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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 17 June 2015 by Tim Ingram

'The Two Cultures'

'Art should set itself a goal which is unceasingly retiring'

                                                                                  (A. de Rivarol)


This essay is prompted by the Present Day, by the present political climate, and by much of what I have written on the website over the past few years; and more specifically by a particular and remarkable character, amongst many, who has written about plants and his garden in the AGS Bulletin. (And incidentally by the fact that there are really many more than just two cultures).

The particular character is Dwight Ripley, who I have written about at greater length in 'Random Nuggets from the Bulletin' (see under 'Any Other Topics' in the Discussion Pages of the website). Dwight Ripley was an accomplished botanist and gardener and a Patron of the Arts, so spans the 'Two Cultures' rather well. he was also a remarkable linguist, a figure who might fairly be described as a polymath in his breadth of knowledge and interests. He wrote many articles for the Bulletin but one especially caught my eye as I scanned Vol. 41 whilst waiting for visitors at our last Garden Opening for the NGS: 'Notes from Long Island' (p. 125, and see also Vol. 40, p. 182). His garden at Greenport on the eastern tip of Long Island, N.Y., could get pretty cold in winter, to below -20°C, and very hot and dry in summer. Many of the plants he grew came form Spain and western America, both places he had botanised and travelled through and knew well. Our garden doesn't have such cold winters or such hot summers but of all parts of the UK approaches these at times, and the plants we grow and are interested in are very similar. The picture of his garden on p. 128 of Vol. 41 of the Quarterly Bulletin (June 1973) is fascinatingly different from what many might consider an 'Alpine Garden', with plants such as Vella spinosa, Ptilotrichium spinosum, Matthiola valesiaca; 'one of the finest of all rock-plants: Aethionema (Eunomia) oppositifolium, with its thick rounded blue-grey leaves and crosses of purplish pink barely rising above them', and 'the rare Viola demetria, a brilliant yellow Heartease with no purple colouring whatsoever and the small corolla enhanced by black lines'.

Dwight Ripley's garden on Long Island, N.Y.

(In the same Vol. 41 there is also a wonderful collection of illustrations taken from the original glass plates used by H.F. Comber on his trips to the Andes in the 1920's - here are several examples)

In our garden similar plants to those described by Dwight Ripley are grown in the Sand bed and in raised beds, often if time allows given winter protection from rain, and in general only given minimal irrigation in hot summers - and even this on the whole they don't need.

Raised bed at Copton Ash Garden

In the foreground, Gypsophila repens - the blue in the background is Linum narbonense, an extremely beautiful and long lived flax which dates back to visits to Joe Elliott's nursery in the 1970's. This is neither an easy plant to propagate nor particularly prepossessing in a pot on the nursery, so like many alpines relatively ignored by gardeners who are often drawn to what they see at the moment rather than a vision of what it may become.

Two especial favourite plants are species of the Californian lupins - this one was grown from seed labelled L. breweri but may be a form of the very variable L. albifrons - growing with the tidy southern European umbel, Athamanta turbith. I once described this as a 'symphony in green and white' and can't think of a better description. The second picture was taken a week or two later and this is a perfect plant for a hot and dry spot, allowed to seed around gently.

Athamanta turbith

Two plants that combine perfectly on a raised bed - a dwarf form of the Chedder Pink, Dianthus gratianopolitanus (ex. Aberconwy), and Aubrieta canescens (ex. Parham Nursery).

Dianthus gratianopolitanus 'Dwarf form'

Plants that self-seed in dry soils include these two well loved species, the Welsh Poppy, Meconopsis cambrica, and inestimable annual Omphalodes linifolia, here growing in the faintest trace of soil over tarmac.

Meconopsis cambrica Omphalodes linifolia

Pots and troughs tend to accumulate around the house and here we have Globularia incanescens, one of a rather interesting small genus which even in our warm garden can be shy flowering - this is very good. In Morocco is a species of Globularia, nainii, with pale sulphur yellow flowers - intriguing! (see 'Among Moroccan Mountains' by Jim Archibald, AGS Bulletin Vol. 31, p. 314, 1963).

Globularia incanescens

Pots can often proliferate too much but give the opportunity to study new plants closely and collect seed from good forms. These include one of the excellent selections of Saxifraga 'Southside seedling', a robust and good coloured form of Eriogonum ovalifolium grown from Alplains seed, and two distinct seedlings of Dianthus pavonius from Mojmir Pavelka (Euroseeds) - all plants that should do well in the Sand bed if this wasn't already fully planted.

Also here we have this potful of distinct silver saxifrages kindly given to us for propagation by David Hoare. In his garden David grows these very effectively in a trough (with tufa), as well as in a shallow scree over chalky soil. The variation in size of rosettes and form, as John G. has mentioned, are fascinating and they are much easier for us to grow in a dry Kent garden than the wonderful variety of Kabschia and related saxifrages that we saw at Waterperry earlier in the year.

There are many larger growing perennials flowering at the moment too, suited to the same dry and warm climate. The genus Amsonia, rather like Linum narbonense that I showed earlier, takes time to make an impression but is a very long lived and tidy group of plants (nicely described in The Plantsman a while ago). The most familiar is A. tabernaemontana, easily grown from seed, and good forms can be propagated by taking cuttings that develop below the flowering heads, in the same way as many euphorbias such a E. griffithii. The leaves turn bright gold in autumn making Amsonia one of the best of all autumn colouring perennials.

Amsonia tabernaemontana

Amongst the umbellifers that we grow this one, Thapsia maxima from the Iberian peninsula, is probably the most striking and extraordinary. Many umbels from the driest of climates effectively grow like bulbs with a short growing season and long period of dormancy through summer and autumn. Once established this stays in growth for a reasonable time but is slow initially and takes several years before it begins to flower reliably. In flower around a metre high, a good perennial, and with particularly impressive foliage. If this flowered a month earlier it would give visitors to Chelsea something to ponder on!

Thapsia maxima
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