Autumn’s so bright you’ll need to wear shades

There’s plenty to warm the cockles of your heart at Bodnant Garden this autumn. We’ve got 80 acres of autumn glow, plus events for all the family and a warm welcome in our tearooms.

Bodnant Garden is a firework display of colour in autumn, with the dazzling leaf colour of trees and shrubs, ripening fruit and berries and late flowering plants putting on a show to rival the bright colours of summer.

The garden’s 140-year-old collection of trees are at their finest at this time of year, especially in Chapel Park (seen below) where you can enjoy the reds, purples and ambers of Japanese acers plus many others – some exotics collected by plant hunters more than a century ago along with other beautiful native trees.

Chapel Park in all its autumn glory2

For the first time in the garden’s history this autumn, visitors can explore the arboretum in the newly opened lakeside area, The Far End, which includes some of the garden’s Champion Trees.

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In the formal gardens on The Terraces roses are still in bloom and herbaceous beds are full with late flowering asters, sedums and dahlias; in The Dell our swathes of hydrangeas are changing all the colours of the kaleidoscope as they age; and in the Shrub Borders plants are laden with berries and fruit.

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Look out for the weirdest fruit of the garden, the blue pods of Decaisnea fargesii (Dead Man’s Fingers), and giant raspberries of Cornus kousa (seen above). Birds are loving the autumn too as they make the most of the fruits on offer. There’s a chance to see them on October 9 with our Birds of Bodnant Walk at 11am. This is a free guided tour with an expert from Birdwatching Trips.

There’s plenty for younger visitors during half term week – from Monday October 26 to Friday October 31 we’re hosting Wild About Gardens Week with craft activities in the Old Mill in The Dell, from 11am to 2pm.

There will be environmental art around the garden and families will be encouraged to make their own from items like leaves and cones. There will also be a trail of pumpkins to lead people to the Old Mill. On Saturday, October 31, there are Halloween activities at The Far End and the Old Mill from 12am to 3pm including Making a Witch’s Hovel. These are free events so drop in at any time.

On Wednesday November 18 there’s a Walk with the Head Gardener – this is an opportunity to meet John Rippin, who took over in January, and find out about his vision for the future (cost £10, call 01492 650460 to book a place.)

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And talking of walks…Dogs Welcome starts again in November (Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays), with the garden now open to our four-legged friends every day from January until the end of February.

If the candyfloss scent of Cercidiphyllum japonicum (Katsura Tree) gives you an appetite there are refreshments on offer every day in the Pavilion and Magnolia tearooms throughout the autumn, plus the kiosks in the Dell and Far End at weekends.

For more details about Bodnant Garden call 01492 650460, check out our website nationaltrust.org.uk/bodnant-garden or catch up with us on Facebook  or Twitter.

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In praise of the humble hydrangea

Hydrangeas in The Dell

One of the memorable sights of summer and early autumn at Bodnant Garden is the swathe of blue hydrangeas which light up the lush shade of the riverside in The Dell, along with the kaleidoscopic Liquorice Allsorts display lining Lily Terrace walls.

So often sniffed at as suburban stalwarts there’s no denying that, seen on mass, these huge, flamboyant flowers create an fantastic visual impact…well worth a double take.

Originally a foreign import, the hydrangea has become a staple in our gardens, now regarded as traditionally British as…rhododendrons…which aren’t British either! Among my own earliest memories are the big, blousy blooms which lined the path to my nan’s front door – as a child I couldn’t resist batting the flowerheads as I walked by, along with popping the fuchsia buds (sorry Nan.)

Sadly hydrangeas have suffered the same fate as their other exotic friends – that’s to say not being abused by small children, but their hardiness and dependability has made them such a common sight that they have pretty much lost their mystique. But it’s not all about the pom-poms. Aside from the ornamental displays on our Terraces, the shrubs dotted through The Dell and Shrub Borders give a glimpse of how the plants look in their native lands – in woods, scrabbling up rocky slopes and along riverbanks.

Trees, shrubs and climbers native to Asia and the Americas, hydrangeas have been around for longer than the people loving or hating them – the oldest fossil finds come from North America from 40 to 65 million years ago. In China and Japan hydrangeas have been cultivated for their ornamental value for thousands of years, while in North America they were used in medicine.

