New life begins for Bodnant Garden’s iconic Pin Mill borders

It’s not easy to improve on a masterpiece but unlike paintings even our finest gardens, as living works of art, need re-imagining from time to time. Here our head gardener John Rippin explains his design to refresh the Canal Terrace borders which flank Bodnant’s iconic Pin Mill:


Canal Terrace borders before renovation. Image by Joe Wainwright

Since its conception in Georgian times Bodnant Garden has been the centrepiece of a much larger 2,000 acre estate.  Boasting a wonderful backdrop of mountain scenery and walks incorporating beautiful lakes, meadows and woodlands, the estate, like the garden itself, was shaped to be the perfect weekend escape for busy lives engaged in politics, industry and fast paced city life.

Gardeners have always gained inspiration from the way plants grow in the wild and natural styles of planting are currently very popular with garden and landscape designers. Many of their creations have a restful quality as well as being incredibly beautiful.


In 2015 and 2016, after removing old plants, we planted a display of annuals in the Canal Terrace borders, while a new design was being considered

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Inspired by walking Bodnant’s estate paths, I am attempting to bring echoes of these uplifting experiences into the heart of the garden. You may have heard of ‘Prairie style’ planting, exemplified by famous garden designers such as Piet Oudolf. I have tried to create a similar natural effect but by taking elements of the Welsh hedgerows of Bodnant Estate.

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Hazels and elderberry will form the backbone of the border, grasses will add movement and a sense of natural harmony whilst flowering perennials will provide foliage, colour and contrasting shapes and textures. The thistles, rosebay willow herb, cow parsley, bluebells, foxgloves and wild garlic of the Welsh hedgerows have been substituted for well-behaved cultivated plants chosen to capture the essence of these native plants.

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Using the Canal Terraces traditional range of pastel shades I have planned for a graded colour scheme along the length of the borders; dark purple and magenta flowers in the centre, moving through pink to blue and then white in the four corners, to match the Pin Mill.

Leading up to this new planting scheme the garden team have been patiently preparing the ground, removing persistent weeds and improving the soil. In the spring the long yew hedge was also carefully cut back hard to help re-establish the original crisp outline and height.


During September and October look out for a new section of York stone paving being laid and the phased planting of the new scheme, starting with wall plants, followed by the shrubs, herbaceous perennials, grasses and finally the bulbs.

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John tending the first of the new plants, this week

Planning ahead, the best time to see the border will be May for the spring bulbs and then August/ September for the late summer flowers and grasses. I think the border will take a year or two to completely fill out by which time it should look spectacular!

I really hope you enjoy watching these new borders develop and if they turn out as planned I will look forward to seeing some of you taking photos of the flowers and the beautiful setting as it changes throughout the seasons.

And from spring 2018 you’ll be able to enjoy the new floral display from new heights, when we open the upper floor of the Pin Mill to visitors for the first time in the garden’s history, following conservation and renovation work.  

For more details about Bodnant Garden call 01492 650460, check out our website or find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram


Have pith helmet, will plant hunt

downloadWe’ve dusted off the pith helmets this half term for a trail and exhibition to celebrate a famous plant hunter close to Bodnant Garden’s heart… and maybe inspire a new generation of explorers.



Ernest ‘Chinese’ Wilson was a botanist at the turn of the 20th century. A passionate plantsman, he graduated from Birmingham Botanical Gardens to travel inhospitable regions of China, bringing back to Britain the seeds of exotic trees, shrubs and flowers. In the early 1900s Lord Aberconway of Bodnant was a sponsor of the expeditions by Wilson and other plant hunters, which filled our garden with thousands of ‘new’ plants.

These plants – from magnificent UK Champion Trees to lilies, clematis and poppies – now form part of our historic, horticultural collection. Many have tales to tell; Wilson having encountered avalanche, war, disease and all manner of adversity to bring them to Bodnant Garden. And so, inspired by Wilson’s spirit of adventure, we’ve recreated an expedition of our own to inspire our younger visitors (but with the Health and Safety aspects covered.)

Ernest’s Tree Treasure Trail takes families around the garden tracking some of Wilson’s discoveries – which can be found in the living form of trees and shrubs, some more then a century old, grown from seeds brought back from his travels.


