The Garden

Explore the delights of Ness Botanic Gardens spread across 64 acres with stunning views of the River Dee and North Wales.

Ness Botanic Gardens features a diverse variety of plants and planting areas.

Constantly changing, there are always new things to see at Ness. From vibrant year-round colour to outstanding collections of Rhododendrons, Camellias, Snowdrops and Sorbus, amongst others.

Download a map of Ness Botanic Gardens

Ness in a nutshell

Take a virtual tour of Ness with our Head Gardener, Phil Kay, exploring our most famous attractions and some of our hidden gems.

The second instalment of Phil's tour of Ness encompasses the Pinewoods, Azalea Walk, the Potager garden and more.

Phil finishes his journey through the grounds and explores the Rock Gardens and Terraces, full of oriental and Australasian species, in the final chapter of our virtual tour.

Areas of the garden

Rock garden

The history of the rock garden dates back 125 years. In the book A Pioneering Plantsman Brenda McLean describes the original Rock Garden as being one of the two main garden 'gems' created by Bulley either side of Mickwell Brow and already well-stocked by 1900, three years after Bulley’s purchase of Ness.

McLean describes Bulley’s planting:

"Many of Bulley’s favourite plants were grown in the rock garden, and he found a niche for a huge variety. For example, he tried high alpine androsaces on the moraine, with Campanula cenisia and C. alpestris. He grew Omphalodes luciliae on a sunny raised bed, and Haberlea rhodopensis in a retaining wall by the stream, where sandstone blocks provided ideal vertical, moist and shady conditions. As he began to sponsor plant hunters, he added to the variety of plants. He loved the intense blue of the 'Grace ward' variety of Lithodora, sprawling over rocks, and the tall heads of the Himalayan blue poppy, Meconopsis betonicifolia. He extended autumn flowering with Crocus speciosus, 'dainty and cool', and the striking Gentiana sino-ornata collected by George Forrest… [Bulley stated:] 'I am always planning pictures in my mind… not only for picturesque effect, but also for the health of the plants themselves'."

The Rock Garden has changed significantly over the years, but it is still a very popular part of the garden. Some visitors even get married here! Features that visitors can enjoy today include an alpine meadow, tufa cliff and primula stream.


In Bulley's day this was maintained as an area of gorse and briar to protect the family's privacy. Development of terraces began in 1964-65 with the construction of the Friend's Terrace. Later developments included the addition of a flight of steps to link with the Rock Garden and the construction of a belvedere.

The south facing aspect provides an opportunity to grow plants from warmer parts of the world. The middle terrace is home to plants from Mexico and there is a collection of Australasian plants on the top terrace, including Acacia leprosa 'Scarlet Blaze' and Leptospermum namadgiensis.

Water garden

This is the most colourful part of the garden in autumn. Various trees which thrive in moist ground and provide good autumn colour are set near water’s edge including the deciduous conifers Metasequioa glyptostroboides and Taxodium distichum. There are also beds to the southwest of the ponds that include maples giving good autumn colour, e.g. Acer triflorum, A. mandshuricum and A. maximowiczianum.

Mediterranean garden

The Mediterranean garden at Ness includes plants from the Mediterranean and other parts of the world that have a similar climate and where plants have adapted in similar ways to their environment, for example California and South Africa.

Wildflower meadow

The meadow area was inversion-ploughed in 2008 to bring nutrient-poor subsoil to the surface. Together with the bailing and removal of grass clippings, discing and the introduction and spread of yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) this has helped reduce the vigour of the grasses and aided the establishment of wildflowers.

There is a wonderful display of Primula veris (cowslip) in the spring, followed by a range of flowering species through the summer.

Herbaceous border

In her book about Arthur Bulley (A Pioneering Plantsman), Brenda McLean described the Herbaceous Garden as one of two main gems created by Bulley – the other being the Rock Garden – and noted it was already well-stocked by 1900, three years after Bulley’s purchase of Ness:

"As an Edwardian flower garden, Bulley's herbaceous garden must have been hard to beat. Located on the most suitable, deep-silt soil… an acre of a field was transformed… along one side of the garden was an azalea border, backed by a hornbeam hedge… at one end of the garden was a bright display of dahlias, and an area of rose beds of gentler hues. At the opposite end an iron trellis was covered in Clematis montana. Otherwise four monthly flower borders were Bulley's pride and joy. The May border was over 60m long, on one side of the garden, while the June, July and August borders were across the garden’ with cinder paths and backed by tamarisk hedges."

In the 1950s these beds were converted to a single main border. Recently they have been themed to demonstrate the origin of the herbaceous perennials many of us grow in our gardens – from the United States, Europe and Asia.

Pinewood and rhododendron border

The Pinewood is one of the most popular parts of Ness. A large part of our Rhododendron collection is located in this area and in the adjacent Rhododendron Border. Species rhododendrons are planted throughout and the display peaks in late April and early May when three related triflora species – Rhododendron augustinii (blue flowers), R. yunnanense (white flowers) and R. davidsonianum (pink flowers) – cover themselves with masses of open saucer-shaped blooms. There are also plenty of Rhododendron cultivars including R. 'Blue Tit', R. 'Mount Everest' and R. 'W.F.H.' 

