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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 31 December 2015 by Tim Ingram

Catching the light of winter...

Catching the light of winter

Galanthus elwesii 'Mrs McNamara'

Galanthus elwesii 'Mrs McNamara'

In a recent book review in 'The Garden', Noel Kingsbury commented that he spent well over half of his time in the garden weeding and this was not mentioned at all in a book on 'Making a Garden'. In an earlier issue John Grimshaw also wrote on 'editing the garden' which is the same thing in different words. Both of these observations go to the heart of gardening and growing plants, even though so often all that is presented of gardens is the finished article. Weeding certainly takes a major part of maintaining our garden, especially after a period of illness led to parts becoming neglected and overgrown, and two years ago very severe winds felled a number of mature trees. Weeding a garden has an artistry about it because it is not simply removing weeds - or fallen trees - but giving direction, in a similar way that a woodland itself might be managed.  Pruning trees and shrubs and opening a canopy maintains an environment for woodland herbs, and planting choice and sometimes expensive woodland plants - for example snowdrops - gives incentive to work on this winter clearing. 


A few years back this part of the garden had become invaded by nettles but had good stands of snowdrops, hellebores, as well as the umbels Myrrhis odorata and Sanicula europaea, Brunnera macrophylla, and Arum italicum 'Marmoratum', all of which tolerate periods of drought in the summer well.

The patch of early flowering Galanthus elwesii pictured in the scene above and again below - which came originally from Kath Dryden - means that this is about the first part of the garden we clear in autumn and early winter, and a part that is more and more developing a woodland feel (even though all of the trees have been planted in what was originally just grassy meadow).

The sense of 'making a garden' is really there, as is also that of keeping up with it, and this picture shows a wilder part nearby steadily being reclaimed and replanted.

Day to day gardening in this way produces large amounts of compost which reincorporated into the 'woodland' beds has the effect of subtly changing our natural fertile loam into a more 'woodsy' soil, as well as in theory if not always in practice reducing the problems of weeds reinvading. 

This is another part of the garden with later flowering snowdrops being cleared in advance of opening for the National Gardens Scheme and other garden groups next February.

Later into spring there are cyclamen, anemones, erythroniums, trilliums and many other woodland plants here but slow growing and desirable genera like these can easily be overrun by more vigorous weeds. In natural woodlands, in the same way is in meadows, species diversity increases with lowering fertility and time, but in the garden we contend with cleavers, nettle, cow parsley and creeping buttercup! Where meadows and woodlands differ is in the fact that many woodland species increase clonally rather than by seed; they spread very slowly and their presence is indicative of old woodlands often managed over millenia. Inevitably gardening with these types of plants is not a short term or labour saving proposition, but they are amongst the most fascinating and appealing of all species, and a 'woodland' garden amongst the most delightful for a long period through winter into early summer. Snowdrops epitomise and introduce the the woodland garden, so collecting them also leads to managing the garden in ways that suit many other plants too and gives real depth of interest for any plants-person. With time and careful weeding the woodland garden develops its own balance and along the way teaches a lot about the natural ecology of plants (see also the chapter 'Ancient Woodland Plants and Other Creatures' in Oliver Rackham's deeply researched and finely written book, 'Woodlands', 2006). 

These are a few examples of plants emerging and flowering along with the snowdrops now, and watching the  woodland garden developing in this way is its real delight.

(As an aside one of the debates within the 'Alpine Garden Society' is about its name! Easily as many plants grown by members are woodland species - they could be called 'honorary' alpines which grow below the tree line but retain that same individual appeal of true mountain plants. The AGS is then something of a misnomer  which does not give a true impression of the breadth of plants we grow to gardeners outside the society - and perhaps especially these sylvan species which are so much more plants for the garden rather than the more specialised rock garden and alpine house).

As our collection of snowdrops has grown so too have they spanned a wider period of flowering and a greater number come into bloom in December and January, well before the widespread naturalised drifts of G. nivalis in local woodlands. David and Anke Way in their previous garden at Hunton, near to Maidstone, had an especially good collection of early cultivars and this one that we had from them, 'Reverend Hailstone', is at its peak just now.

Galanthus 'Reverend Hailstone'

Galanthophiles grow a wide variety of early snowdrops, highlighted at the event organised every January at E. A. Bowles' garden, Myddelton House in Enfield, N. London (which I described in my very first Diary entry back in 2014). Variety is the spice of life and anyone who does grow snowdrops will tell you that different cultivars prosper variously in different gardens and climates, so this variety helps focus on the growing conditions within any particular garden (as does growing a wide range of plants!). Snowdrops may all look the same to the novice but in fact thay are indicators of an observant - maybe sometimes slightly obsessive - gardening eye. Even with twin-scaling and careful cultivation they are slow to increase and, like all plants, vulnerable to pests and diseases, so the value placed on them has good reason, quite apart from their considerable beauty. The promise they bring to the garden is undeniable as this fine clump of G. 'Wasp' bought at Myddelton two years ago shows.


From a nurseryman's point of view there is always a cachet (more than anything with snowdrops!) to the new and rare, but in the long term it is those cultivars with vigour and good constitution that make the best garden plants. Many are sterile, only increasing vegetatively (and not unusual for many woodland plants as mentioned earlier). Old forms such as 'Atkinsii' and 'Merlin' have retained their vigour for well over a century, so lack of sex doesn't imply loss of vitality. Others, notably forms of G. plicatus such as 'Gerard Parker' and 'Trym', readily set seed and are valuable for naturalising in the garden even though their progeny will vary. This picture shows seedlings of the former flowering three years after burying nearly ripe seed pods beneath an apple tree in the garden - this proved especially valuable because a good colony of the original plant from division of the bulbs has seriously declined.

It is difficult to consider winter as a low point in the gardening year with all this going on, quite apart from the many more choice crocus and iris and other species that expert growers will have in their alpine houses and frames, and the excitement of looking through seed lists and sowing seed. The low light of winter - when it does shine - really does bring something special to the garden. 

Good wishes for 2016 to all readers... and write something about your plants if you will!


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