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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 31 August 2014 by Tim Ingram

Up North!

'Up North!'

(Well it had to be after John's description of travelling down south in his last diary entry. This is a description, in part, of travelling up to the SRGC Summer meeting at Dunblane last weekend ... and I wish we could grow that striking umbel Bolax as well as John describes it in his garden, and at Edrom Nursery as shown below).

Over thirty years ago now I was lucky enough to spend six months working in Tasmania (see the AGS Bulletin Vol. 55, p. 83, 1987). The memory of the mountains and plants there has never left me, and it was also a time when there was a profound environmental debate about the potential damming of the Franklin River in the south-west, and the involvement of high profile figures like the botanist David Bellamy. For politicians and hydro-electric engineers the high rainfall and deep valleys of the south-west were ripe for continuing development, for conservationists and the Tasmanian Wilderness Society a turning point had been reached: either the Franklin River was useless unless harnessed to serve mankind or a place of outstanding natural beauty to be conserved for future generations. The journalist and film-maker Bob Connelly describes these opposing viewpoints in his book 'The Fight for the Franklin' (1981), at a time when the fate of the river was still in the balance.

The River Franklin runs around the central massif of Frenchman's Cap, a favourite and intensely dramatic destination for walkers and climbers in Tasmania.

Much of the south-west of Tasmania is true wilderness and a World Heritage Site, but also a potential resource, so the debate about the Franklin River was, as Peter Dombrovskis and Bob Brown say in their photographic essay of the region - 'Wild Rivers' - 'a litmus for the world'.

I've picked out one photograph from this book to illustrate just how spectacular this river is  (and please note the original photograph is of exceptional quality on the printed page).

A century earlier the environmental pioneer John Muir was fighting a similar battle over the uncontrolled exploitation of resources in N. America, leading to the formation of the Sierra Club and a National Conservation movement.  John Muir was a truly remarkable figure and his writing speaks directly to anyone who studies the natural world, even if it is hard for many to live up to his ideals. On our way up to the Summer meeting at Dunblane we stopped off at his birthplace, Dunbar, not far from Edrom Nursery. Here a fine statue commemorates John Muir in his youth.

I can highly recommend this superb compilation of John Muir's writing for anyone who has not discovered it, and it was the amazing scenery of Yosemite - also photographed so well by Ansel Adams - which was the touchstone for his environmental concerns.

This was an introduction to a thoroughly enjoyable meeting hosted by the SRGC with the Russian botanist and gardener Olga Bondareva as speaker. I will write in more detail about her talks on botanising in the Caucasus and far to the east near to Vladivostok on the SRGC website, but here would like to describe some of the other places we visited, notably the 'Botanics' at Edinburgh and Branklyn Garden near to Perth. Here though is a picture of Olga with Cyril Lafong, who invited her to speak to the club - two exceptionally fine alpine gardeners and more - and below an example of a little bit of Scottish cheer on the showbench!

('If you make too much of diaries you blur every beautiful sight by thinking what you should write about it' - well maybe, but heading towards beauty doesn't seem such a bad idea! So I will keep going for the time being... )

It is impossible to travel up to Scotland without visiting one of the premier, and longest established, alpine nurseries in the country - Edrom. Previously we have been when the autumn gentians were in full flower and this August they were just beginning. It would be fascinating to visit earlier in the year when this planting of dwarf rhododendrons are flowering.

These are plants we have not generally grown in our dry southern garden but are having success with in certain places and more are tolerant of our summers and loamy soil than you might think - as I have noted before. We purchased several dwarf rhododendrons from the well known nurseries Glendoick and Millais for the display put on by the Kent AGS at the Kent Garden Show last year, and these, now planted out in the garden, are growing away well. Seeing these, and peat-loving (I hardly dare say the word) plants in general, so well described by Alfred Evans in his classic book 'The Peat Garden and its Plants' (1974), is one of the great draws of northern gardens. Maybe it is foolish to consider growing such plants down south, but I have at least bought Peter Cox's book 'The Smaller Rhododendrons' (1985) to learn more, and straightaway have been drawn in by his writing too.


For the nurseryman it is hard to say whether envy or excitement comes from seeing these stock beds at Edrom, but there is great admiration for the superb displays they have made at RHS Halls in past years - after all it is a 700 mile round trip from the Scottish borders! The developing woodland garden at the nursery looks to be a wonderful way of showing the plants off to visitors.

So we did buy a few plants, including this Russian species of Stachys, ossetica, attracted by its interesting foliage, and a genus which we have been steadily growing more of in the past few years.

Edinburgh Botanic Garden

There is no charge to visit Edinburgh Botanic Garden, which seems some recognition that the living study of plants is of as much importance as of the Arts and Sciences in Galleries and Museums open to everyone. (As John has said though, Botanic Gardens are fewer and further between, and the alpine garden societies and specialist nurseries, with particular interest in the natural vegetation of the world, act in the same capacity but with the added advantage of having members and gardens distributed right across the country, as well as further afield). The 'Botanics', as the garden is affectionately known, is ideally situated to grow many alpines and woodland species from cooler temperate regions, and nothing more like a mecca for gardeners like myself who have been fascinated by these plants since childhood. The opportunity to visit is few and far between, living 450 miles to the south, so here are a few examples of the alpine and rock garden areas for those members - and viewers - equally unable to benefit more locally from the garden.

