A misty winter morning, Bodnant Winter Garden looks dramatic against the backdrop of the mountains of North Wales. Three years ago, the ambitious project of creating a winter garden from an old Edwardian rockery was finally achieved. “This was an area which had been a bit neglectedbefore, but now it’s the reason that Bodnant Garden remains open in winter, too. It just gives visitors an extra reason to visit the garden, although there’s lots of winter interest in the rest of the garden as well,” head gardener John Rippin explains. At only half an acre, the winter garden is relatively small in comparison to the whole garden, which covers 80 acres, but as John says: “It’s quality, not quantity that counts.” At this time of year, the Winter Garden is a vibrant combination of the shining bark of betulas and acers, the brightly-coloured stems of dogwoods, brambles and phyllostachys and the smooth grasses. “On a frosty day when the sun is shining, the garden is transformed into a magical winter landscape,” John says. The gleaming colours of irises, cyclamen and galanthus are set off against the dark bark. “The bark mulch is our secret,” John adds.
A good quality composted pine bark stops the ground from drying out in summer and protects the roots during winter. As it’s slow to break down, it provides nutrients for the plants for years. The local acidic clay soil allows the garden to grow a wide range of ericaceous plants such as azaleas, camellias and the beautiful Bodnant. rhododendron hybrids, which you’ll find nowhere else, and the flowers of hydrangeas are turning blue due to the acidity in the soil. John and his team of 23 gardeners make the most out of the garden being situated on an old rockery. “The ups and downs of the rockery allows us to grow a variety of plants,” John says. Bulbs such as the Iris reticulata varieties and the galanthus especially benefit from being planted in sheltered pockets, plus the irises and cyclamen get a free draining soil.
After Christmas, Galanthus nivalis, Galanthus elwesii, Galanthus ‘Atkinsii’ as well as some unusual varieties like ‘Grumpy’ look splendid, as well as the irises, cyclamen and daffodils. Sweetly-scented plants are dotted all around the garden – the fragrant witch hazels with their spidery flowers, the pinkish and white flowers of Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’ which open in January and February, and sarcococcas, which are not only in the Winter Garden but all over Bodnant Garden. There’s a sarcococca in the reception area that welcomes visitors into the garden with its beautiful scent. “The garden starts to look really good now that the structured planting is established,” John explains. However, he’s not the type to rest on his laurels: “We want to keep getting the garden better and better, and find new ways to improve it,” he says. It’s a never-ending journey, learning from problems and finding solutions.
In the beginning, the salix were eaten by rabbits, so they were replaced by dogwood, and the mice liked the crocus bulbs, so they’ve been replaced by other bulbs. There are exciting plans for the garden, too, with the extension of the snowdrop path leading into the old park and the opening of Furnace Meadow, with a variety of wild flowers to see. The Winter Garden has a contemporary style, which blends in harmoniously with the rest of Bodnant Garden, which dates back to the late 19th century and, since 1949, has been cared for by the National Trust.
Informality and lush planting is evident everywhere in this garden and it looks fabulous. “There’s height and fullness, masses of summer colour, plus big ferns and bamboos to give it a ‘jungley’ look,” says owner Charlie Pridham. “Liz has the great ideas and I’m the muscle that puts them into action.”