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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 12 December 2015 by Tim Ingram

'The Golden Age of Gardening' - Ursula Buchan


'Valerie Finnis & the Golden Age of Gardening' - talk to the East Kent Group of the AGS, 13th Nov 2015

'A democratically inclined workforce'

Perhaps one reason for gaining a detailed knowledge of plants is to do with a democratic nature? A desire to view the world in the round, try to understand it, and dwell less on celebrity. Gardening though is as much to do with people as it is with plants and you only have to glance back through the Bulletin and Journal of the AGS to find Voltaire's famous maxim, 'Cultivate your Garden', expressed in great variety.

None the less gardening does have its celebrities, but in the fully constructive meaning of the word. Ursula Buchan's talk to us in November on 'Valerie Finnis and the Golden Age of Gardening' was based on her book  'Garden People - the Photographs of Valerie Finnis', written in collaboration with Anna Pavord and Brent Elliott. Valerie Finnis was instrumental in introducing Ursula to a career in horticulture, and this connection between gardeners - the people who have inspired and inspire a lifetime's interest in plants - will resonate strongly with anyone who studies plants and makes a garden.

My opening words refer to Waterperry, the school of gardening founded by Beatrix Havergal in 1932, where Valerie Finnis was a student and then remained a teacher for 28 years. Here she championed the cultivation of alpine plants, propagating some 50 000 plants a year - including 7000 saxifrages, for which the garden still remains famous amongst alpine plants-people through the collection curated by Adrian Young.

As well as being a skilled and dedicated gardener Valerie Finnis was a fine photographer - she amassed a collection of 15 000 large format transparencies taken on a Rolleiflex camera. In the 1950's, recovering in the Alps from illness, she met the great plantsman and alpine grower Wilhelm Schacht who recognised her talent and gave her one of his cameras. This is just one anecdote amongst many that Ursula Buchan described to us, taken from her book and using the original illustrations of plants and people by Valerie Finnis. Amongst the latter were very many nurserymen, plants-people and botanists - from Will Ingwersen, Jack Drake and Stuart Boothman; E, B. Anderson, George Sherriff and Frank Ludlow; to Anna Griffith, Margery Fish and the indomitable Miriam Rothschild (who if anyone, presaged the naturalistic styles of gardening of today). The Golden Age of Gardening in the decades following the Second World War was a consequence of these people and many more, and leaves a lasting legacy. 

In 1990 Valerie Finnis founded the Merlin Trust, which has provided financial support to 550 young gardeners to date in travel scholarships, and is administered by leading horticulturists of the present day. 

One of the most striking images of all that Ursula showed was the long alpine border, made with 80 railaway sleepers, constructed with her husband David Scott at the Dower House (Boughton House), Northamptonshire. Nowadays alpine plants can sometimes seem esoteric to the point of inscrutability within the wider world of gardening, but a border like this shows how easily many can be grown given imagination and determination - and perhaps how they may be grown again in the future?

We would like to express our grateful thanks to Ursula Buchan for what was a very different and rather unique talk giving people as much place as plants.

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