The first Hydrangea arborescens was introduced in England around 1736 from Pennsylvania by Peter Collison. A little later in 1788 explorer Sir Joseph Banks presented a Hydrangea macrophylla from Japan to Kew Gardens. Specimens continued to dribble into Europe but in 1879 the English nursery Veitch sent botanist Charles Maries to China and Japan and in the decades following, as planthunters were discovering new species abroad nurseries from Europe were introducing numerous cultivars to the market.

Today, there are known to be around 70 species of hydrangea. Here are some of the most notable you can see at Bodnant Garden:

Mophead Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Renate Steiniger’

The most common forms are Hydrangea macrophylla which produce characteristic blue, pink and purple flowers (most other species are white). They come in two types, the mopheads and the lacecaps, distinct by the shape of the blooms – the mopheads bear showy, dense, pompom-like blooms while the lacecaps have frothy heads made up of fertile flower buds in the centre surrounded by sterile blossom. Both have large, thick, toothed leaves, often heart-shaped.

Lacecap Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Blue Wave’

As they flower on wood produced the previous year it’s best to prune after flowering by cutting out one or two of the oldest stems at the base to encourage the production of new growth. However neglected plants can be renovated by cutting off all the stems at the base (though you’ll have to wait a year for it to flower). The dead flower heads are decorative in their own right and can be left on over winter, cutting back in spring.

Similar to the macrophylla (some botanists believe it to be a sub-species) is the Japanese Hydrangea serrata (Japanese Mountain Hydrangea) which produces neat shrubs with lacecap-type clusters of blue and pink flowers in summer and autumn. Like the macrophylla it flowers on old wood but because of its compact size and form needs little pruning.

hydrangea serrata 'Blue Bird' 

Above, H. serrata ‘Blue Bird’ and H. paniculata ‘Grandiflora’

One of the white forms is Hydrangea paniculata. Some of these are upright and some drooping in shape but they all bear cone shaped flowers, starting creamy white and turning shades of pale pink as they age in the autumn. The leaves are smaller, thinner, and rougher than leaves of the macrophyllas. The plants can be sprawling but they can be kept compact (and flower more profusely) if you cut back last year’s sideshoots to 5cm of the older wood in spring, keeping to a framework of branches.

Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’

Another lovely white hydrangea is the Hydrangea arborescens. Like macrophyllas they bear large lollipop-type blooms but the leaves of arborescens are generally thin, heart shaped, and not as stiff. Some flowers open green and turn white, then back to green again. Like Hydrangea paniculata, they can be pruned in spring back to pair of healthy buds to maintain a permanent framework.

Hydrangea quercifolia

Hydrangea quercifolia (Oak Leaved Hydrangea) gets its name from the shape of its beautiful large leaves which turn russet in the autumn. Again these hydrangeas open ivory, turning to pink as they age. Like macrophyllas they flower on old wood and to keep their informal shape need only minimal pruning in spring to remove old and rangey stems.

H.involucrata ‘Hortensis’

A smaller hydrangea is Hydrangea involucrata which has peony-shaped, pinky flowers that open late summer to autumn, with velvety leaves. They flower on new wood and can be pruned early in the year, though their size rarely makes it necessary.

Hydrangea aspera, villosa and sargentiana are tall, erect plants characterised by their furry foliage, and leaves which are the longest of all species, reaching as much as a foot in shade. They have large flat flower heads, usually pale pink and blue, and need little pruning, being more suited to informal settings.

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Above, H.aspera villosa and H.anomola petiolaris

And then there’s the climbing hydrangea Hydrangea anomola petiolaris a vigorous and sturdy plant which has creamy blooms and lacecap flowers in mid-summer. Long hanging shoots should be cut back after flowering and again spring to maintain a framework.

Hydangeas have become so popular because they are generally tough, suited to a range of situations, and reliably produce long lasting and eye catching displays. They last into autumn, changing colour wonderfully as they age, and even the seedheads and bare stems provide welcome structure to beds and borders in winter. Granted, the only thing missing is scent.

 Hydrangea macrophylla 'Altona' (2)

Ageing gracefully (and disgracefully) in winter

Achieving that Holy Grail of hydrangeas – the vivid blue – depends on your species and your soil type. White hydrangeas do not generally change colour but it is possible to change pinks to blues and vice-versa. If the soil is naturally acidic and contains aluminium the colour of the hydrangea will tend to be blue and purple. Aluminium sulfate may be added to the soil, and a fertilizer low in phosphorus and high in potassium may help too. Here at Bodnant Garden we’re lucky to have acidic soil, responsible for some amazing electric blues like the Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Renate Steiniger’ in our Shrub Borders.

