The grounds at Bodelwyddan

Meet the gardener

Meet the gardener who’s never happier than when she’s giving spadefuls of love to Bodelwyddan’s gorgeous grounds.

Sue-Marie Roberts has been head of grounds and maintenance at Bodelwyddan Castle since September 2014. Here, she tells us what she’s achieved over the past three years, shares some useful hints and tips and tells us her exciting plans for the future.

Handy tips and tricks

Sue-Marie Roberts is head of grounds and maintenance at Bodelwyddan Castle. Green-fingered since a tot, what she doesn’t know about gardening probably isn’t worth knowing at all. Check out her tips on what you ought to be doing this spring to get your little plot of land shipshape:

  • If you remembered to collect and keep all your leaves in a bin liner over the winter, now’s the time to get out the leaf mould that’s been produced. It’s a fantastic soil conditioner to give plants an extra boost
  • Remember to wash and disinfect your pots before reusing them, just to be sure to get rid of any plant diseases
  • Aerate lawns with a garden fork to create drainage. Worms also need the air to do their job properly
  • Rake off any worm casts and keep hold of them, ready to add as fertiliser when you’re potting up seeds

It makes absolute sense that Sue-Marie comes from a green-fingered family. Her grandmother a keen gardener and brought up on a farm, she’s always known the pull of the outdoors and is the first to admit that the idea of working 24/7 sat at a desk frightens the life out of her. 

'I was quite artistic-minded, quite creative as a child, and explored how an artistic career could pan out for me. I thought about graphic design,’ she says. ‘But that would be an indoorsy job. My uncle ran a garden maintenance business and I helped him out as often as I could from the age of 14. From this point, garden design became the obvious choice.’

The seed planted, she went on to study landscape technology at college in Cumbria. Clearly, it suited her down to the ground – in 2002, she won a grant from Young Farmers to start her own business which saw her incorporating grounds maintenance with garden design.

That was before the bombshell. She found out she and her husband were to inherit the family 300-acre farm, and with it 300 cows and 600 breeding ewes. ‘We were trying to juggle all the plates,’ Sue-Marie says. ‘Something had to give. I sold my business and farming became my full-time job for a while.’

So far so good, but it got to the point where she saw more of her animals than people. ‘I needed to speak to people, to engage with human beings, so I jumped at the chance when this job came up at Bodelwyddan.’

She now heads up a team of seven and is responsible for looking after the 66 acres of gardens surrounding the hotel (the other 204 acres are parkland). ‘I’m a person who always enjoys a challenge,’ she says, ‘and it’s been a voyage of discovery in terms of getting to know the plants here. A lot of them were brought in by the Victorians and I’ve had to learn about their history. There are still two or three plants in the grounds that I can’t identify.’

Sue-Marie spends around three quarters of her average day outside and the remainder organising walks for guests and planning for the future. ‘It was all very overgrown when I arrived here but now things are flowering because we’re pruning and nurturing them.’

On the agenda, she adds, is the introduction of more bulbs for spring and winter colour. And she’s set her sights on a gold Britain in Bloom award this year. Bodelwyddan’s gardens – judged against nearly 2,500 hotels across the whole of Wales – won a Silver Gilt in 2016 and in 2017 were just a single point off gold.

Other times, she’s busier than ever keeping fit – strength training and boxing seven times a week and preparing for gruelling long distance runs. Impressively, she’s run five half-marathons in seven months and will be tackling her first 26-miler in June – a trail marathon, no less, up and down hilly terrain. Clearly, this is not someone who’s scared of getting her hands dirty when it comes to whatever challenge she cares to take on.

Sue-Marie’s favourite part of Bodelwyddan’s grounds:

  • The orchard in the spring for the Welsh daffodils
  • The wisteria on the heated wall in the walled garden from March through to May
  • The handkerchief tree, one of the first to arrive in the UK, when it’s in full flower in June and July
  • The crocosmia when it flowers red in August
  • Autumn’s amazing colours