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

Ian Buckler

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.

It’s high summer at Dyffryn and a flowering frenzy has taken over the garden. The edible flower borders are providing a floral feast in the kitchen garden. The gourd tunnel is taking shape as the fast growing cucurbits clamber riotously over their supporting frame. The Paved Court has a jewel-like quality with colourful, scented displays and the edible bedding on the South Front proves that vegetables can be just as showstopping as their floral cousins.

Too good to eat 

Ceridwen dead-heading the dianthus to encourage more blooms.
Ceridwen Davies
Ceridwen dead-heading the dianthus to encourage more blooms.

The edible flowers in the kitchen garden not only look beautiful, they spice up a summer salad
and transform it into a work of art.

The walls of the kitchen garden are lined with flowers in dense ribbons of yellow, oranges and
blue. Tall day lilies with their trumpet flowers, best eaten in bud and clouds of calendulas in
all shades of orange, punctuated by sky blue chicory are a feast for the eyes.

Nasturtiums in the sunshine
Nasturtiums in the sunshine
Nasturtiums in the sunshine

Nasturtiums bask in the sunshine against the red brick walls, next to more muted violas, whilst
the paths are edged with delicate dianthus from deep wine red to palest cream in colour.

" Their clove scented petals are perfect for cake decorating and the local school children particularly liked their surprisingly spicy taste."
- Ceridwen Davies, the walled garden superviser

Gourd blimey! 

The gourd tunnel in early summer
Gourd tunnel
The gourd tunnel in early summer

The gourd tunnel in the Australasian Garden is beginning to take shape as the triffid-like
tendrils of the ornamental and edible pumpkins, gourds and squashes twist and climb up the silver birch poles, constructed by the gardeners during the winter months from saplings cut from the Breacon estate.   

A lattice work of birch whips, the soft, twiggy new growth, has been woven and twisted or
'twizzled together', as Hazel Robinson, who is in charge of this area of the garden, aptly
describes it, into a decorative, strong canopy. This will support the climbing plants and later
fruit which will hang in spectacular shapes and colours from the roof of the tunnel by August. 

Look out for pumpkins 'Red Warty Thing' and 'Big Max', alongside ornamental gourds such as snake gourd, bottle gourd and 'Speckled Swan' which children will love. The surrounding planting of tall multi-coloured sweetcorn and sunflowers adds to the dramatic scale of the design - a sight not to be missed this summer and autumn. 

Court of many colours 

The Paved Court in early summer
Paved Court
The Paved Court in early summer

The Paved Court is one of the garden rooms at Dyffryn, captured so evocatively by the artist
Edith Adie, in a set of watercolours painted during the summer of 1923. Commissioned during the garden’s heyday, the painting depicts a backdrop of dark yew hedges with privet grown as
standards in square planters, providing a formal foil for exuberant, colourful planting.

Over the following decades, the yew hedge walls became too large and wide, so this winter they were cut right back to allow them to regenerate and then be kept to the correct proportions.

'The planting here was always big and blowsy,' explains Hazel Robinson, 'we aim to recreate the feel and colour you see in the watercolour but experiment each year with different planting to achieve that effect.'  This year Canna Musifolia, sometimes called the banana canna, because of its enormous leaves, edged and ribbed with red, adds height to the planting. While lantanas and antirrhinums in fiery colours are partnered with deliciously scented, purple Heliotrope Midnight Sky, not called cherry pie for nothing. 

Edible Bedding 

The annual display in the South Front beds has been transformed this year with edible plants as part of Dyffryn’s commemoration of food production on the estate during the First World War.  

South Front beds
South Front of Dyffryn
South Front beds

A mixture of culinary herbs, perennial vegetables and edible flowers provide the centre piece for each bed with bean wigwams and cardoon thistles giving height, alongside tree spinach, its fresh leaves blushed bright magenta. The outer sections of the beds are designed with an ever-changing range of colourful salads, beetroot, chard, Florence fennel, Japanese mustards, thyme and kohlrabi. 

The inspiration for the centre planting is the herb garden at Hardwick Hall, one of
the largest of its kind in the country. Whilst the more formal layout of the surrounding edging
plants is a scaled down nod to Le Potager du Roi, the King’s Kitchen Garden at Versailles.

The urns between the beds continue the theme, with companion planting partners Thai basil and tomato Tumbling Tom, with fruits that will eventually cascade over the rim of the urns.

Follow Dyffryn's gardeners over the seasons