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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 01 June 2016 by Tim Ingram

'The Rocky Flower Show'

'The Rocky Flower Show'

Very wet today so I will show a little more of the AGS Show at Wimborne to complement Jon's pictures. 'Flower Shows' can be viewed in various ways and one is in the ways the plants are shared and displayed for the 'joy' and benefit of members and another is how the Shows themselves are displayed for the benefit of those who are not members. Because we sell plants at the Shows, and garden with them, and I personally find great stimulation from the latter, this opening picture is one that excites me most. My difficulty in writing this - which also at times is loneliness - is that I don't grow plants for display in the Show itself and as a consequence don't feel fully a part of the AGS. And yet I do understand that great joy and satisfaction that comes from growing plants so well. 

This venue at Wimborne, as you can see from the above photograph, is about as ideal as you could imagine for a Plant Show and there is plenty of space outside too. From the perspective of a nurseryman this does raise thoughts of how many more people could be attracted to such an event because of the range of plants available for sale - and the Show itself then becomes a wonderful potential attraction to a whole new number of gardeners. But does this in some way reduce the Show in the eyes of the Society? I don't know, but when you consider the range of nurseries at the Show - Aberconwy, Edulis, Kevin Hughes, Tale Valley... (here are a couple more photos), the plants for sale are in a different league than most gardeners will find elsewhere. But they are not all plants just suitable for display and exhibition - so many, especially the woodland species, are wonderful garden plants too. Combining these two aspects of the AGS is important and of the things we do personally it is the Shows that come about regularly, but also the gardens we make - and open, as we do for the NGS - which are ways of showing other gardeners the plants we grow. Chelsea may be a highlight and wonderful theatre, but our day to day gardening is how one really learns about plants.

Growing plants in troughs is something we are really keen to do more because of the opportunity it offers to give more specialised conditions for choice plants, and create miniature landscapes. This was a super display at Wimborne and although troughs can heavy to transport I am appealed by the idea of bringing lighter weight examples for display at Shows. These were a great feature of the (few) pictures I've seen of the Chelsea display and a good way perhaps of bridging that gap between 'garden' and 'exhibition'.

When you see plants such as this primula that Keith and Rachel Lever had for sale, as well as the dwarf rose I referred to earlier, the immediate thought is 'where can I grow this', rather than 'is it a plant that one might exhibit'; though to exhibit it would stand out in the way I will show with my later pictures, and certainly attracts a great deal of interest. And because we stretch the microclimates of our gardens, and by doing so learn more of the tolerances of plants, the garden becomes richer and much more interesting.

A plant such as this Maianthemum, which Paul Barney had on his stand, is not one that easily can be displayed at an Alpine Show to full effect and yet is hugely appealing to those many gardeners who do have that discriminating interest in plants that the AGS caters to. This we saw visiting a friend's garden just recently, along with other very choice garden plants such as Tricyrtis macrantha subsp. macranthopsis (which I remember from visiting Washfield Nursery many years ago) and the Tasmanian Clematis gentianoides (from Brighton Plants). The alpine and rock garden shows are such an opportunity to discover plants like these as well as the wonder of those displayed for competition.

For many gardeners visiting a garden, and a Show like this one, the first attraction is the plants for sale - because it is their own gardens that are most important to them and their own particular interests in plants - so contributing to the Show itself (so central to the AGS) is a future consequence of that initial excitement that plants bring, and also a personal decision to enter into competition. But to prove that the Show does excite both 'gardener' and potential 'exhibitor' here are some pictures of plants that particularly stood out to me, and more, that wonderful diversity of species displayed, which really is an unique feature of the alpine and rock garden societies - and which sometimes/often (and usefully) stretches the limits of the boundaries that the word 'Alpine' sets up in the gardener's mind! These Shows are simply enlightening for anyone who loves plants, and intellectually stimulating for anyone who really wants to learn more about them!

Saxifraga 'Vesuvius'.

(It so happens that the Wimborne Show coincided with the 'Silver Saxifrage' day at Waterperry Garden, an unfortunate clash of events, but this really shows what magnificent plants they can be - highly praised, as Adrian Young has said, by Reginald Farrer. For us, with a dry climate, they do very well in a sand bed, and David Hoare has a fine planting on chalk).

Asperula sintenisii

Small alpine cushion plants like this one are those which do gain so much from display at the Shows, or in troughs, and perhaps most appeal to the purist. This is the exquisite nature of the true 'alpine' and does set the pulse racing just in the way the mountains do. This was grown by Alan & Janet Cook. (My apologies by the way to those plants I show where I have not properly recorded the growers - they are certainly fully appreciated).

Saxifraga cebennensis

From what Jon says this was a close competitor for the Farrer medal, so David Hoare who grew it may have been disappointed? But truthfully how could anyone be dissatisfied by growing a plant like this? There comes a point where competition is between equals, and only the most extraordinary characters (Farrer himself, and people such as Kingdon-Ward, Forrest, and Jim Archibald, because of their amazing popularisation of these plants in different ways) lend their names to 'medals'. David was going to the 'Silver Saxifrage' day at Waterperry but this plant just cried out to be displayed at Wimborne, so Adrian Young was disappointed but visitors to the AGS Show gratified.

