PARADISE BY WAY OF CONWY

A few miles down the road from Bodnant, Australasian and Californian evergreens thrive in the scaled-down Eden of Keith and Rachel Lever's garden
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The Independent Online
After visiting Bodnant, I took a trip a few miles north to seek out some enthusiasts who were used to gardening on a smaller scale. Did they have to contend with the same climate and idiosyncrasies of landscape as the National Trust professionals at Bodnant? Did they grow the same plants? Perhaps they might even have discovered a few tricks that the big boys down the road had missed.

On the road between Bodnant and Colwyn Bay, you pass the entrances to a clutch of plant nurseries, catering to the thousands of amateur gardeners who visit the famous beauty spot every summer. The sign for the Aberconwy Nursery points you on to a narrow road that, after a half mile or so, winds up to Bryn Meifod. There I met Keith and Rachel Lever, who own the nursery, but have built their own house and garden alongside it.

Despite being only four miles from Bodnant, Bryn Meifod does not enjoy identical conditions. It is slightly higher, so everything comes into flower a little later. Because of the conformation of the hills, rainfall is a lot lower - not much more than 30 inches a year, compared with Bodnant's 40.

In dry summers such as last year's, irrigation can be a problem: underground streams keep parts of the garden moist, but they do not cover the entire three-quarters of an acre. Quite heavy mulching is needed to prevent beds from drying out, because if they do they become difficult to work. In parts, the soil is shallower than at Bodnant. "We don't have to go very deep to come across rock," says Keith. "Not a solid rock but much fissured shale. To some extent it acts like blotting paper."

When they took over the nursery 13 years ago, the garden next to it was a conventional circular lawn, sloping south-east towards the valley, with a belt of conifers sheltering it from the prevailing westerly winds. Like Bodnant, it has alluring mountain views and contains spectacular rhododendrons and magnolias - though they are naturally fewer and smaller. After living in the village for five years, Keith and Rachel had a house built for themselves and their two sons, close to the top of the garden. This meant that the rest of the garden had to be re-oriented towards the house.

They did not alter the framework radically. The trees and large shrubs were kept in place and others added. The soil is less acid than at Bodnant, so special preparation was needed before new rhododendrons were planted.

A series of beds were dug on parts of the lawn and more were established near the house, with dry stone walls to compensate for the slope. The nursery specialises in Alpines and a scree bed has been made, where they are grown both for propagation and display.

Rachel planted the new flower beds with a view to providing colour most of the year: unlike at Bodnant, there is not enough space to devote beds to specific plants. The requirements of the nursery also come into play in deciding what to put in.

"We have to create areas for certain kinds of plants we can't grow any other way," she says. "It has its drawbacks. When I think I've got a nice big patch of epimedium, suddenly there's a great hole where we've lifted to divide. The same happens with hostas. And we have to keep our meconopsis varieties in separate areas, so that they don't cross."

To some extent the demands of the nursery's customers are influenced by what they have seen at Bodnant, but not so much as Keith and Rachel hoped. Keith is a forester by training and would have liked to develop a strong line in trees, but the trade did not warrant it.

"We grew a lot of trees to start with," Rachel recalls, "but Alpines are more saleable because most people don't have gardens the size of Bodnant. But a lot of people come here for embothriums when Bodnant has sold out, and they come for gentians - we've developed some new varieties. On the rhododendron side we do more with the dwarf species."

Eucryphias, hard to grow in the eastern part of the country, do well at Bryn Meifod, as they do at Bodnant. But in both gardens some tender subjects have been lost this year due to the severe winter: rarely is there more than six degrees of frost, but this year they endured 12 degrees. An acacia dealbata was the Levers' saddest loss, while a callistemon (bottle brush plant) and some big hebes were also casualties. Yet a fremontodendron, an evergreen from California that is said not to like severe winters, has survived.

"Because it was a mild autumn things had started growing by the end of December," says Rachel. "When the frost came they were destroyed. We lost a lot just by the house: I think the frost was reflected off the white wall."

Keith and Rachel have gardened in several contrasting parts of the country, beginning their married life in West Yorkshire ("the rhubarb triangle"), then moving to Surrey. Nowhere else have they been able to grow the variety of plants that the climate of north-west Wales allows: in Yorkshire, for instance, they could not have managed the Australasian evergreen pittosporum, cistus or even ceanothus. For the seriously ambitious gardener, whether on an 80-acre estate or a modest-sized nursery, the Conwy valley is close to paradise.

! Aberconwy Nursery is open all the year round (except Mondays) and Bryn Meifod garden is open to visitors from time to time in summer. For details ring 01492 580875.

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