Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: 05 July 2015 by Tim Ingram
Three Days in the Alsace.
Three Days in the Alsace
Kent is ideally situated to explore gardens and nurseries on the near continent. The great value of the Scottish Rock Garden Club website and Forum, which many AGS members will refer to regularly as well as here, is the wide spread of contributions from enthusiastic and knowledgeable alpine gardeners across the world. One of these is the Diary written by Philippe Chauvet, the lead gardener and curator of planting at Le Jardin D'Altitude Du Haut Chitelet - (Conservatoire et Jardins Botaniques Du Grand Nancy et de L'Université de Lorraine).
This garden, at nearly the highest point of the Vosges Massif in the Alsace, has an outstanding collection of alpine species from all continents, planted geographically and with close attention paid to wild provenance, ongoing propagation and replenishment. From Philippe's excellent and informative descriptions of the garden - and fine photographs - on the SRGC Forum, we chose the Haut Chitelet Garden as the focus of a three day tour of the Alsace (with two further days travelling there and back). The trip was organised by the treasurer (David Sayers) and Chairlady (Sylvie Buat-Ménard) of the East Kent Group of the AGS, and our most grateful thanks are due to them for a thoroughly enjoyable time, and for troubleshooting along the way.
(The garden is at the high point about half way between Gerardmer and Colmar).
The aim partly was to judge the interest in further such trips amongst gardeners in the south-east (and potentially further afield) and to forge closer links with growers on the continent, and particularly to develop a stronger horticultural milieu for those gardeners in our region who have a committed and ongoing desire to learn more about plants in general. The Alpine Shows held in Kent also act as a focus for this and several participants on the tour picked up leaflets distributed at these; others had a wider interest in plants and the culture of the Alsace; and a good number previous experience of travelling in France, if not in this region. France is a large country and the Alsace a good distance to travel to in one day, which means it is less frequented than further north and west and the gardens and landscape less well known.
The following is my personal observations of the gardens and places we visited, a rare opportunity to leave the cares of the nursery and garden behind for a few days and to gain a wider perspective. In addition to the Haut Chitelet Garden we visited six other gardens and nurseries (including one in Germany) and the extraordinary centre of the city of Strasbourg.
Day 1 - The Haut Chitelet Garden
The Haut Chitelet Garden lies at an altitude of 1228m close to the col de la Schluct on the D417 connecting our base, Gerardmer, with Munster on the other side of the Vosges Massif.
Although these are relatively low sub-alpine mountains by comparison with the Alps, and mostly heavily forested nearly to the summit with coniferous species and fewer deciduous trees such as beech, the garden has the typical short growing season of mountainous regions. It only becomes accessible and free of snow late into spring in May and early June. Flowering of the plants is condensed into just a few months with the high point towards the end of June and early July, when we chose to visit. Parts of these mountains are spectacular, nearly sheer and yet still clothed with trees - the sort of ancient and distinctive woodland that Oliver Rackham speaks of which is still widespread in France but so much rarer in the UK. The contrast after travelling through the low and monotonous open farmland, lacking even hedges, further north gives the Alsace wonderful appeal. To the east the flat plain full of vineyards and fields of maize running to the Rhine makes an even more local contrast and a turbulent history. The region is a crossroads of cultures.
Climatically the garden compares with altitudes of 1800m in the northern Alps and 2000m in the Pyrenees, with an averge annual precipitation of 2 200mm and 162 days of snow cover each year. Within a relatively small area of 1.5 hectares are grown some 2 500 species of alpine plants carefully divided into geographical sections but still in a very naturalistic way.
Recent years have seen a clear trend towards warmer and drier summers with temperatures occasionally exceeding 30°C, but clever use of the varying microclimates of the garden allows species from cooler and wetter or warmer and drier montane climates to be grown in proximity - especially making use of shade cast by open beech woodland and water in parts of the garden to ameliorate high summer temperatures. Three hours was hardly long enough to take in the diversity and interest of the garden, but the following pictures will show something of this, plus a unique opportunity to view behind the scenes in the propagating area and 'engine room' of the garden, of great appeal to a nurseryman and gardener like myself.
Looking to a section of the garden devoted to the Vosges flora and showing the typical coniferous woodland adapted to heavy winter snowfall and low temperatures.
Establishment of the garden dates back some 50 years but follows on from an earlier tradition of alpine gardening by pioneers such as Henri Correvon and Camille Brunotte, who is honoured by this fine carving in the garden.
For the past fifteen years the planting has been overseen by Philippe Chauvet with the assistance of one full time gardener and occasional students on leave from the Botanical Garden at Nancy. In many respects it is comparable with a private garden of similar size, and attractively laid out, but gains because of its great educational and conservation value that comes from its botanical and geographical discipline. These then are some examples of the plants which I will not describe further - more information can be gleaned from Philippe's entries on the SRGC Forum and by reference to the AGS Encyclopaedia of Alpines online here, and past Bulletins of the AGS.
The incomparable blue poppies which I dare not put a clear name to having not captured the label in the garden!
Raoulia hookeri and composite
(to be continued...)