A winter garden in Dunham Massey

PUBLISHED: 11:12 18 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:24 20 February 2013

The orangery in snow with the winter garden behind - national trust - Damian Harris

The orangery in snow with the winter garden behind - national trust - Damian Harris

Britain's largest winter garden has opened for the first time this year. Wrap up warmly and take a peek at the beautiful blooms and frost-nipped flowers at Dunham Massey<br/>WORDS BY ROB HAIGH<br/>PHOTOGRAPHS BY ALAN NOVELLI AND DAMIAN HARRIS

Since Roger Grey donated Dunham Massey Hall to the National Trust, millions of visitors have enjoyed the native and exotic flora in the Plantsman's Garden, spotting the fallow deer and wandering around the ancient 250 acre park.

I'm sure the last Earl of Stamford, who handed over the keys to the trust in 1976, will be pleased to hear that those same visitors can now experience the glory of this Georgian gem in Altrincham during the winter.
For the first time, and after thousands of requests, this beautiful ancient park has opened the doors to its winter garden. At seven acres, this will be the largest garden of its kind in Britain.

'We have always ended up with queries about opening the garden in the winter,' said head gardener Damian Harris. 'The National Trust were looking at opening up earlier and earlier, and because of that the garden didn't have a great deal of interest to offer. The gardeners were asked what to do to make it more interesting for visitors.'

Damian, who has been head gardener since 2007, has worked with his team and a willing band of volunteers to ensure their carefully laid plans become a reality.

It has been a labour of love for the team but the hard work is far from over and the winter garden will only be fully mature in the next five to eight years.

'The garden is still in its infancy. Some of the plants are still extremely young. What the National Trust used to do was do all of the planting and then cordon those areas off. They'd only open them up to the public when they were fully mature. We want people to be able to see it all develop here, to watch the shrubs grow. It's a working project.'

The winter garden has previously been used as a paddock for horses before being developed into an Edwardian pleasure ground. When the National Trust took it on, it was brought back into the garden as old, overgrown woodland. Damian is now hoping the project will provide something special for visitors.

Work on the garden began in 2007. More than 120,000 bulbs and shrubs were planted during autumn with the help of 1,500 members of the public, another 80,000 shrubs and herbaceous plants were sowed earlier this year. New pathways have been installed and the team are now in the process of mulching the area to suppress weed growth.

The team has also had advice from Gardeners' World's Roy Lancashire as well as help from a growing team of volunteers. They helped to plant over 50,000 snowdrops in 61 varieties, as well as 77 varieties of daffodil and 50 varieties of camellia. Over 700 species have been planted in total.

Damian said: 'One of the highlights is the start of spring and the flowering bulbs. It all starts with the snowdrops and after that it is just awash with colours. With plants like the dwarf irises, it's a carpet of blues and purples. We're going for an English woodland feel.

'It's been really good for me because I started at Dunham Massey at the very beginning of the project. It's been a steep learning curve, but it's a fantastic project to be on. In the beginning I was assistant head gardener, so I have seen the whole thing develop since it was only an idea.'

Dunham Massey's Winter Garden opens daily from 2 Nov - 31 Jan, 2010 (closed on Christmas Day). Opening times: 11am-4pm (or dusk, if earlier)

Damian's tips for growing glory

1. Visit nurseries, garden centres and gardens in your area to see what is in flower and/or looks interesting.

2. Even if your garden is only very small, you can still add interest by planting a mixture of snowdrops and winter aconites. The white and yellow combination always looks good, and they are a sign that spring is just around the corner.

3. Cyclamen is another good addition to a winter garden. For a longer flowering period, mix together hederifolia and coum - they flower in autumn and spring.

4. The clusters of pink, scented flowers of Viburnum x bodnantense or 'Dawn' are present throughout the winter. I have to smell the flowers of this shrub every time I pass and it really does raise the spirits.

5. Another great shrub is Daphne, which can come in various colours and sizes. "In my opinion, the best is Daphne bholua or 'Jacqueline Postill'.

6. Witch Hazel is a small tree ideal for small gardens. It's best to purchase this already in flower so you can see the flower size and test the scent, which varies with species.

7. If you still have enough room, Prunus x subhirtella or 'Autumnalis' is a tree that produces individual flowers during the winter and erupts into full flower in spring.

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