There is a sad irony in the fact that the plants in the traditional alpine house are displayed behind wire netting - to steal a plant implies an inability to understand how to grow, propagate and distribute it to others, the very things that the alpine garden societies teach and encourage (maybe this is a sign of the times, but it was refreshing later to visit Branklyn Garden and see an honesty box to pay for plants when no one was there).

We haven't been to Edinburgh since the construction of the new alpine house and crevice garden, and both are very striking - one rather easier to translate to a personal garden than the other!

The contrast between the two glasshouses at Edinburgh and Kew is marked, but so too is the climate. At Edinburgh the glasshouse is more designed to catch and amplify air movement over the plants; at Kew, in a hotter and drier climate, this effect is achieved by the height of the glasshouse drawing cool air from chambers beneath it. In both cases the sculptural quality of the structure must be as relevant as its practical role and it is perfectly possible to grow many of these plants in a less sophisticated setting.

To view plants botanically is to be less concerned with an overall aesthetic than with individual detail, but having said this alpines displayed as they are at Edinburgh look very natural and I particularly liked the collections of troughs, softened by the plantings around them.


It is late in the year for many alpines but the long raised bed alongside the alpine house has a wonderful specimen of Gentiana paradoxa in full flower, which John Good has mentioned in his diary, and a species very much easier for us to grow in the south than the acid-loving autumn gentians (but not as well as this!).

Possibly it is this 'botanical' impression of a rock garden that limits wider interest in growing alpines, but the sinuous crevice garden alongside the new alpine house is a feature in itself, with the plants almost an added bonus, and could convert many gardeners to considering rock gardening again. Being able to use tufa (see later picture) on this sort of scale is less easy to envisage, but something similar could be achieved by casting 'hypertufa' rocks on a smaller scale (and we have this in mind for a part of our garden in the future).

The planting here is quite new and so doesn't contain venerable plants like the amazing specimen of Erinacea on the long raised bed (I wonder when this was planted?). But for the connoisseur of labels and names - and there is a tendency to veer this way amongst alpine gardeners (!), there are some interesting plants. The small 'Fragrant cliff fern', Dryopteris fragrans, is especially attractive: Sue Olsen in her authorative 'Encyclopaedia of Garden Ferns' (2007) describes it as 'particular and fussy' and recommends the variety remotiuscula as easier than the type. Several shrubby calceolarias are flowering strongly in front of the glasshouse, a purely S. American genus (and John Watson describes some 70 species in the AGS Encyclopaedia of Alpines, so a few should make good garden plants!). 

The pièce de résistance is the tufa wall within the glasshouse and this should be particularly exciting as it gains a maturing planting.

The rock garden proper, and woodland beds, are half a garden away along meandering paths, a good opportunity to lose oneself amongst a wealth of other plants, including this stunning specimen of Rhododendron cinnabarinum, which must be spectacular in flower.

The rock garden is the most extensive in the country and slightly incongruously - but functionally - set off by pristine 'bowling green' lawns and tightly clipped edges.  There are parts though that are remarkably natural such as this scene of Frncoa self-seeding alongside a cascade of water, and the rather beautiful New Zealand tussock grass Chionchloa rubra.

The great advantage of seeing it on a wet day was that there was no one else around!

To take the plantings in properly would take a lot longer than we had available. Again though it is often the individual plants that fascinate so much: this could be a very large dock but Rheum acuminatum is arresting amongst the smaller leaved plants all around...

Eryngium amethystinum var. euspinosa is nothing short of magnificent, a mature plant very well suited to a rocky shelf...

The rarely grown Caucasian Centaurea cheiranthifolia stops one for a while...

And a striking and 'different' Potentilla, pedunculata, could easily be taken for a species of Blechnum at first glance...

In the now non-PC peat garden (but do those peat blocks come from SSSI's?), Schizocodon and Cassiope wardii thrive... sigh...

This is something we in Britain are good at, growing plants, and a pretty worthy occupation even if you don't have quite the expertise and back up of a wonderful Botanic Garden like Edinburgh...

(I will write more about Dunblane and Olga's talk on the SRGC website in the future - but still to come here, a little bit about Branklyn Garden near to Perth).

Branklyn Garden

'... the enthusiast who goes around the garden at five minutes a step; he crouches down over plants and touches them lovingly. He even takes off his hat to some especially good specimen'.

(Dorothy Renton)


Imagine a garden hidden away on a hillside above Perth. A house and garden which play off each other in a very comfortable way. A diversity of plants to satisfy the keenest of plantsmen, built upon the collections of such famous plant hunters as Frank Ludlow and George Sherriff and George Forrest. Made over a lifetime of interest in plants and on a personal scale that any gardener can identify with. This is Branklyn, and the reason why it is one of the finest gardens in the country even if known to so few people.

To write about a Botanic Garden like Edinburgh is to be taken into an intellectual and scientific world of plants: to write about a garden like Branklyn is to understand the practical and personal basis of gardening and deserves a lot more room and consideration than I have here. So I will direct you for the time being to the fine booklet on the garden produced by the National Trust for Scotland, who care for the garden. It is as exciting a garden as any I have visited and a place we will return to to learn more.



The SRGC Summer Meeting - 23rd August 2014

Voronezh, Vladivostok and the Caucasus.


For a description of these talks by Olga Bondareva at Dunblane last summer please see under 'Articles' on our website:

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