Silene hookeri

I've shown a picture of the wonderful salmon-pink form (in the background here) but it was this strong pink form which gained first prize! None-the-less, showing the former on 'Facebook' elicited many appreciative reactions, and this shows the subjective nature of how we view plants, as well as the more objective judgement within the Show itself. The latter is what makes the Shows happen because it instils that drive to grow plants so well, but I for one would be more than happy with a third prize for a plant like that! So, yes, it is the taking part rather than the winning - but I expect the winning doesn't half count! From the botanical viewpoint it is also the considerable variation within this species which fascinates, and for the gardener perhaps that this flower seems familiar (even though actually not so easy to grow).


Rhodanthemum catananche 'Tizi-n-Test'

If this N. African species was as reliable a garden plant as its close relative R. hosmariense it would be extremely popular. It is not easy to overwinter successfully without winter protection, but this beautifully grown example by Dorothy Sample was another that captured great attention in the social media, and at the Show too. Parham Plants specialise in growing dryland alpines, especially from the Rockies, Turkey, Greece etc., and these have always appealed to me too because of our relatively dry climate and hot summers. Many are still not easy in our erratic maritime climate - they are grown better in the hotter summer continental climate, with cold winters, of central Europe (by growers in Czechia and Poland for example), but they widen the vision of 'alpines' tremendously beyond the familiar. There are a few more examples to come, notably of legumes.


Cypripedium calceolus

Well what can one say except that this is not a plant you see every day, and reason in itself to visit the Alpine Shows in summer! From Vic Aspland. Terrestrial orchids have always been some of the most challenging species to grow, as well as disputed in the past because of removal from the wild, but there are very skilled growers in the AGS who show many of them grown from seed and from reputable specialist nurseries, and a consequence of this scientific and horticultural skill (at Kew Gardens especially) has been to enable the native Lady's Slipper orchid to be re-introduced into our flora, as well as very successful horticultural hybridisation. There is often a tension between the 'gardening' and 'botanical' worlds, where one is seen as exploitative and the other holding the moral high ground, but the two are intimately connected (both personally and practically) and at their best add to an appreciation of a world of plants often ignored by many.


Merwilla (Scilla) dracomontana

This is one of those plants where it doesn't seem to help to change its name from one which suits it well. It's rather appealing, as scillas are, and I wonder how potentially hardy? Many Drakensburg plants do make reliable garden plants, at least in milder gardens, and I can see this gracing a raised bed maybe along with diascias and Zaluzianskya!


Oxytropis lambertii

Legumes are an unmistakable family for their flowers (until you think of Acacia and Caesalpinia!), and are so often very attractive for their foliage too. They are often not so easy to grow, resenting root disturbance and vulnerable to red spider mite, under glass especially, but this N. American locoweed of the western prairies, grown by Lee & Julie Martin, and the next were two of my favourite plants at the Show. Most set seed very reliably and are classic plants of dry, poor and sandy soils, with great diversity. Interesting plants to get to know better, even if challenging in cultivation.


Coronilla orientalis

We grow the tiny prostrate Coronilla minima in a sand bed, where it self-sows gently. This species, from Parham Plants, grown by Dorothy Sample from seed collected by Mojmir Pavelka in Bayburt, Turkey, is a little more vigorous and quietly charming.


Allium nevskianum, A. shelkovnikovii & A. bodeanum

A pretty spectacular trio of onions grown by Ivor Betteridge (clockwise from top). In his book 'Buried Treasure'  Jānis Rukšāns says of these: 'All are of a type that I call "Allium karataviense compeers" - they have a large, globular inflorescence between two or more wider or narrower leaves at ground level. The question automatically arises: Why do we need plants if we already have the well-tested easy-going A. karataviense?' Well these do a pretty good job of showing why! Allium bodeanum (front left) is like a small version of A. christophii, itself very well known in gardens and apparantly in the wild neither so striking nor so easy to grow as cultivated stock. So can A. bodeanum be grown as successfully in the garden? Or these other two species? They would certainly cause comment. 


Rebutia species

These three S. American cacti may seem out of place at an Alpine Show, and invariably result in conflicting views, though it is hard to see why when you consider many of the other plants exhibited. So many cacti are true alpine plants but from harsh desert climates, and do grow naturally in association with other plants happily accepted as alpines. Vic Aspland was at pains to point out to me that these plants, often rare and protected in the wild, have come from CITES accredited stock grown in cultivation, and as with orchids cacti have had a sad history of exploitation in the wild. Perhaps this is a reason for some of the ambivalence about including them in a Show of this sort? Again there is a fine line to tread, but horticulture is potentially a salve and partner to conservation where there has been a history of over-exploitation, and there are many other examples (woodland species such as trilliums for example, far more avalable these days from cultivated seed-raised nursery plants, and Cyclamen of course) where the two run hand in hand to mutual benefit.