A mature Handkerchief Tree at Bodnant Garden

One of the most famous is the Handkerchief Tree (Davidia involucrata) which Wilson tracked down against the odds. This tree, with its delicate, paper-tissuey ivory flowers, had been first spotted by French botanist Armand David in 1869. His specimens were lost when his ship sank on the return journey. Tasked by Veitch Nursery in 1899 to find the tree, the 22-year-old Wilson set off armed with just a simple cross on a hand drawn map covering hundreds of square miles of the Yunnan region of China.

Find the spot he did – only to discover the tree had been felled. However he continued searching and found a grove of more, from which he collected a batch of the large, hard-shelled seeds. Back home at Veitch Nursery, gardeners sowed the seeds, but a couple of years later threw them onto a compost heap when they failed to germinate. The following year the precious seedlings popped up through the compost – and some were despached to Bodnant Garden where they have thrived.

Our tree trail takes in these and other Wilson finds, leading to the Old Mill in The Dell which has been transformed by events officer Charlie Stretton and our volunteers into an expedition base camp. Here children can see what life was like for intrepid explorers like Wilson, warm up in front of the ‘camp fire’ and collect their own Davidia seeds to take home and grow.


The exhibition will remain in the Old Mill after half term, including pictures and stories from Wilson’s life and work. Come along and find out more about his incredible legacy which can be seen at Bodnant Garden throughout the year.

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Bodnant Garden events and engagement officer Charlie with our Handkerchief Tree seeds

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Young volunteer Gethin tending to some of Wilson’s plants


Young visitors enjoying the base camp in the Old Mill…especially trying on the pith helmets and Wilson moustache

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For more details about Bodnant Garden call 01492 650460, check out our website or catch up with us on Facebook  or Twitter.

From Bodnant borders to pastures new


IMG_4985 As 2017 begins we bid farewell to garden supervisor Bill Warrell, who leaves us to take up the position of head gardener with our National Trust neighbours at Plas Newydd and Penrhyn Castle further along the North Wales coast – an exciting opportunity at two major gardens.

Bill has been in charge of the Glades at Bodnant for around 8 years during what’s been a dynamic phase for the garden. In that time these informal acres, comprising old shrub borders, grass glades and a wildflower meadow, have been given a new lease of life to welcome a new generation of visitors.

It’s been no mean feat. Bill arrived when Bodnant Garden was under the shadow of plant disease Phytophthora ramorum. Originating in the US where it was known as Sudden Oak Death, this fungal killer was making its way northwards through Britain, targeting a host of ornamental trees and shrubs. Signs of the fungal killer had begun appearing around the garden, especially the old shrub borders.

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Beautiful shrub borders in spring

This area was developed in the early 1900s by garden owner Henry McLaren (2nd Lord Aberconway) who filled it with plants sourced from Asian botanical expeditions, including rhododendrons, magnolias and other newly discovered ‘exotic’ specimens. Almost a century later these lovely, and in some cases rare plants were elderly, and some ailing. Bill managed the renovation of the old shrub borders, which included a programme of removing diseased plants and monitoring others, taking the opportunity to introduce new plantings which provide all-year round colour and interest.


Daffodil-filled Glades in spring and Old Park meadow in summer


He has also led the renovation and opening to the public of private areas of the garden. In 2013 we opened the Old Park, a meadow dating back to the garden’s Georgian Landscape period. Today this is managed for wildflowers in summer, and there is a programme of bulb planting to enhance displays of snowdrops and daffodils in spring. In 2014 Bill and team opened the Yew Dell, a treasure trove of mature rhododendrons, again dating back to the collections of early 20th century plant hunters.


Visitors gather for the official opening of The Bath

Most recently Bill masterminded the flamboyant redesign and replanting of The Bath in 2016 – elevating it from a tired, Victorian shrub-lined ornamental pool area to tropical garden, which has delighted visitors.


Cameras roll…showing BBC’s Jules Hudson around the Yew Dell

Bill has a serious love of plants, and has been a great ambassador for Bodnant Garden, giving talks in the community and braving a camera and microphone when media call (most memorably, in a Hawaiian shirt and sarong for the opening of The Bath.) Among his list of broadcast credentials he has been our front man for Gardener’s World, ITV News, BBC Radio and even Escape to the Country, always on hand with his depth of knowledge, sincerity and humour.

Horticulture aside, he has also done a huge amount of work on health and safety issues, including championing accessible routes around the garden, plans for which we are now taking forward.

Bill has been a big personality who’ll be missed by his crew and by everyone here, staff and volunteers. Thanks Bill for all the hard work, love and commitment you’ve given to Bodnant Garden. We wish you and family all the best for the future.