Visually rewarding, hardy, versatile, long lived…what’s not to like? The right plant in the right place, or even in glorious abundance, the homely hydrangea has earned its place in out hearts and gardens.

The Far End – it’s getting closer!

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On March 28, after years of renovation work, we’re opening up a new area to the public and it’s all hands to the pump right now as we make the final push before opening day.

The Far End is ten acres of tranquil riverside. Some of you might have seen it in our Secret Bodnant walks last year exploring private areas of the garden, but until now most visitors have not been able to walk further than the famous Waterfall Bridge in The Dell. Soon everyone can explore what lies beyond…waterside walks, a Skating Pond, boathouse and arboretum.

Horticulturalist and broadcaster Christine Walkden will perform the official opening at a special day of celebration on Saturday, March 28. That day we’ll also have harp music in the boat house, demonstrations of coracle making on the lakeside, country dancing, guided walks, a nature trail for children and refreshments.

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 Then and now, the Skating Pond in the Far End

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The Far End is quite different in character to other parts of the garden – unlike the formal Italianate Terraces or the dramatic Dell with its rushing river and waterfall – here the paths lead visitors to a small lake which is quiet, peaceful and full of wildlife.

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 The smaller Otter Pond

It is one of the oldest parts of the garden, originally laid out by Bodnant’s creator Henry Pochin from the 1870s who envisaged it as The Wild Garden in the style of Victorian garden designer William Robinson. Pochin began by creating paths along the riverside and planting conifers, some of which are now Champion Trees. Pochin’s daughter Laura and grandson Henry McLaren laid out the large Skating Pond and Boat House and continued planting trees and shrubs from all around the world.

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The original thatched Boat House, which has now been restored

The area was never opened to the public but over the last few years gardeners have been renovating banks, beds and paths, creating a new circular walkway and bridge which will give visitors an easy access, level route around this beautiful part of the garden. The work hasn’t been without setbacks. In November 2011 flooding devastated the area, washing away new plantings, damaging paths and leaving a trail of debris…but the next day garden supervisor Maxine Singleton and her team were clearing up and starting again.

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Supervisor Maxine with gardeners Steve and Fiona

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Steve and Alex doing some aquatic gardening

Now, three years on, the Far End has been rejuvinated and is ready to open, though renovation and replanting work will be ongoing. Christine Walkden, a horticulturalist well known for her TV and radio work – and friend and fan of Bodnant Garden – will cut a ribbon officially opening the area at 12 noon. It’s a historic event for Bodnant so be among the first to see this secret garden unveiled!

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Christine Walkden with staff and volunteers at the garden last year

For more details about Bodnant Garden call 01492 650460, check out our website www.nationaltrust.org.uk/bodnant-garden or Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/BodnantGardenNT

Unveiling the Yew Dell

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  We’re almost there! The Yew Dell opens tomorrow (Saturday, March 8)…come along and be among the first to see the area, opening to visitors for the first time in the garden’s 140-year history. As an added bonus (if you needed one) visitors who come this weekend can also enter our Mother’s Day competition to win a Bodnant Garden treat for the family, inspired by our Yew Dell’s rhododendrons…

  Rhododendrons have played a special part in the history of the garden. Our dazzling display in May is world famous and draws visitors from far and wide, year after year. They’ve also played a special part in the Yew Dell.

  The 3.5 acres of the Yew Dell was laid out in the 1880s by Bodnant Garden’s creator Henry Pochin, who was inspired by William Robinson and his book The Wild Garden published in 1870. Robinson recommended mixing exotic and native plants suited to climate and terrain rather than according to any particular style.

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Water cascades through the Yew Dell

   The popularity of this idea, together with the influx of plants from abroad fed by the travels of intrepid Victorian plant hunters, led to the creation of woodland gardens like that at Bodnant Garden which harmonised trees, shrubs and perennials from all over the world. The climate and terrain of North Wales was particularly suited to Himalayan plants like rhododendrons.

  Bodnant’s rhododendron collection developed in the early 1900s. The McLaren family supported Asian plant hunting expeditions of the day by famous botanists such as Ernest Wilson, George Forrest and Frank Kingdon-Ward. They brought back plants and seeds founding a collection which over successive decades was enhanced by a breeding programme which produced unique Bodnant Garden hybrids.

