Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: 20 February 2014 by Tim Ingram
A Look Back...
A Look Back...
Many readers will know that these diary entries are a continuation of entries on the Discussion Pages of the website. Gardening with plants, and propagating them (and being part of the Local AGS Groups), involves so many aspects that writing about it becomes more like a novel than a diary, and this is the big difference between information put onto the internet and that written at more leisure in books. However, because there is so much excitement in the garden, and something new to stimulate you everyday, my diary entries may continue to be very regular for the time being, so I hope readers will find them entertaining. And I hope others may be stimulated to join in. (Before I continue I have just looked back to John’s first diary entry in August 2006, for encouragement, and found some, because as he does I love gardening and following the garden over time, even if there can be spells of acute discomfort which can only be assuaged by taking a more poetic view of the world. I hope that the personal information described on the alpine society websites has the same value as good books and will be referred back to in the same way, rather than collected as a rather dusty record).
While books distil and order information about plants, it is in gardens and nurseries where they are grown and increased. My gardening inevitably has been hugely influenced by the specialist nurseries that I have visited over the years, beginning with Broadwell in the Cotswalds and Joe Elliott, and latterly Elizabeth Strangman and Graham Gough at Washfield on the outskirts of Hawkhurst - until the nursery closed. Both Elizabeth and Graham have that eye of the gardener and nursery grower for a plant that is extra special. They both also have worked on hybridising plants within certain genera to produce so many good new introductions. Liz's name is synonymous with hellebores and hybridising hellebores implies also having a great interest in the wild species. These flowers for example are different forms of H. torquatus from different nurseries, not especially easy to grow in the garden, but the inspiration to try them has certainly come from visiting Washfield many years ago.
Liz grew the unique species, H. vesicarius, on a raised bed in the nursery, protected with a cloche during its summer dormancy. In South Wales Jim and Jenny Archibald grew this in a warm polytunnel with an amazing collection of other plants, including the legendary H. 'Ballard’s Black' (these pictures have been kindly scanned from slides by David Stephens). A future entry on this diary should consider the garden that Jim and Jenny Archibald made, which was truly remarkable, and has been the subject of an article on the Scottish Rock Garden Club 'International Rock Gardener' (IRG) online.
This picotee hybrid is a plant obtained from Hadlow College, and the breeding programme there was initiated by Kemal Mehdi, who was also inspired by the Washfield hellebores.
Crosses variously between H. argutifolius, lividus, x sternii and the Christmas Rose H. niger produce a range of plants with wonderful hybrid vigour and freedom of flowering - and since all are sterile they remain in flower for even longer than their parent plants. This one, amongst many, is 'Winter Sunshine', and the flowers can really glow in the right light.
From Washfield, and other growers, in relatively short time, has developed the amazing range of hellebores now available from nurseries like Ashwood's and Harvey's and many others, both in Britain and on the continent, and in Japan and N. America. Along with this a few people, notably amongst them Will McLewin and Brian Mathew, continue to study hellebores in nature and maintain that vital botanical basis to our gardening with these plants. The book published by Timber Press, 'Hellebores - A Comprehensive Guide', by C. Colston Burrell and Judith Knott Tyler, is just that, a really wonderful survey of hellebores in the wild, in gardens, and the people who have grown and introduced so many of them to gardeners (and many gardeners will have no concept of where these plants have come from, except from the nearest Garden Centre).
Because of the particular clientele of Washfield, which has included many of the most well known plants-people within specialist societies like the AGS, and the very distinctive range of plants that were grown there, horticulture in general has gained immeasurably. And the same is true for specialist nurseries in general, even if the average gardener hardly knows that they exist. Having lauded nursery-people, and gardeners, and botanists, it remains to laud the AGS and SRGC and other specialist plant societies, and to wonder whether the relationship between the former as individuals, and the latter, as societies, is always as it should be. The intellectual curiosity about plants crosses many boundaries and develops in different ways for different people, depending on their circumstances.
After these thoughts, which a public diary or blog allow to be expressed, I will return to the garden with the underlying belief that it is much more than just a collection of plants but connects to many people and places and to history. Flowering now is a range of plants to take over from the snowdrops of winter. The reticulata-type irises have been a mixed success in the garden, generally not persisting over time. However, in gritty soil along with Androsace lanuginosa and Campanula rotundifolia, the very lovely and distinct variety 'Clairette' does seem to prosper. This form may be close to the species bakeriana with that deep-violet apex to the falls. Hacquetia epipactis 'Thor' is one of the earliest of woodland plants to appear, and continues looking good for many months as the flower-heads develop and the leaves expand. The parent non-variegated plant self-sows gently in shady places and has strong and deep roots which enable it to persist even through exceptionally dry summers, but also make it difficult to divide 'Thor' without it being very slow to grow away again. This has always been a favourite plant in the garden because it is so distinct, and amongst umbels is closest to the astrantias both in form and ecology. Crocuses, like the reticulate irises, have not established so well in the garden, largely due to pests like rabbits and mice. They are so delicate and ephemeral that they are best grown with protection to really take in the beauty of the flowers, but one - Crocus herbertii - which is more tolerant of summer moisture, has taken well to a humus-rich raised bed and flowers here wonderfully amongst the stems of the dwarf rowan Sorbus reducta.
This last plant few gardeners would regard as particularly special - just a fairly ordinary winter-flowering heather. Like dwarf conifers, which over the years have been denigrated by so many gardeners (because both were propagated and made available to such excess), this is actually a lovely plant in the right spot, and an indication of how the best of us can become inveterate snobs!
If galanthophilia is a form of snobbery, which to some degree it surely is, I shall have to admit to being amongst the best of us and finish with a few more pictures of these lovely plants. This is a grouping, in Elizabeth Cairns' garden, of from front to back - 'Merlin', 'Augustus', 'Atkinsii' and 'Washfield Colesbourne'.
The classic snowdrop 'S. Arnott' shows why it is such a valued garden plant with this very free-flowering clump - you can be happy growing this for many years before becoming hooked on collecting many more, but may also be attracted to the more elegant flowers of 'Robin Hood'.
The final two picture show contrasting forms of G. elwesii that Elizabeth has particularly picked out in her garden, which show how impossible it is not to become drawn to the variation in snowdrops and join in the winter fun!