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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 15 December 2014 by Tim Ingram

'Raise a Glass to the One You Love'

'Raise a Glass to the One You Love'

                                  (Seth Lakeman - Word of Mouth)


What I want to describe to you is a culture of rock gardening. But what is it that has engendered this? The obvious answer is the mountains, and especially when mountains surround you. It is the places that these plants come from that defines them, and by implication what they bring to the garden too. This is an essay based on the culture of rock gardening in the Czech Republic, and stimulated by the 2nd International Rock Garden Conference held in early May 2013 at Tábor, and the Garden Tour later based at Roztoky.

Many of the lectures took the audience in great detail into the floras of Patagonia, Kazakhstan, Turkey; the dionysias of Iran; and the riches of China and Tibet. I have described these elsewhere on the website. Others shared marvellous expertise in growing alpines in very different places: Martin Hajman in Tromsø and Peter Korn near to Göteborg, Michal Hoppel in Poland and Cyril Lafong in Scotland. Lying at the heart of all this is the culture of rock gardening and the way different gardeners find such fulfillment from growing and studying these plants.  The tour of Czech Gardens after the Conference summed this up well, and so it is this that I want to describe here - based around a talk to the East Kent Group of the AGS this December.


What is it that makes the Czech Republic such a heartland of rock gardening? Many things. It is a small country, similar in size to Ireland and Scotland, with a vivid history. It is geographically ringed by mountains, rocky, with an exciting alpine flora of its own - and so centrally located in Europe that the high peaks of the Alps and S. Europe are easily accessible - and there is a strong tradition of exploring and seed collecting much further afield too in Turkey and the Caucasus, and China, which alpine growers in the UK benefit from so greatly. The climate is decidedly continental. And like so many countries of Europe it has a strong and deep artistic culture and tradition and identity. Gardening as art takes different form in different places, and rock gardening speaks to a certain wanderlust - a nature that explores.

More than this the quality of rock gardening in the Czech Republic, which does benefit from climate and geography, equates with the rather different traditions of skilled cultivation in the British Isles, and so to see the gardens there is immensely exciting for any committed alpine gardener. Add gardeners and botanists attending from some 20 different countries and you have something pretty special.

Rock gardens, of all gardens, are very varied because of the individual nature of the plants and of the gardener. So the fifteen gardens so generously opened for us to see gave a taste of places and people, as well as plants. Each has its own character, its own outstanding plants, and its own small nursery! I can only really describe them by picking out a few images from each, but anyone who gardens knows that this is just a snapshot of so much more. Perhaps the two classes of plants that stood out more than any others are the daphnes and dwarf conifers - especially pines. But look in more detail, as in the mountains themselves, and it is the diversity that really captures the imagination.

Let me take you chronologically through the gardens we visited. Our guide and interpretor was Zdeněk Zvolánek. I will introduce these gardens over a number of days under this one Diary heading, and of course there are many others that I don't know, and a lot more that I would like to learn.

(The title I use has come from a growing folk tradition in modern music, which I see also in how we share knowledge about plants and gardening - 'The genuine spirit of localism' as George Borrow coined it in one of his books. Please also see the International Rock Gardener No. 41, May 2013, on the Scottish Rock Garden Club website, for a description of the same event by Margaret Young, which I gratefully acknowledge)

Milan Odvárka - Nová Včelnice

Milan Odvárka's garden was the largest we visited and so also the most varied in planting. It has been made over some 20 years on quite high, originally open meadow alongside coniferous woods, with a high water table which is so valuable in allowing cultivation of a great diversity of plants. Slow growing and choice woodlanders thrive as this first picture with Glaucidium palmatum and self-seeding drifts of cyclamen and hepatica illustrates.

To have water in a garden is good fortune but to use it so imaginatively as here is skilled and thoughtful gardening, and it is easy to see how the plantings have developed from an affinity with natural landscapes and environments. 

Trilliums stood out especially and anyone who grows these will know that they take many years to develop into such strong and mature clumps: they are very slow to raise from seed but healthy plants from specialist nurseries grown in this way overcomes much of the despoilation of natural woodland colonies where damage to the plants and desiccation invariably results in failure to establish (the second great virtue of growing from seed is the variety that arises from this, and also often good seed set in the garden - T. kurabayashii and T. chloropetalum do both set seed in our garden with only single plants, but T. luteum has never set seed in the twenty or more years we have grown it, and T. grandiflorum has only done so when different plants were crossed by hand).

