Special Features · Wales In-Depth · Spotlight on: the gardens of Wales
Spotlight on: the gardens of Wales

Bodnant Gardens, Tal-y-cafn

With the arrival of spring the walled gardens of the National Botanic Garden, Aberglasney's ornamental ponds, the paths at Dyffryn, Chirk Castle's topiary, and backyards, walkways and town greens throughout the country come alive with color and new life.

Wales has one of the most temperate climates in Britain, year-round, so it's no surprise that gardening has long been one of our passions. The unique beauty of our gardens is due in part to their settings. We have coastlines to the south, west and north, mountains in the center and rolling hills throughout. This makes for a naturally dramatic backdrop for all sorts of arrangements of indigenous and exotic plants, trees, and flowers.

Spring is the time to experience the blooming of primrose, bluebells, azaleas, and narcissi — including the classic daffodil. Our rhododendrons are world-renowned and some rhododendron gardens stretch out over several acres. Many gardens's host "sensory days" when the gardens are at their most fragrant, "watercolor weekends," and music performances on garden stages and in amphitheaters. And when you're ready to take a break, places such as The Gardener's Café at Aberglasney Gardens offer inspired meals and tea with a spectacular view — a rest stop to remember.

A good place to start taking in all the color is in the south of Wales, which has so many beautiful areas that's known as "one big garden." his green belt stretches from the Gower Peninsula in the far south, along the southwestern coastline around Pembrokeshire, and includes the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. Throughout this region you'll find dozens of gardens and green spaces, some formal, some wild, providing homes to both common and exotic plants and wildlife.

One of the best-known gardens in this green region is our impressive National Botanic Garden. Its history as a park goes back hundreds of years, but the 500-acre property was only brought out of neglect in the 1970s and transformed into a botanic garden in 2000. That may make it one of our youngest gardens, but it's also one of our largest and most varied, with its blend of natural and cultivated areas, a double-walled garden with a peach house and lily ponds, the Apothecaries's Garden collection of medicinal herbs, and the enormous, domed Great Glasshouse — the largest single-span greenhouse in the world &mdash which shelters rare and endangered species from all over the world, to name just a few of its attractions. Our most visited garden, the NBG is also dedicated to biodiversity conservation, so a walk here is also a learning experience.

Town, village and family gardens have a long history in Wales. Even now, some "kitchen gardens" remain important parts of larger gardens and estates. With such a rich gardening history, it's no wonder that cooking with local and organic produce has recently undergone a revival in Wales. Walking through a kitchen garden, the aroma of fresh herbs, vegetables, and fruits fills the air, and many garden teahouses and restaurants — such as the hay loft restaurant at Erddig — use produce from their gardens in their dishes.

With the onset of tourism in the 18th century, combined with the wealth of industrialists, gardens began to be developed for pleasure rather than produce. Later, Victorian and Elizabethan gardens were planted with rare exotic and subtropical specimens imported by "plant hunters." any gardens you see today have evolved over the years, with new species and new layouts, but they retain much of their centuries-old designs and greenery.

A perfect example (still in the "big garden" of the south) is the 10-acre Aberglasney Gardens, whose fascinating, history dates back more than 500 years. Most recently, it fell into decline in the mid-late 1900's but was rescued, in 1995, by the Aberglasney Restoration Trust and American philanthropist Frank Cabot, who put up the estate's purchase price at the last minute. The gardens were brought back from the brink of decay, nd today Aberglasney is an inspiration to gardeners and garden lovers alike, with its yew tree tunnel, Elizabethan/Jacobean cloister garden and parapet walk, and the atmospheric Ninfarium ecently created from the ruins of the mansion's interior courtyard, which has temperate and subtropical plants such as orchids, palms, and bamboo. This year, spring is off to a colorful start, with Highland White Jade rhododendrons, Dog's Tooth violets bright-pink primroses, and many varieties of narcissus.

Like Aberglasney, Powis Castle, in mid-Wales, is constantly evolving. The 12th-century castle stands guard at the English border, and towers over its celebrated formal gardens which include an orangery and aviary on the terraces, pyramidical apple trees, Victorian and Edwardian touches, and French and Renaissance Italian influences throughout. As if that weren't enough, the castle also has a world-class art collection, including 300 curiosities from India gathered in its Clive Museum, named for owner Robert Clive, who served as a general in India in the 18th century.

Moving up to the north, Bodnant Garden spans 80 acres set against the backdrop of the Snowdon Mountain range. Open since 1895, each spring the ornamental gardens are filled with blooming rhododendrons, azalea, magnolia, camellia, and plants from around the world. Like much of coastal Wales, Bodnant rarely sees a winter frost, so delicate and exotic species can thrive here. The gardens have been laid out in a varied design that includes sweeping vistas, natural woodlands, and small, cozy spaces — among them the famous Laburnum Arch, a 180-foot-long tunnel of hanging yellow blossoms that lights up in late May and June.

To get the most out of all these spectacular settings consider going by car with a driver-guide. s an ideal way to garden-hop through Wales, which has so many gardens packed into a country about the size of Massachusetts. Driver-guides take over the driving so you can watch the scenery go by, and they also enrich your experience with their great knowledge of history and local stories. Whichever way you go, be sure to stop and smell the flowers.

© Copyright 2005, 2006. All Rights Reserved.