Behind the scenes at our gardens: looking after Dyffryn in early summer

Our walled garden supervisor, Ceridwen, working in the gardens

What does it take to look after a historic garden visited by thousands of visitors each year? Go behind the scenes at Dyffryn with Head Gardener Chris Flynn and his team of gardeners and volunteers to discover what it takes to care for one of the most important gardens in the country.

They’ll be revealing the year-round challenges and joys involved in caring for these 55 acres of gardens, set in the Vale of Glamorgan, and their plans to restore them to their former Edwardian glory.

As spring gives way to summer, the gardens at Dyffryn are blooming. Wonderful wisterias fill warm May days with their scent and spectacular cascades of lilac and white flowers. Pelargoniums take centre stage in the glasshouse and the Pompeian Garden’s impressive flowering planters are in place. In the kitchen garden, the centenary of the Cory family’s vegetable plants for villagers scheme is being commemorated.  

Wonderful wisteria

Wisteria sinensis flowering at the front of the house
Wisteria sinensis growing through the southern balustrade in the garden

'It’s a good year for wisterias,' says head gardener, Chris Flynn, which is great news as these horticultural show stoppers are a big feature at Dyffryn. During its Edwardian heyday, wisterias were planted all over the garden. They can still be found growing at the base of walls, climbing over pergolas, trained as standards and soaking up the sun on the south terrace. 

The grand tradition of wisterias at Dyffryn dates back to seed raised plants which Reginald  Cory would have obtained from plant hunting expeditions at the turn of the 20th century. Many of these original plants still survive, you can spot their now gnarled and contorted trunks. 

" There are numerous cultivars of wisteria, and we’re hoping that one might even be unique to the garden. Over the next year or so, all of the plants will be photographed, identified, then verified to discover if there’s a genuine Dyffryn wisteria among them.  "
- Chris Flynn, Head Gardener, Dyffryn

Up Pompeii!

The Pompeian Garden, inspired by Cory’s trips to Italy, was built in 1909. Like its Italian namesake, it was designed with an impressive colonnade, a loggia and a central fountain in a lawn square.  

Summer planting in the Pompeian Garden
The garden room will look familiar to Dr Who fans as its been used in the past as a filming location by the BBC

One of the biggest challenges each year is placing the impressive flowering planters in their irrigation boxes around the top of the colonnades.  

It’s a delicate and potentially dangerous job which takes three gardeners almost two days to complete.  The columns forming the colonnade are around 3m high so the work has to be undertaken using ladders and a scaffold tower.  

The result is well worth the effort, as the blowsy flowered pink begonias and semi-trailing Helichrysum microphylla and Dichondra ‘Silver Falls’ provide an impressive floral enclosure around the garden.  

The first Dig for Victory

Food was in short supply during the First World War and by 1917 Britain was running out of produce, hastened by German U-boats targeting merchant ships bringing in supplies. Growing vegetables was actively encouraged, even the flowerbeds at Buckingham Palace were given over to food production.  

At Dyffryn, the Cory family sent their gardeners out to share their horticultural  knowledge with village communities around the estate. They also began growing on a vast scale. Every inch of available ground, including the garden’s annual flower and dahlia beds, was used to raise 100,000 young vegetable plants from seed, all despatched in early May and June to villagers to grow on in their own gardens. 

Planting out the cabbage, ‘Earliest of All,’ a variety grown during the 1917 scheme
Volunteer Andrew Smith planting out the cabbage ‘Earliest of All’, one of the varieties grown at Dyffryn for the 1917 scheme

Ceridwen Davies, the walled garden supervisor, has delved into the archives to create this fascinating display in the pot store.  It tells the story of the vegetable plants for villagers scheme, from details of the crops grown to the two women gardeners who worked alongside the few remaining men - of the 40 strong workforce of gardeners, most had signed up at the outbreak of war.

Chalkboard showing the vegetables for the villages 1917 scheme
Re-creation of the First World War planting scheme

Scent sensation

Pelargoniums (or geraniums as they are commonly referred to) were hugely popular in the Victorian and Edwardian eras and the collection at Dyffryn is mostly made up of the scented varieties. 

Close up of the peppermint scented Pelargonium tomentosum
The perennials in the glasshouse at Dyffryn

'These would have been really trendy plants in Reginald Cory’s day,' explains Hazel Robinson who oversees the plant propagation. ‘Lady Plymouth' is a true veteran dating from 1807 and we have species pelargoniums that are a bit trickier to grow and propagate, such as Pelargonium sidoides with stunning dark flowers set against velvety, grey foliage.'

The flowers of scented pelargoniums tend to be small compared to their more showy cousins but they make up for this in their wonderful variety of leaf shape and scent. Gently rubbed, the leaves release an array of aromas from apple, peppermint and rose to eucalyptus, lemon and orange.

Volunteer Gillian Phillips checks on the main stock plants
Volunteer Gillian Phillips checks on the main stock plants

Hazel’s volunteer team in the nursery look after all the pelargoniums, putting the display together at the start of the season and keeping them in good condition throughout with water and regular feeds of seaweed. During May and June they make a fabulous sensory display on the plant stand in the glasshouse.

Follow Dyffryn's gardeners over the seasons
Margnolia in bloom at Dyffryn

Behind the scenes at our gardens: looking after Dyffryn in spring 

What does it take to look after one of the most important historic gardens in the country? We’re back behind the scenes at Dyffryn in Wales to discover what the gardeners get up to in March and April.