Trillium grandiflorum & T. kurabayashii Trillium luteum


Mukdenia rossii is a rather beautiful and refined member of the Saxifragaceae from China and Korea which needs ample moisture to grow well (similar to Saxifraga fortunei which I have described elsewhere), but in a garden with a naturally high water table as this does well in an open situation amongst rocks, as it grows in the wild.

Mukdenia rossii

Gaultheria procumbens and Uvularia grandiflora were growing in similar conditions in the open garden, the former reminding you how wonderfully diverse and valuable are ericaceous plants given poor acid soil and moisture in the garden - and they associate very well with dwarf conifers which were a fine feature of very many of the gardens, especially this one.

Gaultheria procumbens Uvularia grandiflora

This garden had a remarkable collection of dwarf conifers, including many very unusual forms, and very appropriate given the backdrop of coniferous woodland that the picture below shows. They associate perfectly with a rock garden, just as Symons-Jeune emphasised in his classic book 'Natural Rock Gardening'. Given variety and space to mature properly, and chosen carefully, they really do evoke a mountain landscape and provide great year round interest.

A very great variety of alpines grow between the rocks themselves. The scale of the garden is such that the detailed planting found in many of the other gardens I will show is less evident but certain parts had ribbons of sempervivums running along crevices and healthy clumps of saxifrages, both real specialities of the Czech gardens.

Alpine veronicas are free flowering and very attractive viewed closely - this one probably one of the varied forms of V. thymoides, though the leaves are less grey than plants I have grown. These are valuable rock plants for their good blue flowers, many more easily grown than for example gentians, and a genus we are growing more and more of to compare.

Veronica thymoides

Milan Odvárka's garden also introduced something of the true artistry of rock gardening in the Czech Republic, exemplified by this simple planting of sempervivums amongst rocks - which I have shown before - and again highlights a 'style' of gardening referred to in an earlier entry, which is very refreshing.

Finally a taste of what is to come, an example of Daphne cneorum just coming into flower, perfectly situated in a crevice between rocks with a deep root run and that continental climate of hot summers and cold winters that suits this plant so well. Daphnes are a wonderful feature of all the Czech gardens and a genus that captivates and frustrates many alpine gardeners in the UK too!

Daphne cneorum

Václav Vostřák - Chyšky

The traditional image of a rock garden is coloured by references to the large and often extravagent constructions of past years. The smaller gardens made by members of the alpine and rock garden societies in earlier times, and now, are rarely discussed and described in the horticultural media. This is the reason why the Gardens Tour in the Czech Republic was so very eye-opening and attractive. Václav Vostřák's garden highlighted this especially because though the garden in the front of the house contained interesting plants it was only on walking around to the back that its true nature was revealed. Like walking in the mountains themselves it is this sense of discovery and contrast that draws you in. The foreground of this first picture could be in many gardens but with some great plants, notably Fritillaria imperialis. On the slope behind, and separated by a stream guided along a rill, is the rock garden - made with the help of the famous botanist, alpine gardener and seed collector Josef Halda.

Fritillaria imperialis

This garden contained perhaps my favourite individual image of the whole tour, this combination of daphne, sempervivum and fritillary - fortuitous because the last had no doubt seeded into the scene and perfectly complements the other two plants. Alpine plants often combine beautifully in the mountains just as perennials in meadows and woodlands do, and this is one of the delights of this way of gardening, as well as the individual appeal of different plants.

The daphne is D. x hendersonii 'Fritz Kummert', one of a wonderful range of hybrids between D. petraea and D. cneorum which combine the best attributes of both and are more reliable than either in the garden (they grow and flower well with us in a sand bed). See 'Daphnes. A Practical Guide for Gardeners' by Robin White for a detailed description of this fine group of hybrids and their origins.

A feature of rock gardening is keeping an accurate record of the plants grown and here they were comprehensively but discretely labelled. A photographic record of plantings is also effective but of less help to the garden visitor! (Snowdrops are a prime example where names are critical as you grow a wider variety, and we use both ways to record them and metal labels written with ceramic/glass ink which is cured by heat).

Daphne x hendersonii 'Fritz Kummert'

Look at the following part of the rock garden and its construction with narrow and deep vertical crevices becomes apparent. The crevices are filled with sharp sand and, as with deep pots which act to maximise drainage and hold moisture at depth, these conditions are ideal for so many plants (if a ready source of stone is available!). Paul Cumbleton, who previously curated the alpine department at RHS Wisley, has simply and effectively demonstrated the priciple of this to our local AGS Group in a valuable practical talk on growing.

