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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 18 June 2014 by Tim Ingram

A Visit to an Enthusiast II

A Visit to an Enthusiast II

In my diary entry of 15th February I described 'A Visit to an Enthusiast'. The garden in question belongs to Dr. Adrian Cooper and his wife Samantha, who some members will know, and contains a remarkable variety of plants from the choicest of steppe irises and alpines, to very rarely encountered trees and shrubs - with much in between.

The Mid-Kent Group of the AGS were fortunate to spend their summer visit exploring Adrian's garden and so let me describe some of the plants and its situation for those who are especially interested in seeing plants growing in a garden setting, and find the diversity of species that can be grown outside illuminating.

A Visit to an Enthusiast II

The garden sits high on the N. Downs overlooking the Weald of Kent, with commanding views and that 'genius of the place' which gives it a unique presence.

Against a wall near the house, for example, grows a large specimen of Albizia julibrissin, nothing more like a pink acacia, and a tree that needs summer heat to ripen the wood and encourage free flowering and a reliably hardy habit. In a cooler situation is a mature plant of the S. American 'Winter Bark', Drimys winteri (which incidentally also grows well at Nettlestead Place not too far away). Both of these and much of the structure of the garden Adrain and Samantha have inherited from the previous owners, but they have also made major changes to open up views and create terracing, as well as capitalising more on the spring water that runs continuously through the garden. This latter is a real feature which is cleverly channeled via formal pools and rills, constantly replenished from the higher land that lies to the north.

The open sunny situation and exposure calls out for drama and form in the garden and both of these are here in spades. There is formality as you enter the garden; traditional herbaceous borders, hedges, water - elegantly made -

and then informality as the garden drops down below the house; open stony plantings with those rarer and special species that are discovered as you delve deeper into the world of plants, and especially those that appeal to the alpine gardener, botanist and geographer.

This contrast, as in any garden, is what really brings it to life, and combined with the wonderful variety of plants is truly exhilarating. The plants shown here are Yucca rostrata growing with euphorbias and an interesting small cytisus, and Eremurus himaliacus with Californian poppies, catmint and gladiolus.

(Yucca rostrata is a native to N. Mexico and W. Texas, and given the right position is hardy to -12 t0 -15°C. It is closely related to another species, Y. thompsoniana, which Mary and Gary Irish in their book 'Agaves, Yuccas and Related Plants' describe under the same heading. We have grown this for a long time - originally from seed - and it flowers reliably every few years from the side of the developing rosette of leaves. The latter species is reckoned to be hardy down to -23°C and is pictured below growing with the palm Butia capitata).

Smaller groupings of plants on these terraces are equally delightful and I was taken by this mix of scutellaria, helianthemum and Californian poppy - very similar to the dry-land plants that we grow in our own garden.

To have spring water in a garden is good fortune and this has been utilised to great effect as the following pictures show. A small rill running down steps from one part of the garden to another typifies how cleverly and simply water has been channeled and used, and runs into a large formal pool edged with water loving plants.

In another place Adrian has lined a narrow stream with peat blocks and is experimenting with a range of choice primulas, small ferns and other moisture loving plants. It will be interesting to see how this develops in a part of the country where many such species are usually difficult to grow well. This rather lovely soft grey-blue form of Primula alpicola, 'Kevock Sky', from David and Stella Rankin in Scotland, grows in a shady trough by the house.

A sloping garden, with high land behind, must often benefit from moisture running through the soil, even when not evident in springs, and a distinct part of the garden makes use of this to grow many ericaceous and acid loving plant and choice monocots, including trilliums, orchids and the beautiful little lily L. mackinlae. The 'Manipur Lily' was first introduced just over 65 years ago by Frank Kingdon-Ward and named for his wife Jean. It was first scientifically described by J. Robert Sealy in the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society (1949), and is pictured here both in the wild and cultivated by Frederick Stern. The description of it in the wild by Kingdon-Ward makes fascinating reading: 'We found the upper grass slopes [of Sirhoi] chequered pink with Lilies, and blue with a dwarf crested Iris (KW 17601). Some of the Lilies bore seven flowers, and we were able to settle the colour question once and for all time. Large or small, the flowers of happy plants on Sirhoi's green and pleasant slopes were a warm blush pink outside, but wedding white inside with the glistening gleam of satin. In their nodding carriage and flagon shape - which suggested Nomocharis rather than Lily - they were everything that could be desired.'

