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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 10 August 2014 by Tim Ingram

Repairs & Renovations

This summer is seeing some real inroads into working on the garden and rebuilding the nursery. In a relatively small area alpine plants are obviously good plants to grow and propagate, and this frame is the first of several that will be made to accommodate them.

We intend to build a covered area for more choice plants, continuing on from the greenhouse below which is mostly used for stock plants and bringing on pots of seedlings. A recent article in the NARGS Quarterly by Loren Russell gives some excellent advice on constructing an area like this, and by chance is the same size as the standing ground below the greenhouse. Ours won't be so substantial, or require such deep sand plunge beds but should fit well with the present nursery area. This part of the garden had become very overgrown with brambles and weeds whilst other priorities took precedance and has required a concerted effort to clear and bring back into use, and there is still a lot to do. Anyone who has decorated a house will know that the biggest input is the preparation, and the same is certainly true of the garden and nursery which does take a lot of work to maintain. Fortunately two daughters with time on their hands through the summer have managed to detach themselves from i.pods and more interesting endeavours and lent some help, which has led to more rapid progress.

We also have a 50' cedar dutch-light greenhouse, built around 20-plus years ago. This has proved excellent with some extra internal bracing against south-westerly winds, but the base of the structure - which gets particularly wet - has been in need of repair. With the side glass removed - quite useful in this hot summer - the base of the frames have been treated with wood hardener and reattached to new tanalised wood screwed to the brick base. Given a new lick of wood preservative, after wire brushing down, the greenhouse is well set for another 25 years of use, or will be once I've managed to complete the other side as well!

Just below this greenhouse is the shaded part of the garden I have referred to earlier, planted up with hellebores and snowdrops and an increasing range of other woodlanders. The old adage of 'one year's seeding, seven year's weeding' applies to this area which also gets a good crop of weed seed from the overgrown field next door. (This summer this field has actually been very attractive with a good mix of 'weeds', perhaps a consequence of the particularly wet and mild winter). There has been a purposeful effort to weed regularly through the spring and summer and now after a few good thunderstorms it is getting a deep top-dressing with garden compost, which hopefully should restrict any weed growth until next year and refresh the planting for the  winter display of 2014/5.

We have three large insulated compost bins - and even with these often need more - and they can turn out good compost in relatively quick time, especially if the material is shredded and mixed with grass cuttings. The heap on the right, pictured on the 23rd July, is now reduced to half of this height, and there is something quite magical about this mundane garden process that almost makes weeding a pleasure! (The compost sits on long semi-circular metal grids which provide good aeration from the base).

Under the rows of apples, where presently planted only with snowdrops, weed is controlled by summer grass cuttings. In the long run though these are steadily being underplanted with a wide range of woodlanders, from ferns and hostas to ariseamas and roscoeas. These give a good combination of foliage throught the summer even if few flowers remain. 

Our relatively dry climate doesn't necessarily go down too well with plants like trilliums and podophyllums, but they are resilient in hot dry spells and can even set nice ripe seed which is always a pleasure to the nurseryman's eye. (The pleasure is now reduced on finding that several of the trilliums have been raided for their seed before I have had the chance to collect it!).

The ferns, mostly species and varieties of Dryopteris and Polystichum, are much more tolerant of dry weather than I would have anticipated a decade ago before we started growing many of them. Like so many groups of plants they develop in fascination as you learn more about them, and we now have a surprising number dotted about the garden.

With rain run-off from the greenhouse Blechnum chilense spreads vigorously and is quite a contrast to the little B. penna-marina which grows with trilliums under the cordon apples. This is an especially distinctive genus of ferns, very nicely described by Tim Pyner in 'The Plantsman' of March 2012, and beautifully cultivated in the mild climate of south-west Scotland at Logan Botanic Garden.

By contrast the delicate athyriums don't relish our dry summers and whilst beautiful earlier on do need the coolest and dampest of spots to remain looking good by now.

The group of ferns I would most like to grow, if and when time and chance allows, are the small xerophytic species, and both Asplenium ceterach and Woodsia obtusa are well suited to the sand bed.

With all this there is the ongoing need through summer to propagate plants from seed and cuttings, and so some time is set aside day by day for this - really amongst the most rewarding of all pursuits - and should accelerate once much of the structural and repair work is completed.

In the garden sun loving species on the new raised bed take the heat in their stride; origanums and sedums provide later summer colour and the un-named erodium carries on flowering for longer than any other plant.

The foliage of the Californian Lupinus breweri is every bit the equal of Convolvulus cneorum from the Mediterranean, and acts as a continuing temptation to experiment with choice alpine legumes, often quite easy to raise from seed but much more difficult to grow on in the garden for any length of time.

Outside of our front hedge, in the driest and most inhospitable spot imaginable, Delosperma cooperi has made a vivid display and shows how there are 'alpines' suited to any situation and garden given the imagination to use them.

*****

My mystery plant in July was the Ethiopian Acanthus sennii. This rather striking shrubby acanthus has become quite widely grown by plants-people for its bright red flowers, so different to the familiar A. mollis and A. spinosus. Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, it is cut back to the ground by the first frosts and so far with us has not grown away strongly enough from the base to flower - so we miss out on its most significant feature! In the mild, nearly frost-free climate of the Chelsea Physic Garden, planted close up against the building and given protection in cold weather, it has flowered reliably and wakes you up to the greater diversity of this genus. There are several good smaller herbaceous acanthus that are perfectly hardy but rarely grown: A. dioscoridis, A. hirsutus and A. syraicus are all excellent and distinctive in our garden, and with their deep wide-ranging roots permanent and drought resistant once established. The mild winter and longer growing season might bring flowers on this plant of A. sennii by the autumn.

*****

This is my mystery plant for August. Another African species but this time endemic to the S. African Drakensberg Mountains, and perfectly hardy in the garden.

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