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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 08 April 2015 by Tim Ingram

Who would be a judge?

'The next plant we recall was new to the Show bench, Saxifraga manshuriensis. The plant had caused its exhibitors Mrs K. Dryden and S.R. Piggin many difficulties. Coming from Manchuria and Korea it is not an easy plant in cultivation. One might ask, looking at the photograph on page 341, why they bothered to grow such an ungainly plant... It was after the Show and during the ensuing six weeks or so that the plants really showed their true potential'.

(Quarterly Bulletin of the Alpine Garden Society, Vol. 36, p. 333, 1968)

Here is an example of what makes the Alpine Shows so remarkable and educative. This plant is now classified in the genus Micranthes and these are hardly known or grown. Malcolm McGregor in his guide to 'Saxifrages' published by Timber Press, extols their virtues and says: 'Perhaps it is this untameable quality which makes me fond of them - they retain their wild heritage'. In truth Saxifraga/Micranthes manshuriensis would hardly excite many gardeners but it is this wild heritage which lies at the heart of the Alpine and Rock Garden societies. The plants at the Alpine Shows excite because they are so beautiful, or sometimes so interesting and 'different', so beautifully grown, and often have been nurtured for many years and show an extraordinary horticultural sensitivity and skill. But they also excite because of the places they come from and because they retain a wildness, very much an 'untameable quality', which is uncompromising. Though they may be tamed in pots for exhibition in fact the great skill of the exhibitor and grower is in retaining their essential nature. When you see this achieved at the Alpine Shows, or in the garden, it is hard to judge but simply to admire.

This picture shows the dilemma for a judge. All these plants are exquisitely grown - to choose between them is impossible and yet there has to be a first, second and third, and it is an unenviable choice. Who would be a judge? But to look across the Show as a whole as an enthusiastic gardener there is so much to admire, and there will be plants that catch individual attention because, in fact, they may be ones that you yourself have grown or would like to grow, or simply have never seen before, or wonder: 'would these succeed so well in the garden too?'

Hence the 'Alpine Show': a place for the exhibitors to express their skill, knowledge and joy in growing plants so well; visitors to admire and be bowled over by plants they may never have seen or ever contemplate growing themselves; and gardeners to come away from with renewed enthusiasm and determination to learn more about plants, along with a boxful of acquisitions to test their horticultural prowess.

This, then, is my take on two of the Spring Alpine Shows, in Kent and at Exeter. Compare these with the wider world of horticulture and they may seem arcane and highly specialised, but view them as part of a closer understanding of plants which brings together botany and geography, art and science - even the practical and the sublime if you will - and they are amongst the most significant horticultural events in the country. 

Plants appeal to me most because of their variation and in the sense of Darwin's 'entangled bank', which is why I promote 'the garden' so strongly. But alpine plants - and even more those of arid regions and deserts - are constrained by their physical environment rather than by competition. David Attenborough puts this well in his description in 'The Private Life of Plants' of alpine willows growing in the Arctic: 'When you walk across a carpet of such prostrate trees, you are, in effect, walking over a woodland canopy'. The alpine garden and the Alpine Shows can capture these plants up to a point, and to grow them so well does demand a great understanding of them, but in the end it is the plants that lead the gardener rather than the gardener, the plants.

It is hard not to see poetry in this - as for instance 'Rocky Acres' by Robert Graves (who also wrote the epic 'I Claudius'):

This is a wild land, country of my choice,

With harsh craggy mountain, moor ample and bare.

Seldom in these acres is heard any voice

But voice of cold water that runs here and there

Through rocks and lank heather growing without care. 

No mice in the heath run, no song birds fly

For fear of the buzzard that floats in the sky.

It is inevitable that an Alpine Show can lead you to these flights of fancy, but it begins on a more mundane level with the preparation of the tables and a preceding flurry of publicity, and a longish walk from the car park, or elsewhere, with heavy plants!

Here Jeannine is trying to fit a quart into a pint pot before the final arrangement of the Artistic section at the Kent Show. This has become such a popular feature that it can be difficult to show off artwork and photographs to best advantage: Jon has made the suggestion that these two aspects might be separated and shown at the Spring and Autumn Shows in Kent respectively. For Jeannine and those who help to prepare the display this would ease the process and it is a lot of work setting these out.

Here are a few examples, particularly of artwork, which appealed to me...

Jon's pictures of Gentiana clusii growing on the North Downs in Surrey.

These really fine paintings - at first sight they look like photographs! - of Fritillarias.

And a rather lovely design for a bookmark from Vincent Daniels.

At Exeter I particularly liked this painting of Muscari macrocarpum from Rannveig Wallis, and also the two paintings of Majorie Blamey's which were awarded for the most points in the Primulaceae (Peter Edwards Memorial Trophy) and Open Section (Exeter trophy) respectively. 

Exeter, too, had a fine exhibit of embroidery from Jean Morris, showing different methods and styles such as this example of Ribbon Work.

(to be continued... )

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