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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 24 February 2014 by Tim Ingram

Before and after

Before and after

Before and after

As winter is turning into spring and we are at last getting a few warm and sunny days, we are uncovering the various alpine beds around the garden. Over the five months since last October we have had 27.7 inches (703mm) of rain - the equivalent of our normal avrage annual rainfall -  with 12 inches (305mm) coming in just the first two months of 2014. Winter cover for many alpines and rock plants has been more vital than ever. The comparison, so far, with the long and cool winter and spring of last year, which was also very dry, typifies the vageries of our climate (even without concerns relating to general global warming and its potential influence on weather patterns). These are our records for last year and the beginning of 2014.

This new bed planted with dry-land alpines and perennials from around the Mediterranean has certainly needed protection from excess rain, although the much milder winter temperature-wise will have been closer to the natural conditions that many of these plants normally experience. Like all new projects in the garden it is going to be exciting to see how these plants develop, though a number - particularly legumes - look not to have established from last autumn.

An older raised bed was thoroughly weeded last autumn but a nice new crop Arabidopsis thaliana (or  'popper weed' - so called because gardeners weed it out too late to stop it seeding!) has developed on the bed. Weeding is one of the enjoyments a gardener has to learn and amongst alpines it does live up to this because one can look closely at the plants as you go, and take in the detail. The two pictures below show a small part of the bed 'before' and 'after' weeding. This is reminiscent of preparing plants to show, in that there is a great transformation in the look of the bed with actually only a few minutes of removing the weeds.

This part of the bed contains two fascinating N. American alpines, the pink umbellifer Lomatium columbianum (growing in front of a specimen of Dasylirion) and one of the best of the Californian lupins, Lupinus excubitus, which is nicely described in the classic book by Lester Rowntree, 'Hardy Californians'.

Another part of the bed includes one of the loveliest of all umbels, Athamanta turbith (which flowers much later in the summer) and the delightful, and rarely grown, Thalictrum orientale, which grows throughout this area and is just emerging. A small plant of another lupin, L.breweri, is in the foreground of the picture amongst a carpet of Androsace sarmentosa 'Sherriffii'. Again the bed is transformed with just a few minutes weeding.

This raised bed is around 20 x 10 feet, made simply with railway sleepers, and with a typical 50/50 mix of loam/peat and chippings, regularly top-dressed with more chippings and recently with coarser stones. It contains a wide range of plants used as stock for propagating as well as just general interest. The easy going Saxifraga apiculata 'Alba' has made a striking specimen - a lot more tolerant of our often hot dry summers than many others - and other plants include the uncommon Catananche caespitosa, striking for its short stemmed yellow flowers later in the year. Artemisia schmidtiana 'Nana', which last year only just overwintered without any cover, shows how simple glass cover like this is so valuable for many plants.

We are fortunate that our soil is naturally well drained and the excess of rain has not had a deleterious affect on most other plants in the garden - in fact the very mild winter has meant that relatively tender plants, such as Convolvulus cneorum, here growing with Phlomis italica and the silver Helichrysum ambiguum, shows no frost damage at all and should make a wonderful flowering specimen later in the year.

None the less these are unprecedented levels of rainfall in the memory of a local farmer who visited us recently and has farmed in Thanet since the 1960's. The combination of high river flows and high tides has led to the inundation of the Salutation Garden at Sandwich on the east coast, certainly for the first time since the 1950's, and to the great dismay of the head gardener there, Steve Edney, who has been developing one of the finest new gardens in Kent over the past few years. It says a lot for him and his partner (and the owner of the garden) that they are working hard to overcome the affects of the flooding this spring, and have had support from the gardeners at Sissinghurst and from members of local garden clubs in the region. Damage to a garden in this way is in no way as serious as the flooding that has affected many people's homes, but for anyone whose garden is also their livelyhood and creative outlet it is a major setback.

Growing alpines in the garden increases sensitivity to climate, just as it does to farmers, because of the very specific cultural needs of these plants - something that many gardeners who try to grow them fail to perservere with, and as a consequence give up at the first hurdle. But even when you know a lot about the plants failure often outweighs success initially. In this trough that I showed last year I had high hopes for Veronica bombycina, which I saw flowering in Vladimir Staněk's garden last May. Even though the trough was protected over winter with a glass light the veronica now looks in a sorry state and my hopes have been dashed. Other choice plants in the trough are growing away well, including Salvia caespitosa and Callianthemum farreri. On the whole though the trough has been less of a success than my original hopes and must be put down to a learning experience. 

Deeper troughs left open to the weather look more successful, and Saxifraga oppositifolia, S. 'Cumulus' and Androsace villosa are all thriving. The advantage of trying to grow more difficult plants in the garden is that it stimulates experiment and this is likely to lead to a better perception about the cultural requirements of alpines in general. In another trough (made from a fishbox and covered in hypertufa), which has been tucked up under the eaves of the house, another form of Veronica bombycina as well as several other easier growing species, look fine, so this should lead to more success in the future.

I know I have made the point before about the contrast of plants displayed at Alpine Shows and those grown in the garden, but I think it is of great relevance in keeping the broader appeal of the alpine garden societies to gardeners, many of whom will find it hard to connect between their gardens and the undoubted wonder of the Shows. The skills acquired over time by gardeners in the Czech Republic in particular show how gardening with alpines can become a true art form, as relevant to us as any of the styles of gardening exhibited at the Chelsea Show, but generally more personal. I promised elsewhere to show examples of some of the private gardens in the Czech Republic on the website, and will aim to do so in the future - as others have done before. Here though is a group of gardeners, including some familiar faces, enjoying Zdeněk Zvolánek's very remarkable garden last May. One cannot help but to be inspired and enthused by a garden like this, and to see the essential value of the specialist alpine societies, and of such private gardens, in our wider understanding of the Plant World and the environment we live in.

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