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Rhododendron ririei in the Yew Dell, one of the plants grown from seed collected by plant hunters

  Many of these plants took their place in the garden, others found a home in the Yew Dell which became a ‘holding area’ for species and hybrid rhododendrons. These shrubs have now matured into trees and their beautifully twisted trunks reach over head mingling with the canopy of native yews, oak, ash as well as more exotic conifers and magnolias.

  Over the years the area has remained untouched apart from basic management and during the last two years gardeners have been weeding, cutting back the brambles and renovating shrubs and trees, as well as repairing paths and drains. During the renovation new plants will be added, including hydrangea, euonymus and acer to add autumn interest. The rhododendron collection will also be expanded.

  Visitors who come this weekend can bag their own piece of Bodnant history by entering our Mother’s Day competition. Tell us why your mum is the best and you could win lunch in the Pavilion tearoom on Mothering Sunday, March 30, plus a Bodnant hybrid rhododendron – one to take home and one to plant in the Yew Dell for posterity. Entries cards will be available at the garden.

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Gardeners preparing a rustic seating srea in the Yew Dell

Breathing life back into an old dream

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A special part of our garden which has been hidden from public view for more than a century will open to visitors for the first time in March.

  Named after the many yew trees that grow there, the Yew Dell  is a wooded area with stream running through it; full of old, rare rhododendrons and reminiscent of a Himalayan glade.  Its opening on the weekend of March 8 and 9 marks the first phase of a  renovation project. Visitors will be able to come along and see the work in progress – and even get their hands dirty helping the gardeners.

  Bill Warrell, area supervisor, says: “The Yew Dell is a beautiful and uniquely atmospheric part of the garden. With mature rhododendrons and hydrangeas overhung by oak, ash and magnolia, it has a secluded, lush atmosphere. We hope that, over the next couple of years, visitors will enjoy watching the transformation.”

  yew dell 011   The 3.5 acres of the Yew Dell were originally laid out from the 1870s by BodnantGarden’s creator Henry Pochin, who was inspired by leading Victorian designer William Robinson. In his book The Wild Garden, published in 1870, Robinson recommended mixing exotic and native plants suited to climate and terrain rather than according to a particular horticultural style. The popularity of this idea, together with the influx of foreign plants fed by the travels of intrepid plant hunters, led to the creation of woodland gardens like that at Bodnant which harmonised trees, shrubs and perennials from all over the world. The rugged environment of Snowdonia proved particularly suited to many Asian plants, particularly Himalayan ones like rhododendrons.

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A glade of rhododendrons and two which are flowering right now in the Yew Dell. The first (left) is a mystery – we think it’s a cross between Rh.praevernum and Rh. sutchuenense, both species rhododendrons which grow nearby – the vivid purple one (right)  is Rh. rirei, another old species.

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  Today the Yew Dell is home to many old rhododendrons grown from seed collected by famous plant hunters George Forrest and Frank Kingdon-Ward during their Asian travels in the early 1900s; also to many rare Bodnant Hybrid rhododendrons, bred at the garden last century. Over the years the area has remained untouched apart from basic management and during the last two years gardeners have been weeding, cutting back brambles, renovating shrubs and trees, as well as repairing paths and drains.

   Bill says: “After some hard work to make the area safe and accessible it is now ready to welcome the public – but there’s plenty more to do yet! During the renovation work new plants will be added, including hydrangea, euonymus and acer to extend interest into autumn. The rhododendron collection will also be expanded, as more Bodnant Hybrids are planted.”

  On the Yew Dell’s opening weekend we will also be launching our new Plant Hunter Tracker Packs – a backpack crammed with map and exploration kit to help families to enjoy discovery activities around the garden.  We will be launching a Mother’s Day competition too – the winner will receive a Bodnant rhododendron to take home and another to plant in the Yew Dell, plus lunch at the Pavilion tearoom on Mothering Sunday.

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Gardeners Graeme, Roger and Katie working on the Yew Dell

  The opening of the Yew Dell is the first phase in a transformation of the lower garden at Bodnant. It will be followed in 2015 by another private riverside area known as the Skating Pond, and in 2017 by Furnace Wood. The National Trust looks after special places, for ever for everyone – we hope a new generation of visitors will love exploring more of Bodnant Garden than ever before.