Bill Warrell (left) with current garden team Graeme, Harvey, Roger and Lynne in Hawaiian mood at the grand opening of the Bath in September.



50 Things To Do (and some) as a Bodnant Garden volunteer

Bodnant (ProfilePic)Hi, I’m Gethin; I’m 15 years old, and a volunteer here at Bodnant Garden. I’ve been volunteering for just over a year, and wow, what a journey it has been! It all started in August 2015. As part of my 6-month volunteering section for my Bronze Duke of Edinburgh Award I begun helping out with the National Trust kids’ events programme – 50 Things To Do Before You’re 11¾.

From the first second, I knew I was going to enjoy it. The activity was pond dipping in the Far End, catching all sorts of creatures and finding out interesting facts about them. I was also helping with the wild art activity where you create pictures out of twigs, leaves, petals and other natural things. I was involved in making little dragonflies out of pipe cleaners and beads too. The creations were incredible!

Bodnant - Halloween (October 2015)

After all the summer activities had finished, it was time to start thinking about October Half Term. We decorated the Old Mill with spooky decorations for Halloween and, as it was also national ‘Wild about Gardens’ Week, I made hundreds of hedgehog houses, thousands of spiders and bats from clay, and enough bird cake pots to feed all the birds in the UK! There was a lovely log fire in the brazier outside too.

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Then as we were beginning to recover from the excitement of Halloween, it was time for Christmas (my favourite time of year.) So out came the Christmas tree, the lights and elf costumes and a name change – I was now Elf Zippypickle! The Old Mill was like something out of Winter Wonderland and looked amazing. Outside the fire was back, keeping everyone warm during the coldest time of the year.

Bodnant - Christmas Elves (December 2015)

As part of the activities we helped children find their elf name, by using their first initial and the month they were born in (the best ones were Zippy Picklepants and Englebert Humperdinck). The dragonflies had made a return, but this time, they were sparkly. We also decorated pinecones with paint, glitter and pompoms (I think the dads enjoyed this activity more than some of the children…) and we toasted marshmallows on the log fire – delicious!

Bodnant - Pond Dipping (April 2016)

Then Christmas was over, the elves had gone back to the North Pole, and the New Year had passed…hello 2016! February half term was the next thing to look forward to; it was Pick-a-Stick Week so we did pond dipping with bamboo nets and created homes for wildlife using twigs.

Bodnant - Easter Egg Hunt (Easter 2016)


The next big holiday was Easter and Bodnant’s big activity was a massive Cadbury’s Easter Egg Hunt. The trail took children and their families around the garden looking for letters to spell out the particular sentence, which they then told the Easter Bunny to claim their chocolate (with a smaller hunt for younger children) I ate WAAAAAY too much chocolate over those two days. Again, we did some more pond dipping the following week and some kite making.

Now, on to the most popular, and busiest time of the year for the garden (this year smashing a record amount of visitors.) It’s the time when people drive for hours just to see one thing; some people from outside the UK plan their holiday to North Wales around this yearly wonder to see, to take pictures and to stand, for hours, just looking… I’m talking about the one, the only, the outstanding #BODNANTLABURNUMARCH!

It flowered towards the end of the school half-term this year which meant I couldn’t see it in its full glory (there’s always next year), but that didn’t stop me from doing more pond dipping and kite flying in the days leading up to it. With the help of the specially recruited Laburnum Archers volunteers, I think it all ran quite smoothly.


Oh, and one more thing, I was on television (only for about 3 seconds, but still…) BBC Gardeners’ World came to visit to have a look at the Far End and the Penjerrick Walk on Furnace Hill which will be opened next year. They also interviewed some of the volunteers including the Laburnum Archers in their bright yellow gilets.

It’s not just the children’s activities I help with. Bodnant Garden is a place where no two days are the same. I have directed traffic to the car park, welcomed coach parties, cleaned up plates and cups in the Pavilion Tea Room, been on a hunt for missing teddy bears, hidden paper eggs, played pooh sticks with visitors, built a den, taken a selfie with the garden cats Whiskers and Ginger (not one of the #50Things activities, but it should  be), and run after one or two stray sheep.

14172021_10154404291394590_292540483_nSo far this summer I’ve been helping with the (yes, you guessed it) pond dipping every Wednesday and also done one day of Rolling Down a Really Big Hill in Eirias Park as part of the National Playday in August.

