Jun
17
2021

Author Iona McLaren reveals the secrets of Bodnant Garden – and how to recreate its ambience in our outdoor spaces

If we could choose one garden in the world, the listed Bodnant Garden would certainly take a few blows. The National Trust site at the foot of Snowdonia in North Wales is an organic utopia – filled with Mediterranean-style terraces, curated lawns, and rare flowers from the Himalayas and Andes.

See: Garden ideas – Inspiration and ideas for outdoor spaces

For many, the hills are from Bodnant sound like a distant dreamland, but for the author Iona McLaren these gardens run through the blood – as she grew up in the middle of the gardens that her great-grandfather designed.

In an exclusive conversation with H&G, it reveals the secrets of the beautiful land and how its charm is reflected in our outdoor areas.

Can you paint us a picture of Bodant?

“Spectacular” is the best word to describe it. First off, Three is no other garden in the UK that can match its views: over the silvery Conwy River and out onto the mighty mountains of Snowdonia. It’s a stunning piece of landscape that goes from a steep slope carved into Italian terraces for the formal garden to the deep chasm of the Dell, which is filled with towering sequoias in the wilder part.

What is the outstanding planting?

Iona McLaren - Bodnant Garden

The plants are like a pyrotechnic display. There are hundreds of rare rhododendrons and azaleas blooming in stunning colors, massive champion trees and of course Bodnant’s famous golden rainbow, the longest in the world.

What was it like growing up there?

Iona McLaren - Bodnant Garden

Sky. As children, my two brothers and I scurried through ten acres of wild gardens that were then not open to the public. We paddled in the rivers, raced up the tributaries, put balsa boats in the water and grazed sorrel.

See: How to plant a flower bed – the indispensable guide to planting beautiful flowers

How can we bring a touch of Bodant into our own gardens?

Not every garden starts with the setting or the scale that makes Bodant such a knockout, but his spirit can be captured in miniature. The garden as we see it today is largely the design of my great-grandfather Harry, who was President of the RHS from 1931 to 1953. His advice to anyone who wanted to enjoy their garden was “If you like something, plant a lot” of it. ‘

What was your great-grandfather’s gardening philosophy?

Iona McLaren - Bodnant Garden

If something is growing well in your garden, then it should be making a real impact, not settling for just one or two of each. Whether it’s roses, peonies, or whatever you like, your garden will benefit greatly from having three or four of them.

Are there any landscaping tips we can learn from him?

Harry thought gardens should have a very precise plan, a “backbone” and not just a rendezvous for strange plants. He was a big advocate of terrace gardens, both for aesthetic and practical reasons. He also urged gardeners to make room for at least one perfectly straight path, since “walking back and forth is one of the things a garden should be made for”.

What other garden do you visit for inspiration?

Iona McLaren - Bodnant Garden

The formal gardens of Italy are the visual ancestors of the Bodnant Terraces, even if you think those Mediterranean lawns might enjoy a dose of Welsh rain. I think the garden designer Julian and Isabel Bannerman are geniuses.

I like places with a dramatic natural slope, like Batsford Arboretum or the glorious Kiftsgate Court Gardens. Unnatural slopes are good too – like the wild and slanted land sculptures by Kim Wilkie.

What does a beautifully landscaped garden mean to you?

The philosophical union of art and nature, something that delights the mind and heart. As Francis Bacon noted, “As old age grows into courtesy and elegance, people come to build stately rather than to garden beautifully; as if gardening were the greater perfection. ‘

See: How to create a Mediterranean garden – Design ideas and planting tips for a dry garden

Tell us more about your new book on Bodnant

It is intended to give the impression of the garden and its various parts as they look today. It traces the history of its creation and follows the gardeners of Bodant through a typical year, month after month, to see what work is required to make such a garden look splendid.

You can read more tips from Iona in her book Bodnant garden which is currently available online. Or you can get more Bodnant goodness from the too National Trust Store.