Author Iona McLaren reveals the secrets of Bodnant Garden – and how to recreate its ambiance in our exteriors

The esteemed author discusses design secrets, her favorite plants, and bringing the botanical beauty of Bodnant into our back garden

Iona McLaren in Bodnant Garden, Wales
(Image credit: Iona McLaren)

If we could choose to have in any garden in the world, the Grade I-listed Bodnant Garden would certainly take some beating. The National-Trust site, at the foot of Snowdonia in northern Wales, is an organic utopia – filled with Mediterranean-style terraces, curated lawns, and rare blossoms from the Himalayas and the Andes. 

See: Garden ideas – inspiration and ideas for outdoor spaces

To many, the hills of Bodnant sound like a distant dreamland, but to Author Iona McLaren, these gardens are running through her blood – as she grew up amongst the very gardens her great grandfather designed. 

In an exclusive discussion with H&G, she reveals the secrets of the magnificent land and how to mirror its allure in our exteriors. 

Can you paint a picture of Bodant for us? 

Iona McLaren – Bodnant Garden

(Image credit: National Trust Images/John Miller)

'Spectacular' is the best word to describe it. For a start, there is no other garden in Britain that can rival its views: across the silvery River Conwy and out onto the mighty mountains of Snowdonia. It's a stunning piece of landscape, ranging from a steep slope carved into Italianate terraces for the formal garden to the deep cleft of the Dell, filled with soaring redwoods, in the wilder part. 

What's the standout planting?  

Iona McLaren – Bodnant Garden

(Image credit: National Trust Images/Joe Wainwright)

The plants are like a pyrotechnic display. There are hundreds of rare rhododendrons and azaleas that bloom in eye-watering color, massive champion trees, and of course, Bodnant's famous Laburnum Arch, which is the longest in the world. 

What was it like growing up there? 

Iona McLaren - Bodnant Garden

(Image credit: National Trust Images/John Miller)

Heaven. As children, my two brothers and I would scamper through ten acres of wild garden, which in those days was not open to the public. We would paddle in the rivers, race each other up the tributaries, launch balsa-wood boats, and graze on sorrel. 

How can we introduce a touch of Bodant in our own gardens?  

Not every garden starts with the setting or scale that makes Bodant such a knockout, but its spirit can be captured in miniature. The garden as we see it today is largely the design of my great-grandfather Harry, who was President of the RHS from 1931 to 1953. His advice to anyone who wanted to get joy from their garden was 'if you like something, plant lots of it.'

What was your great-grandfather's gardening philosophy? 

Iona McLaren – Bodnant Garden

(Image credit: National Trust Images/John Miller)

If there is something that grows well in your garden, then you should make a real effect with it and not be content with just one or two of each. Whether it's roses, peonies, or whatever else you like, your garden will benefit greatly by having three or four of them.

Are there any landscape design tips we can learn from him? 

Harry thought gardens should have a very definite plan, a 'backbone,' and not be a mere rendezvous for odd plants. He was a great advocate of terraced gardens, both on aesthetic and practical grounds. He also urged gardeners to make room for at least one perfectly straight path as 'walking to and fro is one of the things a garden should be made for'.  

Which other garden do you visit for inspiration?  

Iona McLaren - Bodnant Garden

(Image credit: Iona McLaren)

The formal gardens of Italy are the visual ancestors of the terraces at Bodnant, even though you can't help thinking that those Mediterranean lawns might be glad of a dose of Welsh rain. I think the garden designers Julian and Isabel Bannerman are geniuses. 

I like places with a dramatic natural slope, like Batsford Arboretum or the glorious Kiftsgate Court Gardens. Unnatural slopes are good, too – like the wild and weird land sculptures of Kim Wilkie.  

 What does a beautifully designed garden mean for you?

The philosophical union of art and nature, something to delight the head and heart. As Francis Bacon observed, 'When ages grow to civility and elegancy, men come to build stately sooner than to garden finely; as if gardening were the greater perfection.'

See: How to create a Mediterranean garden – design ideas and planting tips for a dry garden

Tell us more about your new book on Bodnant 

It aims to give the sense of the garden and its various parts as they look today. It traces the history of how it came to be, and it follows the gardeners of Bodant through a typical year, month by month, to see the labors required to keep such a garden looking magnificent. 

You can pick up read more tips from Iona in her book Bodnant Garden which is currently available online. Or, you can also pick up more Bodnant goodness from the National Trust store.

Megan Slack
Head of Celebrity Style News

Megan is the Head of Celebrity Style News at Homes & Gardens. She first joined Future Plc as a News Writer across their interiors titles, including Livingetc and Real Homes, before becoming H&G's News Editor in April 2022. She now leads the Celebrity/ News team. Before joining Future, Megan worked as a News Explainer at The Telegraph, following her MA in International Journalism at the University of Leeds. During her BA in English Literature and Creative Writing, she gained writing experience in the US while studying in New York. Megan also focused on travel writing during her time living in Paris, where she produced content for a French travel site. She currently lives in London with her antique typewriter and an expansive collection of houseplants.