I always enjoy talking to the visitors in the garden and completing the #50Things. I may be over the age of 11¾, but I’ve done loads of them since being here (especially Number 6… run around in the rain!) The Big Tree Climb over the August Bank Holiday was fun too. I enjoyed (ahem) “testing the ropes, to make sure they were safe” and I look forward all the activities in the coming months.

Gethin Mullock-Jones


Gethin Mullock-Jones with Bodnant Garden’s events and enagement officer Charlie Stretton

Whatever your age, abilities, skills or background there’s a volunteering opportunity for you here at Bodnant Garden. To find out about more about joining the team see our website or contact property administrator Rose James on 01492 650460. 

And from all of us at Bodnant Garden: Gethin, you are a star. Thanks for all your help over the last year. You have made a real difference and we hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as we’ve loved having you here…and please keep coming, as studies allow! 

Help crown Bodnant Garden’s old chestnut as Wales Tree of the Year

Here at Bodnant Garden the grand old Sweet Chestnut on our Top Lawn is one of our most loved residents. Known as a ‘walking tree’, she’s now in the running for the title of Wales Tree of the Year.


Gardener Dave Larter hugging our Sweet Chestnut

Striding across the grass of the formal lawn with her gnarled, many-legged trunk, the old girl is one of the first sights to greet visitors when they arrive through the garden gates, much photographed, painted and admired.

Now, she is one of six great trees around the country vying for the prestigious title of Wales Tree of the Year in a competition being run by the Woodland Trust. The public are being asked to vote for their favourite and the winner will be announced in mid-October.

So why is she so special? This tree is one of the oldest at Bodnant Garden, a remnant of its early, Georgian past.

Owner John Forbes built the original hall in 1782 and created a parkland around it in the Landscape style of the day after designers like Kent, Capability Brown and Repton. This brought nature close to the house with a panorama of rolling grassland dotted with native trees like oak, beech, sycamore and chestnut, and a ha-ha or ditch keep grazing animals away from the hall.


She’s there somewhere… among the group of trees in front of the hall in this picture of Bodnant Garden from the mid 1800s

With her solid Georgian roots, our Sweet Chestnut has withstood the passage of time and the rugged North Wales weather, being encorporated into the later, formal Victorian upper garden and ageing into her very own, unique character. Her main stem was blown out at some point in the past by a lightening strike causing the trunk to split. Over time several of the larger branches have layered themselves upon the lawn, giving her ‘legs’.


Today, a great place for a bug hunt

She’s a favourite of gardener Dave Larter who watches over our trees here at Bodnant Garden. He says: “I love trees! Especially old trees with some history, trees with character and trees with potential for the future. This one has it all. At well over 200 years of age, maybe 250, she is making her claim on the top lawn for sure.

“Having lost her top many decades ago, she started to ‘walk’ northwards. Beaten back by strong winds and chainsaws, she is now intent on a south-westerly route. A truly ‘walking tree’, she  appears almost Elephantine without foliage, placing her trunk where she wants to go next. She has already layered daughters which are layering their own offspring and, given chance, they will layer theirs. Who knows where she could be in years to come?”


Perfect for just enjoying the shade on a hot day

Bodnant Garden is home to many exotic and native trees, some of them UK Champions – the biggest and best of their kind in the UK. The Sweet Chestnut is an honourary native, having been introduced to Britain by the Romans, and while ours hasn’t attained any official Champion status (yet!) she certainly holds a special place of honour here at the garden.

The Wales Tree of the Year competition runs until October 9. To vote for our Sweet Chestnut find the details at the Woodland Trust website here

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Draped in finery during our recent textile exhibition at the garden



A floral gift to future generations

As our world-famous Laburnum Arch bursts into June flower we’re unveiling an exciting conservation project to safeguard some rare and special plants at Bodnant Garden, and to create a floral spectacle for future generations.

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Artist impression of the new Penjerick Walk, by Clive McWilliam

Our garden team is restoring the Penjerrick Walk, a historic avenue of rhododendrons, back to its former glory. The hope is that in years to come it will be a floral showstopper to match the Victorian arch, which attracts around 50,000 visitors every June.

The Penjerrick Walk forms part of Furnace Hill, which lies on the west of the garden overlooking the River Hiraethlyn, Bodnant Hall and the spectacular Italianate terraces. The area includes woodland and a wildflower-rich meadow which will open to the public for the first time next spring, creating an extra 20 acres for visitors to explore.

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Furnace Hill and the newly planted Penjerrick Walk

Furnace Hill was first developed by Henry Pochin, who bought Bodnant Garden in 1874. His descendants, the McLaren family, shared his botanical passion and filled it with plants from around the world, planting American conifers and Asian rhododendrons and magnolias.

