Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: 22 April 2014 by Tim Ingram
'But, above all, a certain wild charm pervades the rock garden'
'But, above all, a certain wild charm pervades the
Many members of the alpine societies have written about growing alpines in the garden, and there are great present day practitioners of the art. I use this word deliberately because as with any form of gardening growing alpines in the garden can achieve a high level, where the plants are really indistinguishable from the qualities ones sees at the Alpine Shows, and gain added measure from their garden settings.
Growing plants as well as this implies a sensitivity to their needs and ongoing care, and so like fine art is the result of skill and attention to detail, and a strong aesthetic sense. On the smallest of scales one can see this from individual plants at that moment when they give of their best in the garden. Dianthus 'Conwy Star' is one of the finest of a variety of small alpine pinks introduced by Aberconwy Nursery, the result of luck but also a discriminating eye - it grows happily next to a large block of tufa in our sand bed, but with no great skill from the gardener. This bed also contains the choice Arabis androsacea, aptly named for its silvery-grey cushions; and whilst in flower this may not be the equal of its specific epithet (in the eyes of most alpine gardeners) in foliage it surely is.
Having always regarded arabis as rather more utilitarian alpines for the wider garden this species was a surprise when I first saw a mature plant it in the garden of Ota Vlasák in the Czech Republic last May, and an indication of how the world of alpines is so very much wider and more fascinating than even those who have grown these plants for many years might appreciate.
This is an opportunity to introduce one of the finest rock gardens that I have had the privilege to visit, and for me proof that this form of gardening is the equal of any other, even if much less encountered, and even less described in the horticultural media. It is often said that alpine plants are ideal for small gardens and this picture (though perhaps a little more extensive than many alpine gardeners might envisage) illustrates this well.
The use of authentic dwarf conifers, some probably 30 or 40 years old, integrates the rock work into the wider garden very successfully, and the result is in every way the equivalent of gardening on a larger scale with perennials and trees and shrubs, and in my eyes a true work of art.
A garden like this is the consequence of place and long tradition and it is interesting to refer back to an article written by the Czech gardener Olga Duchacova, 'A Letter from Czechoslovakia' (AGS Bulletin Vol. 34, p. 236, 1966) in which she describes something of the history of rock gardening there and some significant figures, such as Karel Capek and J. Nauman-Horny, the "Czech Reginald Farrer". Gardening in the British Isles is often set into an historical context but rock gardening is so specialised and distinct that it tends to stand apart from this mainstream. The gardens in the Czech Republic that were opened so generously to delegates of the 2nd Czech International Rock Garden Conference show that while rock gardens now may be very different to others that are regularly described in magazines such as 'Gardens Illustrated' and 'The English Garden', they lack none of the underlying artistic and cultural strengths.
Ota Vlasák's garden illustrates two aspects of rock gardening especially well; firstly the fine and careful placement of rock in naturalistic ways, and secondly, relatively sparse planting so that rock is truly a significant feature of the garden. Although less easy in regions where rock is not so readily available, this essential style of gardening can be mimicked even on the small scale of a trough or raised bed and shows choice alpines off to perfection. A balance between stone and plant, very reminiscent of Japanese and Eastern gardens, is a strong feature of Czech rock gardens, and an additional reason why this form of gardening can be particularly artistic and even poetic. Neither of these aspects need compromise the detail and variety of plants themselves, and the range of alpines grown in Czech gardens, and traditions of collecting seed in the wild, have resulted in a wonderful diversity.
The following three pictures show some of the rock work in more detail, and I think few gardeners in the UK would give stone such prominance. Yet it brings out the discrete nature of the plants in a way which you could say is not dissimilar to the prevailing exhibition of plants in the British Isles. Association with stone undoubtedly introduces another dimension to the plants, and if I was starting a garden again this is a way of growing I would be very happy to emulate.
Looking in more detail the garden has a mix of long established specimens like the wonderful cushion of Arenaria lithops, with younger plants, like the saxifrages tucked into crevices, and self-seeding species.
