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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 15 April 2014 by Tim Ingram

Woodland flowers in the garden

Woodland flowers in the garden

Woodland flowers in the garden

'In all ages wherein Learning hath Flourished, complaint hath been made of the Itch of Writing, and the multitude of worthless Books wherein importunate Scribers have pestered the World...'

Oh dear! - what would John Ray, who wrote this, and William Stearn who quoted it at the beginning of his classic book 'Botanical Latin', make of the Internet now and in particular a plant like the following one, Podophyllum 'Spotty Dotty'? The Code of Botanical Nomenclature means that the cultivar name cannot be given greater respectability by converting it into Latin or Greek, and we are stuck with it. On the other hand it is descriptive and gardeners are tempted to buy it - I have! What's more it is an attractive woodland perennial and introduces an aspect of the garden that appeals to me perhaps more than any other - that is the way that these early growing plants meld together and create a tapestry of foliage and flower just before the trees they grow under come into their own. Here the podophyllum is growing along with Erythronium 'Joanna', more comfortably named for an individual, in this case one of John Amand's daughters, and an excellent and vigorous garden plant.

What would John Ray and William Stearn make of this importunate scribbling? Hopefully, as well as being botanically and nomenclaturally precise, they too had an eye for the way plants combine attractively. Plants, after all, are grown in gardens, and gardens do allow a certain freedom of expression even if one man's Mozart is another man's Jazz.

There are two ways that plants combine in the garden - one, and initially, a consequence of the gardener, and the second by natural spread and self-seeding. Over time the latter tends to predominate in the woodland garden and results in the most natural and attractive effect. Certain 'star' plants like the podophyllums and trilliums always stand out, where others have more spreading habit either vegetatively or from seed.

How plants combine, like the flower arrangement I pictured at the beginnning, can be pleasing and harmonious, and of all plants woodland species capture this in the loveliest of ways. In these two pictures only the fern, hellebore and snowdrop have been deliberately planted - the perennial forget-me-not, Brunnera macrophylla, celandine, aquilegia, cyclamen and purple-black leaved cow parsley, 'Ravenswing', have all arrived fortuitously, and yet the result (allowing for some weeding!) is better than anything that could be planned. Later on the fern, Dryopteris felix-mas 'Crispa', becomes the dominant feature and the scene changes into summer.

Self-seeding plants like the brunnera and cow parsley by their nature can spread very freely and the trick is to interplant them with strong perennials and bulbs which effectively live at a different depth in the soil and/or grow and flower later - good examples are the Martagon lily, Fritillaria meleagris, polygonatums, and very robust plants such as Veratrum and hellebores. Earlier on snowdrops fill the ground, and later as the overstorey trees (in our case apples and pears) leaf out fully, the interest in the garden moves elsewhere. This part of the garden is recovering from the winter storms.

Looking in more detail at a planting like this shows how effectively the contrasting foliage of woodland species can combine and cover the ground.

Gardening like this reacts to plants as much as consciously planting them, but it does also involve at times fairly concerted weeding and control to prevent Nature exerting her tendency towards wilderness. Plants like cow parsley can very quickly take over. This clump of Polystichum setiferum is a good example, and although the dark leaved 'Ravenswing' is encouraged, the normal green cow parsley sometimes seeds in too freely from the boundary of the garden. As with the gardener who maintains only white foxgloves by rigorous weeding, the same discipline is required.

The fresh unfolding croziers of ferns like this are a wonderful feature of the spring garden, and this particular plant came as a kind gift from a Rev. Honeysett who visited us many years ago and also opened his small garden on the outskirts of Tenterden for the NGS; a garden given an amazing vertical dimension with climbing clematis and honeysuckles - a nice memory of a charming gentleman.

Sweet cicely, Myrrhis odorata, has fewer and much larger seed than cow parsley and as a result is less invasive: here it takes over after the snowdrops, hellebores and Eranthis have flowered. Although this part of the garden was neglected for the last year or two and had become invaded by nettles, it is now being reclaimed as one of the most distinctive areas, and replanted with later flowering perennials such as geraniums, potentillas and the loosestrife, Lysimachia ephemerum.

