Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: 15 April 2016 by Tim Ingram
plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose...
plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose...
(Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karv)
Few activities come closer to this famous epigram than making a garden which cycles through the seasons, year by year, renewing that excitement as familiar plants grow and flower. If, as we have, you have gardened for thirty or forty years and over that time regularly opened your garden to visitors, cultivated and propagated a wide variety of plants, at times suffered setbacks from storm and drought, as well as illness, then a garden does assume something more - a history and a form of enlightenment. Over that length of time - and our garden was originally made from a field, a cherry orchard - it has steadily become a 'woodland' as trees and shrubs mature and a balance of understorey plants find their place. To describe it as simplistically as that of course is to view the garden just as a natural climax vegetation, which it is not. The garden is full of exotic species from all around the world, but still the essence of growing them is to consider their ecology and natural habitats first. The most successful plantings are those where the plants have really led the way.
There are places where they lead the way too well and become weeds, and others where the weeds come in from outside. In the places where the garden is more effectively managed though the wealth of plant cover prevents weeds from establishing too seriously and a more natural planting results.
These series of photographs, taken from scanned prints, show how the garden has changed over time. The inspiration came originally from gardens such as Beth Chatto's in Essex, because of similar climate and hot dry summers, which put strong restraints on the types of plants likely to succeed, and from the alpine nurseries of Joe Elliott and the Ingwersens (and also incidentally from the Hillier's Manuel of 'Trees and Shrubs' and Graham Stuart Thomas' book, 'Perennial Garden Plants'!). Later, as the shade of trees and shrubs has provided more opportunity to grow woodland species, incentive came from the plantings at Knightshayes Court in Devon and from visiting Elizabeth Strangman and Graham Gough at Washfield Nursery. Now it is gardens such as Great Dixter, and, on a more intimate scale, those of growers in the alpine and rock garden societies - for example Ian and Maggi Young in Aberdeen - which provide a vision to aspire to, where a lifetime's care and understanding of plants results in real practical and artistic insights, and individual expression.
The garden begins, spring 1979. The excavation was to remove a swimming pool(!), but with hindsight this would have been a wonderful opportunity to create a pond. Our garden overlies chalk at depth and so water is not a feature and yet can add so much in terms of wildlife and opportunities to grow a wider variety of plants. The rows of dwarf apples in the distance have now become an important part of the garden, where very many woodland species are established.
Ten years on, spring 1989. Heathers and conifers as well as alpines and perennials. Two years after the famous storm of 1987 which was extraordinary to watch with relentless wind - but our sturdy wooden Pratten's greenhouse stood up to it well with little damage.
Severe drought in August 1990. A tough time with hosepipe bans and little opportunity to sell plants or do much gardening! The grass has never been quite as brown as this again (really a Mediterranean summer) but has got close for short periods quite often since. We are taking advantage of this by steadily growing more and more bulbs in the turf and observing the remarkable ability of plants such as primroses and cowslips to tolerate such conditions, but perhaps not so extreme as this!
Autumn colours, October 1993. Here trees and shrubs are really beginning to establish and create a much more woodland character to the garden. From now on the garden becomes more the inspiration, and at times taskmaster, as to how it will develop. After twenty-plus years a lot of gardening becomes clearing and renewing which in itself allows for the creativity essential for an ongoing relationship with plants.
For a while we combined opening the garden in the late autumn with a fruit tasting day - and propagated many unusual varieties of apples in particular. Very popular, but a lot of work!
The garden today, April 2016. This is the part of the garden we look out on every day and which sets the scene for the whole, even though plenty you can't see is pretty weedy and overgrown at times. In particular we are developing meadow-type plantings of bulbs under the cornus and magnolias to the right, and a bulb bed modelled on (but hardly approaching so far) the incredible bulb walk at Sissinghurst Garden: the circular bed in the middle of the grass. In the distance the beautiful upright Magnolia 'Wada's Memory' behind Betula utilis jacquemontii. After 35 years years or so the scene is becoming a woodland with clearings, and so it feels whilst gardening.
Alpine plants have always had a strong place in the garden, as this picture of a raised bed in 1989 shows.
However, to be interested in plants, to have studied and grown them for a lifetime, and to regularly open the garden for charity means that it is always changing and now includes much greater diversity, especially woodland species, ferns and bulbs. In essence this in what happens in a natural woodland as different plants find their niches and react to changing climate and competition, and vegetation becomes richer and more varied. Still the constraints are climate and place.
Hopefully as I continue these Diary entries, which are as much to do with the day to days travails of cultivation as they are the selected views of the camera, some impression of our successes and failures will come across, and what we gradually learn from both.