Pochin’s grandson Henry Duncan McLaren, 2nd Lord Aberconway, had a pivotal role in the story of rhododendrons in Britain. He sponsored plant hunting expeditions to Asia in the early 1900s which brought a great influx of new varieties into the country. He also bred 350 unique Bodnant hybrids at the garden from these species plants and worked with other UK plant breeders such as Penjerrick Garden in Cornwall.


An existing Penjerrick rhododendron at Bodnant Garden

Henry planted the Penjerrick Walk in the 1920s and it would have been quite a sight when mature a couple of decades later – Rhododendron ‘Penjerrick’ has large scented white, cream or pink flowers and characteristic red-pink bark. However it is notoriously difficult to propagate and cannot be reproduced from cuttings. For this reason it has never been a common sight in UK gardens and as plants have died off they have not been replaced. The walkway at Furnace Hill eventually disappeared and was reclaimed by nature.

Former head gardener at Bodnant, Troy Smith was inspired to reinstate the Penjerrick Walk after discovering a speech by Henry McLaren in which he said: If I could switch the clock to any season of the year to enjoy a two minute walk at Bodnant, my choice would be the Penjerrick Walk in the first week of May

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Troy Smith checking on the new plants

With help from the Rhododendron, Camellia and Magnolia Group of the RHS, plant material from existing Penjerricks in Bodnant Garden was micro-propagated at a specialist laboratory in Duchy College, Cornwall. Under Troy’s successor John Rippin, the garden team has nursed on and replanted some of the young plants in a 120 metre avenue on Furnace Hill. Around 40 Penjerricks have been interplanted with purple flowering Rhododendron augustinii and pink Rhododendron ‘Reve d’Amour’.

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Bodnant’s head gardener John Rippin

John said: “We go to great lengths to conserve and tend to the plants at Bodnant Garden to ensure the grounds look incredible all year round. Since 2012 the team here has opened new parts of the garden. We can’t wait to open Furnace Hill and will be eagerly waiting for the Penjerrick Walk to come into full bloom. The support from Duchy College and the RHS has been invaluable in making this happen.”

Justin Albert, director of National Trust Wales said: “Collected by intrepid plant hunters from as far back as 300 years ago, our precious plant life stands as testament to the vision and passion for plants shared by generations of owners and their gardeners.

“This fantastic project at Bodnant Garden is just one of conservation projects that our team of gardeners and volunteers are undertaking at our gardens across Wales to restore and preserve plants from across the world for visitors to enjoy.”

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Gardener Fiona Braithwaite giving members of Abergwyngregyn Gardening Club a sneak preview of Furnace Hill

For more details about Bodnant Garden call 01492 650460, check out our website or catch up with us on Facebook  or Twitter.

Move over, Nigel the dog!

Did we mention…BBC Gardener’s World paid us a visit recently? Never mind Monty, Nigel and Nell, this episode of Britain’s favourite gardening show features not one, but two of our head gardeners.

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Our very own former head gardener Troy Scott Smith returned to his old stomping ground recently to check up on the Laburnum Arch, meet our new band of volunteers the Laburnum Archers, and talk new man at the helm John Rippin about the renovation of the Far End and future garden projects.

The programme is due to be aired on Friday, June 3 – perfect timing for our Laburnum Arch, which is a little late this year due to topsy-turvey weather, and all set to burst into full bloom at the weekend. If you can’t wait until Friday, here’s a taster:



Above, Troy meeting two Laburnum Archers – student Gethin and former wing commander Jeff – and below, with volunteer David

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Above, Troy and current head gardener John Rippin, and below, the camera crew with gardeners and volunteers at the Far End

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Troy checking on the progress of the newly planted Penjerrick Walk at Furnace Hill, which will be opened next spring

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A pow-wow at the gloriette on the Heather Hill, another new area to be opened to the public in the future

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Our Laburnum Archers, ready for action over the next few weeks of Bodnant Garden’s famous flowering sensation

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So book your place on the sofa and check in at BBC Gardener’s World this Friday, June 3, at 8.30pm. And if you’re lucky enough to be visiting over the next three weeks to see the Laburnum Arch, there’s a lovely new bunch of volunteers just waiting for greet you – you can’t miss them!

For more details about Bodnant Garden call 01492 650460, check out our website or catch up with us on Facebook  or Twitter.