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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 28 August 2017 by Tim Ingram

Of gardens...

A few days ago we had a meeting in the garden made by Jeremy and Hilary Spon to finalise the forthcoming programme for our small AGS Group in East Kent, and it struck me just how very important our personal gardens are in how we view the world: simply the enjoyment of sitting outside in the summer in the peace of a garden talking with others about their interests in plants and gardens too.



This lies at the heart of any Gardening Society and must be the reason I write these Diary entries here because the AGS has been a focus for how I think about plants for more than half a lifetime. But the AGS is only one Garden Society amongst many, just as individual gardens are, and for a while I've wanted to describe some of the different gardens we know in Kent, rather hidden from horticultural view but fully as significant as larger and better known ones. They are made by people who belong not only (sometimes not actually) to the AGS but often to the Hardy Plant Society and Plant Heritage as well, to local Village Garden societies, and many times to smaller specialised groups with particular interest in certain plants. You might say that this is how these societies arise, from the 'garden', rather than the other way round. And in a world which often seems intent on building divisions and barriers, the garden welcomes and does just the reverse.

In their very personal book 'Cuttings from a Rock Garden', Lincoln and Laura Louise Foster open with the line "What is the why of a garden", and later answer this question thus: "A desired landscape is not, however, the only why of a garden. Many are created by those for whom gardening itself is a joy, where the decorative aspect is a result rather than the intent. We are definitely in this category. Our lives would be diminished without a garden in which to work".

Laura Louise Foster's exquisite line drawings (this one shows the garden in winter) capture this perfectly.

There will be few gardens such as their's at Millstream, which extended over nearly ten acres into natural woodland, but that combination of a detailed interest in and knowledge of plants along with the overall artistry of making a garden, runs through all the examples I will show (in different ways), and has an horticultural sophistication the equal of any literary and musical culture. The only way of illutrating this is in words and pictures. Gardens are transient things, but this culture that we express in them is not, and the inspiration that comes from what other people do is tangible.

For gardeners in this south-east corner of the UK I hope these examples may give an impression of this, and of the way 'alpine' plants can contribute to a garden in many different ways and not to the exclusion of a wider vision.


Jeremy has been chairman of the Kent HPS, is secretary of the Austrasian Plant Society (in the UK) and has acted as treasurer for various conservation groups, and his and Hilary's garden incorporate all of these interests. My opening picture shows the comfortable way the garden surrounds their house. The zinnia in the picture below are especially attractive to Brimstone butterflies, and elsewhere in the garden grows their larval foodplant, Buckthorn.

Near to the house is a relatively formal herbaceous planting and an enviable greenhouse/conservatory within laurel hedges.

In high summer the tall perennial Rudbeckia laciniata 'Herbstonne' is very striking.

Beyond the hedge the garden is wild, merging into woodland, and with a collection of unusual trees and shrubs, notably from Australia and New Zealand. Eucalyptus dalrympleana is especially eyecatching for its white-silver bark (but must be planted as a small seedling; its vigour can tend to make it unstable in strong winds and even this one was caught in a past storm).

The wildness of much of the garden is deliberate (partly) because of that interest in the detailed natural history relating flowers and their pollinators, and in particular butterflies and their larval food plants. Here also are several small greenhouses containing collections of South African bulbs. It is a plantsman's garden, like so many of those of members of the AGS.


In June we hosted a visit from  the Korean gardener, Hea Sook, with three of her friends travelling around gardens in the UK.

This was an opportunity to visit the lovely cottage garden made by Sue Martin, another good friend in the Kent HPS.

Sue is a musician and Music Teacher, like Jeremy a past chair of the Kent HPS, and holds a National Collection of the genus Geum, for which she has written a guide for Plant Heritage

Her garden in early summer is simply delightful and alpines play in a minor key.


A little earlier, at the beginning of 'Chelsea' week we spent a very warm day selling plants in Francine Raymond's garden in Whitstable, one of ten open for the National Gardens Scheme in the town. Francine is a journalist and writer and her garden has real 'style'.


Whitstable has a mild and relatively frost-free climate ans succulents such as Echeveria elegans give seaside gardens an exotic air (and this plant is surprisingly hardy in a sheltered trough or situation further inland too).

Other succulents grow in the porch in a way that very many gardeners will appreciate.

By a shady wall a collection of ferns are greatly enhanced by the choice of containers they are grown in, which reminds me of the way many plants are grown and displayed in Japanese gardens - a rather different and artistic expression than we often use, for example, in how plants are displayed at Alpine Shows.

And on a really hot summer's day the shade of this large oak at the bottom of the garden was especially welcome.

Encouragingly there was a good bit of interest from visitors in the alpines plants we grow, and many of these - the dryland plants of the Mediterranean and South Africa for example - are good in the exposed and often quite extreme conditions of seaside gardens, just as many seaside plants often find their way into rock gardens.



Every now and again you discover a hidden gem of a garden, and this one nestling in the woods above the village of Barham, south of Canterbury, is one.

Richard Sampson is a long time member of the AGS and this small rock garden would charm anyone in the Society.

It is a garden we hope to arrange a Group visit to see next spring and a range of very desirable plants thrive despite sometimes the depredations of rabbits from the surrounding wood, and a one time ingress of pigs from the neighbouring farm! These are several examples: Potentilla nitida with silver saxifrages growing on tufa and a wonderfully compact and large flowered species of Anthemis.

Erigeron aureus 'Canary Bird', as striking as the flowerheads develop as when they fully open.

And in a shadier corner with rich leafy soil (probably) one of Elizabeth Strangman's black strain of hellebores growing with a fine colony of Thalictrum orientale.

Richard has a strong interest in saxifrages and this example in his alpine house caught my eye - I think one of the seasonally dry-adapted mossy species in the series Gemmiferae. 

An impressively large cushion of Diosphaera asperuloides (now subsumed into Campanula) grows in the same greenhouse.

As an aside on the same day we visited Richard we also went to see a small patch of 'ancient' woodland near to Canterbury, known for its rich colonies of orchids, to see this beautiful group of the Early Purple Orchid, Orchis mascula.

Some are substantial plants and show wide variation, including a rather lovely pale form.

These woods have an especially wild Tolkeinesque quality; they were left to the city by a past Mayor so that the woodland "should be reserved for the public forever". Hopefully as a nationally important SSSI they will resist the pressures of development around the city.


There are many other Kentish gardens I could show (and if time allows, will) and these are just a few examples of friends we have visited through this spring and summer. The gardens that attract the public eye tend to be those that are larger and regularly featured in the horticultural media, but there are so many more of individual fascination made by members of specialist plant societies such as the AGS and HPS that well deserve recognition.

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