Umbels in general tend to dominate natural vegetation in spring and summer with a succession of roadside species from cow parsley to hogweed to hemlock, and in some places (nearly always close to the coast) alexanders. The latter has a close relative, Smyrnium perfoliatum, which has taken over much of our spring garden and is very effective in combination with brunnera and Arum italicum 'Marmoratum' in places like that shown below, but a positive menace when seeding between more choice plants. It is the ideal plant for dry shade, monocarpic but normally taaking three years to flower and spending summer and autumn underground in small swollen roots. My intention, but not strong enough practice, is to prevent it self-seeding after flowering every year, but it is one of the most commented on plants from visitors to the garden.

The individual detail of woodland plants has equal appeal; plants like Lathyrus vernus in this fine leaved form are striking viewed up close - an intriguing mix of blue and mauve - this plant with a number of others was cavier to rabbits in earlier days. It varies in foliage and colour and has close relatives also well worth growing, for example L. aureus and L. luteus, neither of which are often seen in gardens.

Many significant gardeners have grown and raised erythroniums, and these share with trilliums a special place in the garden, steadily improving year by year and increasing from seed. E. 'Margaret Mathew', was named by Kath Dryden from seedlings raised by E. B. Anderson, and is the equal of the well known 'White Beauty' shown here in the second picture growing in short turf.

Earlier on I showed Bergenia ciliata, probably the most striking of the genus. These engendered sparks between two great gardeners, Christopher Lloyd, who characteristically looked down on them, and Beth Chatto who uses them widely because of their distinctive form and surprising tolerance of dry conditions. I suppose I take the former view if I am honest, though I am not really sure why because this example, a gift from Jack Elliott, is actually particularly beautiful when the flowers are viewed closely - this is a hybrid of the rather tender and special B. emeiensis.

The mild and very wet winter has resulted in some of the best growth of many woodland species that I  remember. Looking back to 2012 and 2013, very different climatically, flowering times have not been influenced as much as you might think but the garden is certainly much more lush. This picture, taken at Beeches Nursery on 13th March 2013, shows how bitterly cold it was though a year ago.

On a raised bed Corydalis flexuosa, which has generally struggled in our garden through dry summers, shows why it took the gardening world by storm when it was first introduced. This hybridises freely with other species, including C. elata, resulting in our garden in two unnamed clones which are later flowering and generally more reliable garden plants than either of the parents.

Various more choice woodlanders are planted beneath a row of cordon crab-apples next to the nursery, where they can be watered more easily through periods of drought. These include trilliums, especially the superb pink form of T. grandiflorum (originating from Edinburgh Botanic Garden by way of Mike Smith, and bought at the Rainham Show for the extravagent price - it seemed - of £25 many years ago; a very worthwhile investment!); erythroniums and primroses; the uncommon Caulophyllum thalictroides; and a slow and marvellous dwarf form of Paris polyphylla, ex. Washfield Nursery. As the crabs come into flower this is an exciting and more formal part of the garden and includes also bulbs such as snowdrops and the American Fritillaria affinis.

The woodland garden goes on producing more and more delights and combinations like these and I will finish just with two: one contrived, Tiarella polyphylla with the double primrose 'Strong Beer' (where exactly does this name come from?), and the second accidental - from the gardener's viewpoint - Helleborus argutifolius and pink lamium. Alpine plants are all very well and immensely fascinating (even 'cute') but woodland flowers give them a close run for your money.

(I should add, lest readers think that the garden has only an artistic and private relevance, that it has always been regarded as a working garden from which to propagate and sell plants, and also to raise money for charity. These are the high points, just as are the Alpine Shows, but the underlying key is maintainance and renewal, which can be lost to view. The picture of the nursery area a year or so ago shows that there is also  a resilience in the garden, and gardener, which gains support from meeting others who garden too, and from those who place a similar value on plants).

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