Daphnes were extraordinary and captivating features of all the gardens we visited, here a dwarf form of D. cneorum in the foreground and D. arbuscula behind.
The smaller pulsatillas - this is P. albana - have their moment in the garden with less drama than the more commonly grown P. vulgaris, but also have value in their distinct foliage even after a relatively short season of flowering.
Combinations of alpine plants appeal to me in the same way as I have described for woodland species and these simple mixes, not especially unusual, are very effective.
Finally a picture of what lies behind a garden like this - the nursery - the palette of the artist gardener, and a practical balance to the planting.
This picture of Iris pumila 'Dozzey' was taken in another of the Czech gardens, and the close up now in a trough in our garden. This garden differs again from that described above and rather than look in more detail at it here, I will introduce it with some of the other gardens we visited later on. While I know many gardeners where we live in Kent with an interest in hardy perennials and woody plants, there are very few who grow alpines in a way that is so striking as in the Czech Republic. But there are certainly gardens like these in the UK, a number of which I have referred to elsewhere on the website and which you will also see on the Scottish Rock Garden Club Forum, and they are very inspiring.
By comparison our garden is more eclectic but is steadily learning from the way other gardeners use alpines. Here the stunning N. African daisy, Rhodanthemum hosmariense, grows beneath clumps of the Angel's Fishing Rod, Dierama pulcherrimum. The tulip, 'China Pink', is a well known and reliable garden variety. In the sand bed behind spires of Juniperus communis 'Compressa' stand in a carpet of Raoulia australis.
Rhodanthemum hosmariense is an astonishing plant, rarely out of (a few) flower(s) but more showy than I remember before this spring. It has some beautiful Moroccan relatives in R. catananche and the selections 'Tizi-n-Test' and 'Tizi-n-Tichka', which unfortunately have never proved fully hardy with us, but R. 'African Eyes' does grow well, with winter protection, on the sand bed.
Next to this is probably my favourite of borages (at least for the moment), Lithodora oleifolia, a slow suckering sub-shrub from the Pyrenees with soft-blue flowers very like some of the mertensias.
The dwarfer phloxes, after taking a time to really establish, are now coming into their own in sand - this is a famous old form of P. douglasii, 'Boothman's Variety', named for a well known nurseryman.
And finally where the sand bed scores in growing a number of the smaller daphnes - the first is a superb plant bought from Ger Van den Beuken at the Rainham Show a few years ago (I think a result of a cross between D. rodriguezii and D. arbuscula) and much more vigorous than I anticipated. In leaf it resembles D. arbuscula but in habit is much stronger and reliably free flowering. Daphne calcicola, unusual in the genus for its yellow flowers, also grows here.
Growing more choice alpines in this way is all very well for the connoisseur but more difficult to sell to the general gardener and customer to the nursery. Easy going plant like aubrieta and arabis - this latter is the excellent double form of A. alpina - soften the edge of the gravel drive, the former living up to its description by Steve Furness in the latest AGS Journal; a truly valuable garden plant.
Pulsatilla 'Eva Constance' is regarded as a cultivar of P. rubra - an endemic to SW. Europe, and distinct from P. vulgaris - by Christopher Grey-Wilson in his guide to Pasque Flowers, and a species which includes some wonderfully dark blackest-red forms in nature, potentially exciting garden plants.
And to finish another reliable and well known tulip, 'Orange Emperor', effective in combination with the ubiquitous muscari.
Wilhelm Schacht's quote, taken from his book 'Rock Gardens and their Plants', sums up all that appeals about growing alpines in the garden, and he is kind in his appreciation of British gardeners - 'the classic country of garden lovers...'.
(Note: Wilhelm Schacht's book was translated for English readers, from the German, by Vera Higgins, a past editor of the AGS Bulletin, and showing the strong International credentials of the society and the way gardeners in different countries learn from one another, as well as more locally).