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

Margnolia in bloom at Dyffryn

Ever wondered what it takes to keep our gardens in tip-top shape over the seasons? 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 glory.

It’s early spring and the garden reawakens with the longer, warmer days. Newts and hedgehogs are emerging from their winter hibernation, birds are beginning to nest and buds are breaking on the shrubs and trees. The gardeners are busy with the very last of the pruning and the first planting out of the season.

Spring Watch

Tree cutting and pruning ends, as the bird nesting season begins and the gardeners focus their attention on ground work. 

Dyffryn is home to a colony of Great Crested Newts, an endangered species, protected by law. They have set up home in several water sources around the garden but the large Reflecting Pool provides an ideal habitat for them and no fish to compete with.

Before the newts begin breeding, Chris and the team shift around some of the plants, to provide the best breeding conditions and avoid disturbing the water once the newts start laying their eggs. A favourite place for this is on the leaves of the aquatic grass, Glyceria. It’s easy to spot the concertinaed leaves in the water, folded over by the newts to protect their eggs.

Great Crested Newts are an endangered species
A Great Crested Newt
Great Crested Newts are an endangered species

Hedgehogs are also waking from their winter slumbers among the leaf litter and low shrubby cover. There has been a huge decline in hedgehog numbers over the last twenty years, so the gardeners take extra care to encourage these nocturnal creatures which happily also have a voracious appetite for slugs and snails.

Flower Power

Reginald Cory was a keen amaryllis (Hippeastrum) enthusiast and a collection of these bulbs, grown for their flamboyant flowers, are displayed in the glasshouses from late January through until April.

The bulbs are kept in the polytunnels at a variety of temperatures to stagger the flowering period. 

Two particularly beautiful varieties, the deep red ‘Daphne’ and the soft green ‘Green Magic’ with crimson streaks, provide striking displays in the greenhouse in March, accompanied by pots full of hyacinths which fill the air with their lovely scent on warm spring days.

Amaryllis and hyacinth in the glasshouse at Dyffryn
Amaryllis and hyacinth in glasshouse
Amaryllis and hyacinth in the glasshouse at Dyffryn

Mediterranean makeover

The transformation of the Mediterranean garden continues. This appropriately named sun trap was full of exotic plants as early as 1911, when The Gardener’s Chronicle described some of the more unusual specimens benefitting from the garden’s warm walls. These still provide ideal growing conditions for more tender plants.

Over the decades this garden has seen many changes, although the original raised beds remain intact. Chris is keen to introduce Judas trees, lilacs and wisterias, which will form a scented purple haze in late spring. Other planting will include a mature olive tree and the blue Mediterranean fan palm (Chamaerops humilis var. cerifera) which hails from the Atlas Mountains in Morocco and has unusual powder-blue/grey foliage.

A range of plants will push the boundaries of hardiness in the garden, in keeping with Reginald Cory’s spirit of experimentation. 

Preparing the borders for spring planting
Dyffryn garden and house
Preparing the borders for spring planting

Magnificent magnolias

The fantastic collection of spring flowering magnolias come into their own during April. From the smallest star magnolias to the great champion Magnolia acuminata var. subcordata with large creamy lemon flowers, probably planted here when the garden was created.  

One of the most beautiful is the sub species of Campbell’s magnolia, campbellii subsp. mollicomata ‘Lanarth’ with shocking pink flowers that draw the eye across the garden.

" Among my favourites is Magnolia denudata, known as the lily tree which has been cultivated in Chinese Buddhist temple gardens for hundreds of years. Its large, pure white flowers fill the air with a light citrus fragrance on warm April days. Like most magnolias, the flowers are borne on bare stems but are quickly followed by light green oval leaves that turn a buttery yellow in the autumn. As these decay, eventually all that’s left is a delicate skeletal outline, great for a bit of autumn leaf art."
- Chris Flynn, Head Gardener, Dyffryn

Ringing the changes

The Lavender Court, one of Dyffryn’s garden rooms, was captured in a series of beautiful watercolours of the garden completed in the early 1920s by the artist Edith Helena Adie. Her painting shows roses cladding the walls and planted in beds, alongside a sea of lavender, providing a frothy mix of pinks and purples.

Last year the old English roses were pruned back hard, to give them a better form and stronger re-growth, which should produce more flowers. But despite adding copious amounts of gravel, the lavender has sulked and failed to thrive. 

It’s likely that the beds were relined with concrete in the 1950s, when the original brickwork was replaced, which is preventing adequate drainage. A decision has been taken to replace the lavender this year with Verbena rigida. The dense, bright purple flowers, held on slender stiff stems, may lack scent but more than make up for this in their colour and flowering season, blooming for up to five months at a stretch and are just as attractive to bees and other pollinators.