign it; to create something special. And I intend to share the process through this blog.

I say ‘I’ – it will actually be a project shared between myself and my wife, Julie (it’s her garden as much as mine). This time I won’t be the only one pulling weeds!

This is what the garden looks like now, on a cold winter’s day. The planting is limited, with big expanses of grass.

The garden is dominated by a large, mature birch tree at the end. There are dead trunks of two others, one right in the centre and one to the side of the house.

There are some plants worth keeping; quite a few rhododendrons, and this magnolia. It looks mature, despite it’s diminutive stature, so probably a stellata. The buds are already swollen, ready to burst into flower in the spring.

The Rhodies all seem to have lots of buds – I’m looking forward to a colourful show in May.

As you can see from the above, a lot of the beds have been mulched with slate chippings, leaving the plants as isolated individuals in a slatey beach. There are a lot of clumps of ox-eye daisies, which need either splitting or, more likely, removing (the flowers are pretty, but the plants don’t really earn their keep). The weeding clearly hasn’t been kept up with, and some of the shrubs and perennials have been overcome by couch grass. Fortunately the soil is quite sandy, so the digging is easy.

There’s a fair sized pond – deep, too – which was used for keeping expensive fish (all of which left with the previous owners). The rockery and waterfall at the back will have to go, along with the extensive paraphernalia (2 barrel sized filters hidden behind the rockery, a powerful water-blower-cum-filter thing hanging from the bridge, and a large pump on the bottom). The levels need sorting out. There’s an overflow pipe which is keeping the water level well below the rim. Hopefully we can keep the pond, but make it look more natural – turn it into a wildlife pond. The rather twee bridge will probably have to go.

There’s an awful lot of gravel and paving in the garden, and to my mind, it’s taking up valuable planting space – most of it will have to go.

Talking of gravel…

This is the front garden (if you can call it a garden). It’s our first challenge, and as you can see, we’ve already made a start (does anyone want a lorry load of gravel?) The last residents used it as a parking lot, but google images shows me there was once a garden where the gravel is now. The vehicles have left the soil badly compacted, so it will need a good digging over. I’ll let you know how we get on (does anyone know a good chiropractor?)…

Text & images © Graham Wright 2020

Bodnant in the rain…

Bodnant is a National Trust garden in the foothills of Snowdonia, just a few miles south of Llandudno, on the North Wales coast. Its location lends it a very special character, with the heavily contoured landscape making for a very dynamic garden, with plenty of spectacular views both within the gardens, and beyond. Being in Snowdonia, it gets plenty of rainfall, which keeps it lush and verdant. And the soil is acidic, which means the gardens can support a range of plants that would struggle elsewhere – particularly Rhododendrons, Azaleas and Camellias.
It had been some years since I last saw Bodnant – far too long – so it was a particular pleasure to visit the gardens again, with family, over the bank holiday weekend. Continue reading