Crevice gardening

The conifers give relief and contrast to the rock-work; some of these were extremely dwarf and slow growing, derived from 'witch's brooms' discovered amongst nearby mountains and sometimes rather curiously top-grafted onto the stocks.

Sempervivums mould themselves to crevices between rocks very effectively, in the second picture combined with the succulent rosettes of lewisias (which only really thrive given perfect drainage in crevices and walls and a cool but light aspect).

Elsewhere individual plants such as a small erysimum, the Juno iris I. magnifica (or is this I. graeberiana) made fine features, as did simple groupings of plants - the primula and saxifrages for example.

Globularia repens, here full of flower buds just opening, is notoriously shy flowering in cultivation and must benefit from the high summer temperatures and warmth retained and radiated from the rock work.

Globularia repens

The rock garden is superb but a very specialised and dominant feature in a garden and does require a ready and local source of stone. Equally appealing in its way, and more accessible for many gardeners, is the final scene with that same detail but with ferns and woodland perennials and bulbs.

Miroslav Staněk - Sedlčany

Miroslav Staněk's garden was the smallest of the three visited on the first day of the Garden Tour (we were unable to see the forth, Mr Bartůněk at Záhoří, for lack of time!) but contained amongst the widest range of alpines of all - several of the gardeners we visited also travel widely and collect seed and Miroslav is one of these. His front garden contained numerous strong and healthy clumps of pulsatilla, interspersed with phlox and tulips, colourful and a fascinating piece of planting, but the real excitement came around the back of the house, almost wholly devoted to a rock garden.

Pulsatilla vulgaris 'Papageno' Miroslav Staněk's rock garden in the Czech Re

I will look more closely at the rock garden in a moment but some of the most interesting plants of all were growing in troughs alongside the house; these were relatively shallow (which I have considered a disadvantage but is obviously not the case here) and simply but imaginatively landscaped with bold rocks.

Alpine troughs in Miroslav Staněk's garden in

Troughs like these are effectively miniature gardens in themselves and benefit from reasonably regular additions of new plants and replanting, but they can also contain long lived specimens such as this fine clump of Callianthemum coriandrifolium, just as striking here for its foliage as for the early flowers.

Callianthemum coriandrifolium

Long shallow troughs like these were features of a number of the gardens and the example below was particularly impressive (not to say incredibly heavy!) with well established plants of daphnes and androsaces, very effectively displayed against the bold rocks.

Several colour forms of Gentiana verna stood out, notably an exquisite pale-blue form (of var. calycina) which will remain high on my wish list. This species and its relatives are arguably the most appealing of all gentians and remind me of the impossibly minute and jewel-like annual G. nivalis which was the star of a trip to Iceland many years ago and never forgotten.

Gentiana verna var. calycina

In aesthetic terms though I am hard pressed to choose between the gentian and this Veronica, the species bombycina, from the Lebanon and Turkey. This has none of the perfection of a plant in one of the AGS Shows growing in the garden like this, but still has immense appeal because of the colour and contrast against silvery-grey foliage. How do you define beauty? It can simply be something that you see that stands out for you. It can be part of a larger work of art which the next picture I show will also illustrate. In the case of alpine plants I think it is undeniably also a consequence of the setting.

Veronica bombycina

The rock garden itself contains a very wide variety of plants, wilder and perhaps more eclectic than most of the other gardens and not adhering to any strict 'crevice-like' principles because the stone is used more randomly, but the result speaks for itself. In these two pictures mountain daphnes again stand out, notably the very compact and pure white form of D. cneorum in the second image. Once plants are seen growing in this way then the urge is on to emulate the planting (and to discover a friendly quarry-man just down the road!).

These last four plants show that amazing variety which can be such a significant and absorbing feature of the alpine garden - the Rusty-Back fern Asplenium ceterach (this is excellent in pure sand in our garden but looks a great deal better tucked in between rocks like this); a form of the infinitely variable dwarf iris I. pumila (or hybrid), naturally more of a calcareous meadow plant; in cooler shade the incomparable and delicate Anemonella thalictroides 'Oscar Shoaf' (this was discovered by Oscar Shoaf in Owatonna, Minnesota, and named for him by Lincoln Foster - see 'Cuttings from a Rock Garden' by H. Lincoln Foster and Laura Louise Foster); and finally another plant of Daphne cneorum just coming into flower. A pleasure and privilege to see.

Asplenium ceterach Iris pumila hybrid Anemonella thalictroides 'Oscar Shoaf' Daphne cneorum

(The description of these gardens carries on in the next entry, and will be continued this coming winter 2015 as time allows).

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