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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 17 December 2015 by Tim Ingram

Alpine Open Day at Wisley (continued)

The rock garden at Wisley and the 'alpine' lawn adjacent to it, the surrounding plantings of bulbs and woodland plants, and of course the alpine houses, raised beds and now crevice garden are all wonderful features of the garden throughout the year for anyone who grows these plants. They illustrate the extraordinary diversity of these species which yet is less a feature of gardens in general. They also illustrate the fine distinction in the way these plants can be grown - for display or within the garden - which is the result of sensibility to the plants in part (both artistic and scientific) but also tradition, utility, and proclivity.

Lying behind all of this is the growing area where plants are propagated and raised, and whenever a keen gardener visits any garden this is the place they immediately want to go and see even before viewing the garden itself. So a privilege of the Alpine Open Day at Wisley (which many AGS Groups and members have  had over the years) was the opportunity to be shown around the private growing area adjacent to the alpine displays.

This picture shows part of the collection of crocus just before flowering of different species begins in October and then runs on through winter into the following spring. If anything shows the real interest in these plants it is a group of gardeners viewing a collection of what look like empty pots, listening to the detail of how these are cultvated!


There are a series of glasshouses and growing areas devoted to plants requiring distinct requirements, the envy of any grower whether amateur or professional - these are three examples showing firstly the collection of South African bulbs (a particular speciality of Paul Cumbleton, the previous curator of the Alpine Department), a magnificent bench of lewisias, and finally a large mixed collection of species.

These are all, or mostly, plants - especially bulbs - grown for display through the year in the adjacent public alpine house; this is one example from autumn, the rarely grown Colchicum variegatum.

Colchicum variegatum

Traditionally, and often more successfully, many alpines are grown in outdoor frames which can be opened to all weathers, or closed when plants are dormant or need seasonal protection. These are ideal for sowing and raising seedlings and young plants, the basis of making and maintaining any garden.

The display of plants flowering in the alpine house is always colourful and exciting - exactly as are plants exhibited at the Alpine Shows around the country by the AGS and SRGC. There are also many fascinating plants grown around the alpine houses in raised beds, tufa and troughs, and in the crevice garden, but these I feel get less attention than they deserve. As discussed elsewhere I don't think the crevice garden really works as a practical example of growing alpines for visitors - I preferred the previous raised bed that was here, even though I really admire the Czech crevice gardens and Zdenek Zvolanek's garden in particular. Perhaps this shows the personal nature of a garden compared with the more public and exacting nature of display. The two sand beds next to the lower alpine house are nicely constructed and of personal interest for the dryland alpines they were specifically made for - but it is equally easy to imagine these growing a much wider range of alpines in more fertile soil. These beds are easily covered in winter to protect plants when dormant from the weather.

The sand beds are especially successful for Rocky Mountain plants such as eriogonums and also for hardy cacti.

Cyclamen is a genus that bridges the gap between garden and exhibiting more than any other - many species are very reliable garden plants that will self-seed and improve year by year, but they are also display plants par excellence. These made the bulk of a display put on by Wisley in the Hillside Centre, along with other autumn flowering genera such as the group of oxalis.

The day began with a series of short talks to introduce gardeners to alpines both in the Natural World and in cultivation. Chris Grey-Wilson took a whistle-stop tour around the world highlighting the remarkable diversity of alpine flora. Many are familiar of course, even to those who don't garden with them, but so many more are not and for long term members of the alpine/rock garden societies it is this diversity that carries so much interest and significance. This can seem esoteric, as I intimated in my description of Ursula Buchan's talk to our Kent AGS Group, but it is also real and has deep relevance in a world in which environmental issues - a true understanding of ecology and the way plant communities persist and change over time - must become more debated. There are alpine plants that grow in habitats as extreme as desert and monsoonal mountains; they are as adapted to place as much or even more than any other plants; and a consequence for gardeners is that there are species that can be grown in any garden given imagination and understanding, and just the same freedom of expression that comes from gardening with them as with any other group of plants.

David Haselgrove, the President of the AGS, introduced the society itself - and the RHS (both of which have been historically so closely connected for over a century, as I will allude to at the end of this entry). For many one of the great highlights of the AGS - which is also true of the SRGC and NARGS - is the seed exchange which distributes over 40 000 packets of seed to 1700 or more gardeners. Really an extraordinary achievement which must be central to maintaining the remarkable variety of these plants in cultivation (even if at times there may be less than rigorous botanical attention to nomenclature).

Prof. David Rankin, the forthcoming President of the Scottish Rock Garden Club, introduced the SRGC, which in particular is distinct from the AGS for its thriving Forum, enabling contact between gardeners right around the world: the two societies are complementary and have a great overlap in membership amongst committed growers. Of special note is networking amongst younger alpine growers via the Internet, something which this form of communication is made for and is most likely to progress alpine gardening in the future. Several regional AGS Groups (East Lancs., Hampshire) also have Facebook pages which are especially valuable in connecting with gardeners internationally.

