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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 17 June 2017 by Tim Ingram

'The Rocky Flower Show' - 27th May 2017

'The Rocky Flower Show' - 27th May 2017

For the potential new visitor to an Alpine Show the thrill is likely to come from the novel attraction a plant may have for their own garden, rather than other more erudite considerations. Keith Lever, one of the foremost Alpine Plant Nurserymen of the present day, tells the story of how he first saw and obtained the beautiful silver-leaved Mediterranean shrub, Convolvulus cneorum from the late Jim Archibald, when Jim ran the Plantsman Nursery many years ago (this is an example growing in our garden).

Tellingly, both Keith Lever and Jim Archibald are individuals who have enriched horticulture in the ways of few others by their introduction and propagation of a great diversity of plants and interaction with many other plants-people. Sometimes these will be plants like the convolvulus that acheive wide popularity and horticultural use; in others they will be grown by far fewer gardeners but no less deserving of cultivation and conservation. This example is Viola spathulata (shown by Keith & Rachel Lever at the Easter AGS Show in Kent in mid April this year),, a rarely seen or grown plant which fascinates any connoisseur of alpines, and which encourages the enthusiast who would like to learn more about this lovely genus.

By summer at the 'Rocky Flower Show' at Wimborne in Dorset there is plenty of colour and interest from both alpines and larger perennials, and the venue - the Queen Elizabeth School - is itself a highly impressive and interesting building.

This plant, the double nasturtium 'Hermione Grashof', hardly qualifies as an alpine but was pretty striking to see amongst those that Derry Watkins brought along from her nursery 'Special Plants', just outside Bath.

Derry may not be familiar to many AGS members but she is a plants-lady of considerable note, and I will return to her role in making the Easter Kent AGS Show especially memorable later on. This is a picture taken in her garden last November, with in the foreground a gravel scree (8" deep) in which she grows alpines and dryland perennials very successfully. Her garden is designed to meld with the rolling hills beyond.

Keith and Rachel Lever (Aberconwy Nursery) not only grow some of the choicest alpines imaginable but also many of the most garden worthy, such as these rock roses and pinks.

The range of colour and form of helianthemums is especially striking and becoming a big interest in our garden as we replant significant areas, and look for reliable groundcover in our summer dry climate. This picture shows a range of, mostly, named cultivars along with the closely related Halimium ocymoides (with the dark eye to the flower).

Once well established they make a striking picture and benefit from shearing over after flowering to encourage new growth and extend longevity - here mixed with one of the more vigorous cultivars of Cistus, 'Grayswood Pink'.

There are many smaller growing shrubs and subshrubs that associate well with alpines in the garden - notably daphnes and dwarf conifers. These in themselves have a fascination in the garden and are much less grown than they deserve. On Aberconwy's stand at Wimborne was a super dwarf form of Jasminum parkeri, 'Bychan', which forms a low carpet spangled with soft-yellow flowers, and the hardy upright tea-tree, Leptospermum flavescens, for a larger planting.

Keith talked about this and various other plants he and Rachel had brought along, at the Show, and I particularly like this picture of him talking with Derry Watkins - two very fine plants-people sharing their love of plants and interest in propagating them for other gardeners.

(... to be continued)

On another stand the pink, Dianthus 'Inshriach Dazzler', really stood out - named for the famous Alpine Nursery at Aviemore in Scotland started by Jack Drake in the 1930's You may notice that my descriptions of the Alpine Shows emphasise the specialist nurseries that attend them just as much as the plants that are displayed, and this reference mentions that Jack Drake trained at Ingwersen's Nursery, one of the most famous of all Alpine Nurseries over nearly the whole of the 20th Century. Jim Archibald, such a great plantsman too, worked with Jack Drake at Aviemore and this is a fascinating reference on the Scottish Rock Garden Club website, in the 'Archibald Archive' These connections between such significant plants-people are at the very heart of the specialist Alpine Plant societies, and the sharing of expertise and knowledge - and enthusiasm!

Paul Barney (Edulis Plants), who rivals anyone in the AGS past or present for his exploration and plant hunting around the world, had a very different range of plants for sale at the Show, here viewed by one of the most respected of plantsmen of modern times, Chris Brickell VMH, whose involvement with both the AGS and RHS over a lifetime emphasises the importance of this detailed observation of the natural world of plants in UK horticulture, and of these specialist Alpine Shows that illustrate and celebrate this. 

The plant he is looking at is the exquisite Chinese fern, Araiostegia perdurans

Another species of this genus was displayed in the Show next door, along with other ferns such as an Adiantum and xerophytic Cheilanthes. These pictures show Araiostegia hymenophylloides and Cheilanthes eatonii.

So perhaps you are a new visitor to this Show (or others) and are drawn to some of these plants for your garden? The same is identically true for a gardener such as myself who has visited Alpine Shows for nearly 40 years! (hence these Diary entries). And then you turn to the display of plants in the hall next door...


Only a relatively small proportion of gardeners devote themselves to growing plants for exhibition in this way, but in the absence of viewing them in nature itself, or in a garden setting, to see this diversity at an Alpine Show is illuminating. It also brings a great deal of joy and achievement to anyone who grows plants with this degree of skill. If your garden is only small and you can provide the special growing conditions of frames and alpine house, or a cool plunge bed for shade-loving plants and ericaceous species, the opportunity is there to devote your attention to plants in a rather different way than you may do in the garden itself. There is a long tradition of growing plants in these ways in horticulture, from the local village Shows onwards, though it is not for everyone. Unlike most Shows where the subjects are often limited to relatively few types of plants, often horticulturally distanced from wild species, the Alpine Shows are unique in the diversity of plants displayed. Because they are held throughout the year they also relate to flowering times and the seasonal progression that occurs in the garden. So not only can plants be compared and contrasted, a great deal can also be observed about the changing dynamics of plants adapted to different climates and places. This is what gives the Alpine Garden Society and Scottish Rock Garden Club events such fundamental appeal: they satisfy that intellectual curiosity about plants, along with an aesthetic appreciation of them.

That is rather a long-winded way of showing you these following examples - but perhaps you can tell, I am making a case for looking at plants more closely (even if, like me, your interest is actually in growing them in the garden, and seeing them in the wild, and propagating them, rather than displaying them at an Alpine Show).

(... to be continued, but for a really detailed look at the plants on display at the Wimborne Summer AGS Show see Jon Evan's photographic record and commentary elsewhere on this website

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