There are many other wonderful plants to see in this part of the garden including Crinodendron hookerianum, Arbutus menziesii (Madrono) and numerous Camellia and Sorbus.

Plant collections

National plant collections

Ness has three National Plant Collections. These are documented groups of plants registered with Plant Heritage.

All three of the collections were built up by Dr Hugh McAllister as part of his taxonomic research on these genera.

Betula (birch)

Most of the approximately 49 known species of birch are in cultivation at Ness. By far the best known are the white-barked species such as the native silver birch Betula pendula and the Himalayan Betula utilis ssp. jacquemontii , of which there are many examples at Ness. Another group is the shaggy-barked species – for example, Betula dahurica. We have Japanese and Korean examples of this attractive small tree.

Dr Hugh McAllister co-authored a Kew monograph on Betula with Kenneth Ashburner in 2013.

Sorbus (rowan)

The comprehensive collection of rowans at Ness provided the material for Dr Hugh McAllister's Kew monograph on the genus Sorbus, published in 2005.

The rowans, or mountain ash trees, are unmatched by any other group of trees for their autumn leaf colour and late summer and autumn displays of fruits which range from the familiar scarlet of the common rowan, to orange and yellow, with deep crimson often turning to delicate pinks to pure whites in the less commonly grown species.

A large number of Sorbus species were introduced by Wilson, Forrest and Kingdon-Ward in the first half of the twentieth century.

Alnus (alder)

Our extensive collection of alders includes the wonderfully large-leaved Alnus maximowiczii from Ulleungdo – a Korean volcanic island in the Sea of Japan.


The founder of Ness Botanic Gardens, Arthur Bulley, played an important part in the story of the introduction of rhododendrons to the British Isles through his sponsorship of plant hunters in the early twentieth century.

George Forrest first collected for Bulley between 1904 and 1907 in Yunnan, China.

He discovered and introduced numerous rhododendron species during his plant-hunting career. Many of these species are represented in the collection at Ness, mostly as more recent plantings. They include Rhododendron bureavii, R. clementinae, R. lepidostylum, R. roxieanum and R. yunnanense.

Frank Kingdon Ward began to collect for Bulley in 1911 and his discoveries included R. mallotum and the eponymous R. wardii, discovered in 1913. He is also credited with the reintroduction of the magnificent R. macabeanum. Rhododendron enthusiasts such as J. C. Williams of Caerhays and Lionel de Rothschild of Exbury followed Bulley into sponsorship.

Ken Hulme (Director from 1957 to 1989) developed the rhododendron collection at Ness, frequently mentioning rhododendrons in the newsletters he produced. In the guidebooks from the 1970s Hulme described the progression of flower, noting that the display peaked in late April and early May 'when three related species R. augustinii (blue), R. yunnanense (white) and R. davidsonianum (pink) cover themselves with masses of open saucer-shaped blooms'. Much of his description is still relevant to the displays we enjoy today.

Hulme was a driving force in setting up the North Wales & Northwest England branch of the Rhododendron, Camellia & Rhododendron Group (RCM Group).

Rhododendron, Camellia & Magnolia Group

If you would like to learn more about rhododendrons please do consider attending a talk organised by the North Wales & Northwest England RCM Group, who meet regularly at Ness.


Alpines were a passion for Arthur Bulley. His great partnership with the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh led to his sponsorship of famous plant collecting figures including George Forrest and Frank Kingdon Ward, with a prime focus being the collection of alpine plants. And many famed alpine growers visited Ness including Reginald Farrer (who also collected for Bulley).

Arthur's passion led to the creation of the Rock Garden at Ness. Alpines are also grown in the Alpine House and its associated alpine troughs and crevice gardens. The house and associated troughs have been renovated in the last several years by Alpine Garden Society members Rodney Wright and Mike Gaskell. The troughs are themed geographically, for example the New Zealand trough includes Celmisia gracilenta and Celmisia allanii. Celmisias (New Zealand Daisies) are perhaps the best known of New Zealand's alpine flora. 

Alpine Garden Society

If you would like to learn more about alpines, please do consider attending a talk organised by the Wirral & West Cheshire branch of the Alpine Garden Society, who meet regularly at Ness.

Champion trees

The Tree Register maintains a list of the largest and tallest trees in Britain and Ireland. The last audit in 2015 recorded 17 national champions at Ness.

Ness heritage plants

Arthur Bulley's patronage of plant hunters in the early twentieth century led to the discovery and introduction of many new plants. He sent George Forrest to collect in the mountains of Yunnan, and Frank Kingdon Ward was sent to China and Tibet. You will find some of the plants they discovered at Ness, for example Primula bulleyana and Rhododendron wardii. Introducing new plants from Ness has continued to this day – distinct forms have been raised as cultivars including Symphyotrichum 'Small-Ness' and Potentilla dahurica 'Bright-Ness'.

Understanding our plant labels

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