Iris lineata JJA 590.625

This was the most lovely iris grown by Diane Clement from Jim Archibald seed, very difficult to photograph to its full benefit. Plants such as this, and especially the information that goes with them, really give the Alpine Shows such fundamental value, because they make us look closely at plants, record them and properly appreciate them - over and above how they may be catalogued by 'Botany'. And if and when they set seed in cultivation they allow others to share with them. 


Trio of sedums

I couldn't resist photographing these three plants, and if that's true at a Show like this how much more impression could they make in a garden? Like sempervivums all these need are sunny and dry places, and neglect - a pretty good reason for giving them room. They also show how displaying them like this can lift a plant and really make you look twice.


Sedum yezoense 'Red Raver'

A closer look at one of the sedums - I'm not sure the 'cultivar' name adds anything except for its horticultural exaggeration, but a surprisingly colourful and enjoyable plant which would be excellent in a shallow trough.


Daphne jasminea

This really is the most wonderful plant grown by Vic Aspland, which he has written about growing in the AGS Journal. Daphnes are never the easiset of plants to grow in pots, especially over many years, and I think Vic said this was some 20-years old? Very, very lovely and when you do see plants like this, so well grown, for so many years there is that sense of all that gardening and horticultural heritage stored in those Bulletins and Journals of the AGS, and a huge desire to join in if you have the wherewithal. The camaraderie that grows from involvement with the Alpine and Rock Garden Shows - the same must be true across many specialist societies - may sometimes be rather exclusive, but does take gardening to a different level. To see a plant like this is to ask why 'Alpine Gardening' in its many forms is never properly presented in the media for what it truly is - one of the most valuable and instructive ways of appreciating the world of plants for their intrinsic worth (something that Robert Amos has also written about recently, in a broader philosophical sense, in the AGS Journal).




Disporum smithii 'Rick'

Earlier I mentioned how woodland species have their own special appeal but are often less easy to display. For many gardeners they will be more closely categorised, and accurately, as 'Hardy Perennials' rather than alpines. They can be very striking though - hepaticas must be a topical example! - and unusual forms are especially popular in Japan where exhibiting plants becomes a true art form. This Disporum is an example. shown by Mavis & Sam Lloyd. By the summer most woodlanders are quite vigorous plants, not so often seen exhibited, but from snowdrop time on throughout the spring they bring plenty of interest to the Shows - in the same way as ferns do now - and are possibly grown more by AGS members in general than true alpines themselves! As has been said we are really a 'Woodland & Alpine Garden Society' but how do you put this across in a catchy title which makes the gardener sit up and notice? Perhaps one day we may become the 'Plantsman's Society', in collaboration with others, which is more inclusive but different in outlook. Who knows...

Dionysia involucrata

But back to alpines, and doesn't this make the heart sing, or am I being too poetic in my appraisal? This is one of the easier to cultivate and less typical of dionysias, which shows their affinity to the genus Primula. Grown by Alan & Janet Cook, along with the yellow form of Lewisia cotyledon that I show towards the end.


Leontopodium discolor & L. alpinum subsp. nivale

These two edelweiss were curiousities, paradoxical because probably amongst uninformed people in general they are most representative of alpine plants and yet they are really amongst the most extraordinary and rarely grown of alpines in gardens. Nice to see though, botanically intriguing for their complex flowerheads and felted bracts. Grown by Ian Sharpe.


Gladiolus miniatus

Not an easy plant to display but a fascinating and rare species endemic to limestone outcrops along the south coast of Western Cape Province, S. Africa. The flowers are very nectar-rich and in their wonderful book on 'Gladiolus in Southern Africa', Peter Goldblatt and John Manning say that they are probably adapted to pollination by sunbirds. One of those rarely displayed plants which add so much 'spice' to the Alpine Shows. From George Elder.


Delphinium orfordii

This also was very nice, a spire of true blue standing out, and grown by Paul & Gill Ranson (famed for their skill in growing dionysias and other choice cushion plants). A slow growing N. American species - this was 10 years-old from seed - growing from tuberous roots, related  to or a form of D. nuttallianum. Graham Nicholls, in his book 'Alpine Plants of North America', says of these: 'the small stature does not detract from their beauty. Many species die down after blooming, and you should take great care to prevent a cultivated plant from rotting off during its dormant period'. 

Lewisia rediviva

Arguably the most beautiful of all plants at the Show, beautifully grown and presented by Alan & Janet Cook. 

Lewisias come into their own at these Summer Shows - there were fine examples at the Wymondham Show in East Anglia too - so I will finish with another example, as I mentioned earlier, and then a great view of the Show looking across over a stunning group of six plants grown by Martin Rogerson. I hope this has given a personal impression of the 'Rocky Flower Show' and may have captured your imagination if not a member of the Alpine Garden Society. Most grateful thanks to all those who organised the Show - certainly one of the 'Best Kept Secrets' for all enthusiastic gardeners in the south of England, and perhaps a focus for things to come...

(correction: the plant I showed of Sedum 'yezoense' Dorothy has let me know should be S. spathulifolium subsp. yosemitense 'Red Raver' - checking the name on the Kew Plant List. It certainly illustrates the great variability of this species, another valuable reason to have an article on the genus, and to travel to Yosemite and California to see it growing in the wild!).

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