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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 02 July 2014 by Tim Ingram

Two Kentish Gardens

Two Kentish Gardens

Whenever a group of keen gardeners get together (and since I write this here I do imply that we are a distinct group with a particular outlook on plants) we tend to bemoan the presentation of plants and gardening on television, which is such a universal and influential medium. This does seem fair comment at times because the intelligence of the viewer may not always be greatly stretched, and yet perhaps also it can be narrow minded. It is hard to argue that alpine gardening is more than a minority pursuit even though it holds such significant value to those of us who carry it out, and we would certainly not regard it as of minority importance. Gardeners differ hugely in their interests - television caters to these in the same way as popular gardening magazines, but rarely looks at plants and where they come from in the sort of detail that many long term gardeners will develop. There does look to be some recognition and reaction to this in recent programming, and scope for a great deal more. 

Let me look at this from another perspective too; we tend to be equally critical of the TV coverage of Chelsea with its concentration on the Show gardens, rather than on individual plants and more approachable gardening that we can identify with looking out of our own window. Is this fair? It could be said that we are trying to have it both ways - though this is not particularly unusual in any debate.

This has been brought home to me for two reasons: one, I have always regarded 'gardening' with plants as important - and by definition this includes the ways they combine, are managed and propagated (as well as rather more as I have intimated earlier) - and which I think it is fair to say is not such a feature of the way the AGS comes across to gardeners (no valued judgement implied by this, just a statement of fact); and two, a visit to these gardens, particularly the nursery belonging to Roger Platts and listening to him speak about the Show gardens he has designed and made at Chelsea - but in the context of his own garden and business in Kent.

Alpine plants can be seen as constituents of a wider more inclusive garden, or as a specific and independent group of plants in their own right - the former can stimulate wider interest in them amongst gardeners in general, the latter a more exclusive impression. Both have equal validity for different gardeners and are illustrated by the articles written by members in the Journals (or here for that matter). But the bigger question is to what extent do each stimulate a sustained interest in growing these plants?

Visiting and talking to Roger Platts does engender thoughts of whether alpine/rock gardening is relevant at Chelsea. Are the private gardens that many of us make a style of garden and use of plants that carry equal influence as others? And if not, why not? And does this matter? The Centenary garden in 2013 that Roger Platts described to us in detail was a great exercise in logistics, underpinned by the support of the sponsors and the RHS. The strengths behind it came from the fact that he grew nearly all of the plants himself, or nurtured larger specimens well in advance, and called on the skills of artisans who he had worked with over many years. It was planned and executed with great precision and in this respect probably very little different to the skills involved in growing and displaying alpine and rock plants, and obviously a vital feature of actually creating any designed garden on the ground in general (his first Chelsea display was self-financed and generated a lot of business). The other big factor, though, is his own garden and nursery which has developed over time and which gardeners will relate to more than the 'moment in time' portrayed at Chelsea.. As I described in an earlier entry there is that perfection of a Show garden (or indeed of an exhibited plant) - in pursuit of gold - set against a real garden that is managed and changes over time. A nurseryman inevitably has a sense of of this latter, a designer the former, even though the two are hardly really separate. These pictures taken of Roger Platts' private garden show why he has been so successful making gardens at Chelsea - but let me explain them a little more.

Two Kentish Gardens

His style of gardening is very natural and uses species and varieties of plants in which flower and form have equal importance. These two pictures could be in any garden and this is why they also appeal to so many of us. But using plants in a garden can be more subtle and thoughtful - see what you make of the following few pictures.

The first two are 'gardened' and the last a meadow just outside the garden. They are separated by a low and informal lonicera hedge and the idea is to borrow the landscape beyond the garden and assume some of its characteristics by using plants that have the same colours and form; grasses, fennel and Inula. I think this works very well and is imaginative and simple. Moving into the garden proper the plants are used more ornamentally, but still with that harmony and balance that comes from the landscape beyond.

It is nearer the house itself that the garden becomes more designed in the way you see at Chelsea, but even here the plants are used very naturally and comfortably, and a great feature is the use of pergolas for climbing plants - these really give the garden an intimacy and romance which will appeal to anyone who loves plants in their great diversity. Simply put the garden allows for this diversity.

Of course there is always the detail of the individual plants and this is accentuated by how they are combined. The picture below of Allium christophii with Veronicastrum and a groundcover of lamium is a great example. Even simpler is Gillenia trifoliata planted under a tree - a plant rather unique in itself and best used without others that distract attention from it.

Simplest of all, and going back to my thoughts of establishing perennials in grass, is this grassy corner planted with a geranium.

(I haven't shown anything of the nursery itself which is also attractively laid out and includes many unusual plants - though influenced by the demand from clients for the instant effect that design engenders, but Roger also has an interest in old vehicles and these two - a Bull Nose Morris and 1950's tractor - were rather fine!)

It is clear from being guided around the garden and listening to Roger and his design colleague Marie-Lucie Trophes speaking about the ways they use plants that the practical experience that comes from making a garden is the pre-requisite for designing one: not surprising but viewers can be prone to judge on the basis of what is seen at the moment rather than a knowledge of the energy and thought required to make and maintain it. 

The second garden I show belongs to Elizabeth Cairns, which I have mentioned elsewhere with reference to snowdrops.

Here are more plants familiar to alpine gardeners, if not necessarily truly alpines themselves - sedums, pinks,   salvias, Morina longifolia, and the annual umbellifer Orlaya grandiflora. The effect is impressionistic with small flowers in vivid colours, set off by plentiful foliage - a contrived meadow but an extremely exciting one.

Elizabeth is a lawyer and friend of Martyn Rix, from whom many of her snowdrops are derived, and has a great interest in the historical aspects of gardens. She is involved with the Kent Gardens Trust and organised the visit to Roger Platts' garden.

Individually there are intriguing species amongst the 'meadow'; a large version of Herb Robert, Geranium rubescens from Madeira, which seeds around freely and has as colourful foliage as flowers; the statuesque biennial Delphinium requienii, just at its peak at the end of June; and the Mallow relative Sphaeralcea, a genus which includes some very choice smaller alpine species too.

Erigeron karvinskianus and Alchemilla mollis could hardly make a better pairing set against these stone steps.

And elsewhere the borders are more traditionally planted but with a lovely use of perennials and colour.

Again alpines and rock plants are only minor constituents of either of these gardens, but both in very different ways show that careful and thoughtful use of plants which is so inspiring, and is certainly true of much alpine gardening too - particularly in earlier times - and where natural vegetation is the guiding principle.


When I asked a group of students from Hadlow College, who visited us recently, how many had an interest in alpines, none responded. However, the nursery plants did attract quite a lot of attention and so did certain species in the garden itself like Eryngium bourgatii and dieramas.

If young horticulturists have no knowledge of these plants it is doubtful whether they will be more widely grown in gardens in the future. Although neither Roger Platts' nor Elizabeth Cairns' gardens are by any means rich in alpines they do intimate how such plants might be used in naturalistic ways on the smaller scale, following the same sensitivity to the plants, and as I have shown in previous Diary entries. This is a very different type of gardening than most people will conceive but certainly not one of any less value.

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