For the RHS, Markus Radscheit (the Garden Manager) described aspects of the alpine collection and cultivation at Wisley itself. The collection is broad with some 3000 species (over 5000 taxa) across 150 plant families and nearly 700 genera, and especially rich in geophytes (mostly bulbous) with 800 plus species. Maintaining a collection like this is complex and labour intensive and yet also one of the most important parts of Wisley and worth significant investment.  

Simon Wallis, who curates the alpine collection at Cambridge Botanic Garden described gardening in one of the driest parts of the UK with an annual rainfall of around 500mm. The rock garden at CBG is about an acre in size, built in the 1950's and requiring replenishment and replanting stage by stage in a similar way to the rock garden at Kew. I was particularly interested, coming from a similar climate in Kent, in the 'Greek' garden made within the last 3 or 4 years, and the garden has good collections of Tulipa and N. American alpines such as the rare Clematis albicoma from the Shale Barrens of West Virginia. Alpine plants lend themselves especially to geographical collections of plants, as well as specialising in specific genera - such a feature of the Alpine Shows themselves.

From 'The Botanics' in Edinburgh John Mitchell showed the development of the new Tufa alpine house and limestone crevice garden (I've shown pictures of this before and it is a great example of what could be made in any garden given a suitable place). The rock garden itself must be the finest in the country, now over a century old and covering two and half acres. The ground level scree was made in 1916 and still going strong, so given care and upkeep alpine plantings can be long lived and sustainable.

Along with these talks and the Wisley displays, a number of leading AGS exhibitors had brought along plants for discussion by the Joint Rock Garden Committee, illustrating the truly enviable cultivation skills which the AGS and SRGC engender across the country. These were just a relatively few plants from a few members but go to any AGS Show and there will be many many more, and it is hard to come away without a real sense of wonder and admiration.

As you might expect, coming from someone who runs a garden and has propagated a wide range of plants over many years, that specialist nurseries play a vital role in all of this, along with the local groups of gardeners that develop around the country and share experiences. At the Wisley day Jacques Amand brought along the bulbous genera for which they are so renowned - including colchicums, a genus worth planting every year to steadily build up significant displays in the garden; they are slow to increase but reliable and long lived and incomparable in the autumn garden. We grow mostly relatively dryland alpines and woodland perennials, and  put on a small display showing the development of a raised alpine bed and including information about the AGS Groups in Kent.

Rock gardening may have changed greatly from that time in the 1930's when Symons-Jeune wrote his classic book 'Natural Rock Gardening' - this picture is of a garden made at the Chelsea Show in 1923 - but the essential understanding of these plants has not and scientific knowledge of them around the world has expanded and become deeper and more detailed. There are gardens in the UK, and especially continental Europe - and in N. America - where plants are still grown with that same skill and fascination which connects  so intimately to the mountains and wider environment in rather unique ways. 

The list of rock and alpine plants given an Award of Garden Merit by the RHS is a good start for anyone relatively new to these plants. But once you have become truly captivated by them it is only by joining the AGS and SRGC and other specialist societies and delving deeper into their biology that their proper variation and fascination becomes evident. In Brent Elliott's scholarly account of 'The British Rock Garden in the Twentieth Century' (Occasional Papers from the RHS Lindley Library, Vol. 6, May 2011) he begins by describing the building of the rock garden at Wisley a century ago, and the very first 'garden displays' made at the Temple and Chelsea Shows (which were of alpines and rock gardens). He finishes with 'The decline of the rock garden' and the growth of more egalitarian and individual ways of gardening with these plants after the Second World War - 'The Golden Age of Gardening' of which Ursula Buchan spoke to us in Kent, when the AGS achieved a membership of close to 15 000. 

Nowadays there may be fewer alpine gardeners but those who do try to understand and grow these plants still have the same enthusiasm, perhaps a little more contained, that Nicola Shulman describes in 'A Rage for Rock Gardening: The Story of Reginald Farrer, Gardener, Writer and Plant Collector'. The plants are the same as they ever were but the ways of growing them have changed, become more sophisticated, and more closely related to environmental concerns. The importance of knowing about these plants remains just as strong and growing them just as challenging.

(Did you notice my error? The AGS was founded in 1929 so its relationship with the RHS has been for only 86 years! But alpines and rock gardens were displayed at the Temple Shows back into the 1890's. Here is the poem by Dorothy Wellesley which opens Vol. 1 of the Alpine Garden Society Bulletin. We are less inclined to poetry now but this was well chosen:

     "The Lily of the Incas" spoke: 'I clung

          Amongst red rocks, where like crustaceans grew

          Giant mosses on the mountains of Peru.

     There, half on earth, and half from heaven hung,

     Aswing in mist and cold,

          I saw below the High Priest set the bourne,

          And the rayed Emperor turn

     The year's first furrow with a plough of gold.' "


I wonder, what poetry might we use now? And would it have the same ring?)



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