Few gardeners in the south, with the exception of the nurseryman David Sampson and grower Gerry Munday (see AGS Bulletin Vol. 59, p. 79, 1991) have cultivated these plants and Petiolarid primulas, which are so much more often seen in cooler northern gardens. Given the correct, and very specific, conditions they can be successful and rather wonderful to see. it is early days to assess how these plantings might mature but already there are good clumps of Dactylorhiza foliosa and very unusual and choice plants such as Trillidium govanianum, more Paris-like than Trillium. This latter, from Kashmir into Bhutan, is completely new to me outside the literature and is nicely described by R.J. Mitchell in The Plantsman Vol. 10, p. 216 (1989). It is never a plant that will be grown by many (even alpine) gardeners, but is fascinating to see in a garden setting like this.

For the real alpine purist the most exciting plants are found around and within a large and enviable custom-built alpine house.

Here, still flowering (just as it was in my February diary entry) is Omphalodes luciliae, which self-seeds in the greenhouse in the same manner that Gwendolyn Anley described 75 years ago in her book 'Alpine House Culture for Amateurs': 'Omphalodes luciliae, with unusually glaucous foliage, produces its lovely china-blue flowers for seven months of the year; the other five months I spend carefully removing the seedlings, for which there seems to be an insatiable demand.'

The range of plants growing in the greenhouse is truly special. Cypripedium lichiangense (from N.E. Myanmar in Burma and Yunnan and S.W. Sichuan in China) is flowering for the first time here in a cool corner. Compare this with the second picture of C. fargesii (from E. Sichuan, S. Gansu & W. Hubei in China) which was exhibited by Colin and Elaine Barr at the London AGS Show in April. Both of these species are close to C. margaritaceum ( and all exacting to grow) and are discussed in detail in the Kew Monograph, 'The Genus Cypripedium', by Phillip Cribb, a wonderful guide to these very up and coming plants.

Paraquilegia anemonoides is tucked into rocky crevices along with nice clumps of the xerophytic ferns Cheilanthes (which I am particularly interested in and recall growing as features of the alpine houses at Kew over the years).

And outside on a sunny shelf devoted to many early flowering irises, Convolvulus boissieri - or is it C. suendermanii(?) which the distinguished N. American alpine grower Anne Spiegel has recently pictured growing beautifully in her crevice garden in New York State.

The Mexican diasy Erigeron karvinskianus, shown at the very beginning of this entry, has to be one of the loveliest of all plants to grow in paving and walls, completely compelling for its flowers which change from white to pink as they mature, and certainly a plant - unlike the others I have just shown - for any alpine garden.

In hot dry places Verbascum phoenicum with these small deep-purple flowers is also easy going and quite a contrast to the smaller sub-shrubby V. 'Letitia'.

There is a need in a garden with such an extensive range of plants as this to also have a more natural calm and quiet area, and the grassy meadow merging into the landscape beyond provides this perfectly.

The view sitting at the shaded top terrace, beneath a pergola planted with vines, captures the garden on a delightfully sunny day in June. A place of unique and extraordinary interest by any standards, with more than a touch of artistry and plantsmanship about it.


I will leave you with this rather poor but very intriguing picture in the alpine house of an extremely rarely cultivated plant, one I have tried but never managed to keep to flowering size. For those who don't know it I will give you its name and describe it more next time !

(Note - the picture of Convolvulus suendermanii referred to above is shown under 'Crevice Gardening' on the Scottish Rock Garden Forum, with many other examples of plants growing in Anne Spiegel's very striking and special garden in New York State, and with contributions from other notable alpine growers in N. America and Europe amongst others)

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