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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 15 February 2014 by Tim Ingram

A Visit to an Enthusiast

A Visit to an Enthusiast

If you are attracted to alpine plants from a young age it can only stay with you for a lifetime. The extraordinary beauty and detail of these plants, and a knowledge of their origins and ecology, inevitably has implications in a wider view of the plant world in all its diversity and importance.

Even more an early fascination with these plants can result in an extraordinary skill and sensitivity in growing them, as these pictures show. Many are planted in a custom-made alpine house which enables dry-land species of Iris and Corydalis, as well as many other alpines, to grow as well as I have ever seen them. An unimpeded root run and ability to mimic the natural climatic regime(s) of these plants makes a wonderful display, quite as striking as collections grown at Botanic Gardens like Kew and Edinburgh, and at the RHS Garden, Wisley. The intricate detail of choice irises is shown off to perfection, and other alpines that are normally only seen at the alpine shows, are grown very naturalistically in vertical rock crevices.

A Visit to an Enthusiast

The plant of Primula allionii shown above, obtained originally from Ingwersen's nursery over twenty years ago, is given no special treatment and thrives in this situation. Saxifraga longifolia relatively quickly makes superb rosettes, with that prospect of the dramatic flower spikes to come. One of the most exquisite of all alpines, the Greek Omphalodes luciliae, self-sown between the rocks, could hardly display its soft-sky-blue flowers to any better effect.

(As an aside this is a particularly beautiful genus of plants which includes several well known and easy garden species, notably O. cappadocica and O. verna. The genus is relatively small and comprehensively described in 'Pulmonarias and the Borage Family' by Masha Bennett. The Mediterranean annual O. linifolia must be widely grown by many alpine gardeners and is the loveliest of plants. Less well known is the perennial O. nitida which grows and seeds gently in moist gritty soil in our garden - native to N. Portugal and N.W. Spain. The Caucasian O. lojkae is one of those rare plants that I have grown from seed collected by the Czech alpine specialist Josef Halda, and perhaps is the equal of O. luciliae though no less difficult to grow well).

Early flowering dionysias, such marvellous plants when shown at the earliest of alpine shows, may not have the same perfect quality when grown in crevices between rocks in the alpine house, but have equal or even greater aesthetic appeal presented in a way so close to that of their natural environment.

Amongst the choice irises is a genus of plants which includes many of similar cultural requirements, Corydalis. These can grow in their wide-ranging way that is so difficult in pots. Corydalis sewerzowii illustrate this very well, including a seedling exhibiting reddish-orange spurs that sometimes occurs in nature (as described in the monograph on the genus by Magnus Lidén and Henrik Zetterlund).

Outside the alpine house on a sunny perfectly drained slope grow very many alpines and dry-land plants. These include a collection of Juno and Regelia irises in the hottest and driest place under the eaves of the greenhouse. I was also especially taken by a variety of truly dwarf conifers, some decades old, which recall their extensive cultivation in alpine gardens of the Czech Republic. Surely these plants are long due a renaissance amongst skilled gardeners?

Coming away from viewing plants growing so well in a garden setting like this is truly inspirational, and gives great insights into their cultural requirements, as well as a spur to try similar methods at home. Only some of these alpines are possible without a great deal of experience and care, but the idea of a covered planting recalls the articles about the 'cliff houses' made by Dwight Ripley and Roy Elliott in earlier numbers of the AGS Bulletin - and is not only the preserve of Botanic Gardens. And the range of plants that can be grown outside given care and thoughtful use of the garden conditions available (which I haven't described here) is very much greater than even many committed rock gardeners will realise, and can give the adventurous gardener a lot more to think on.

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