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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 15 March 2014 by Tim Ingram

March gets into its stride

March gets into its stride

Does education serve you well? Here are a whole variety of plants flowering in the garden this March. In one sense the only connection between them is that that are all in one garden. A garden though can be an enlightening place, so the scientific mind looks for connections between them, and the connections can be very wide ranging and based on individual enquiry and curiousity about the world we are surrounded by. Diversity in itself is fascinating - the ‘spice of life’ - and discovering new and novel plants is endlessly interesting. Inevitably though to make sense of all this they have to become categorised; conjectures made about their relationships; knowledge of their origins and distributions accumulated; and all of these things go on within a Society like the AGS.

 

The primrose and its relatives are really coming into their own now and it is hard to think of more universally loved spring flowers - the first three are forms of Primula vulgaris (pink subsp. sibthorpii and white ‘Gigha’); the final two P. ‘Maisie Michael’ (from Aberconwy in 2012) and ‘Blue Riband’ - both excellent and appealing garden plants. Even with our often very dry summers these prosper reasonably well, but except for vulgaris itself which self-sows widely the others do benefit from regular division and replanting in fresh places, in the same way that many double primroses do. Despite John’s strictures about many primulas carrying virus which can easily spread to the much more choice Asiatic types, this is not a problem for us because the latter are next to impossible in our dry garden, not-with-standing their remarkable beauty and appeal. For the nurseryman and gardener the former are the plants that make commercial and cultural sense; for the alpine purist it is the rare and special which catch the attention at Alpine Shows - some conclusions about the different strands of the Society can be drawn from this.

March gets into its stride

Many bulbous plants in contrast could be much more widely grown in gardens but are probably known only to enthusiastic gardeners in the alpine societies. What about Muscari pseudibericum (chalusicum). Mention muscari to many gardeners and they are prone to turn up their noses and regard them as common and invasive, but this species is a real delight with open soft-blue bells in its best forms. This grows in a simple bed in the middle of the lawn, supplemented with masses of pea gravel which is regularly top-dressed every year or two. The mild and wet weather this year seems to have encouraged the best flowering yet of Iris cretica, a kind gift from Michael Baron many years ago and very showy. Anemone blanda in its normal blue form flowers and seeds widely here, but the rich pink form, ‘Radar’, sadly is much more restrained. Corydalis henrikii has grown in this bed for ten years or more, but not increased a jot. The wonderful thing about a bulb bed like this is how more and more species and genera can be planted into it every year and it becomes richer and richer with time - small narcissi like N. nanus (minor - are the two different?) are excellent, and Ipheion ‘Alberto Castillo’ has been successful once rabbits have been excluded from the garden. I. ‘Rolf Fiedler’ would have been very good this mild winter but is generally too tender outside in our garden. This plant is the same one pictured three weeks ago at the snowdrop day at Goodnestone Garden - a superb and long flowering plant.

This last bulb, either Scilla hohenackeri or greilhuberi, I'm not sure which, was another grown from Jim Archibald and quite novel for its relexed petals. A good and easy garden plant.

In a shady bed alongside the greenhouse with moister soil year round is the saxifrage relative Mukdenia rossii, just producing its precocious flower spikes in advance of the leaves (quite effective with Ophiopogon), along with the curious little native woodlander Adoxa moschatellina (rarely grown in gardens - this came from Longacre Nursery), one of those plants which is so modest and yet exquisite when viewed closely. Keble Martin gives it as a symbol of Christian watchfulness, and Richard Mabey (in Flora Britannica) as ‘Townhall Clock’ or ‘Good Friday plant’. This belongs to the Moschatel family, the Adoxaceae, which is composed of two genera and just three species, but has a huge distribution across N. America, Europe and Asia to Japan. A second species A. omiensis is only found in the mountains of Sichuan, and the second genus Sinadoxa corydalifolia only from Quinghai in northwestern China - a good family to hold a National Collection of!

 

In the sunny sand bed Lithodora zahnii and Morisia monanthos are star plants at present. The winter has also been mild enough that Coronilla valentina ‘Variegata’ is as good as it has ever been under a large eucalyptus; very long flowering and sweetly scented.

 

If your outlook on plants has developed from a much wider scientific base then the story behind a garden becomes even more interesting and complex. One of the important crop plants studied at the John Innes Institute is Pisum sativum, the humble pea. John Innes not that long ago celebrated a hundred years of plant research, much of it concerned with genetics and breeding plants. This mug should become a collector’s item in years to come, and John Innes has been at the forefront of both fundamental and practical research on plants, including for all good gardeners the famous JI composts. Pisum like Arabidopsis is just one plant amongst many that has been closely studied genetically and happened to be a plant that I worked on for a while at John Innes and later at Bristol. Part of the reason Pisum has been closely studied is that it is also one of the plants from which Gregor Mendel first elucidated the basis of genetics by carrying out controlled and careful crosses and recording the variation in features of the progeny from such crosses. One of the characteristics he looked at was stem length - tall and dwarf peas - and it turns out the biochemistry underlying this is the result of differences in the plant hormones gibberellins; specifically the gene which in its different manifestations results in either tall or dwarf peas,  and is concerned with a specific biochemical step in the gibberellin pathway. A huge amount of research lies behind all this even if presented in just a few words in a biological textbook. But gibberellins were first discovered due to the ‘Foolish seedling’ disease of rice which is caused by the fungus Gibberella fujikuroi, which itself produces a gibberellin, and obviously can be a serious problem in growing such an important food crop. Alpine gardeners too will have come across gibberellins as chemicals which influence the germination of seeds and they also play an important part in malting and brewing of beer! Studying plants leads to wider and wider connections very relevant to daily life.

All of this may seem a long way from the alpine gardener and simply enjoying growing plants but that would be to take a narrow view of a Society like the AGS. There are also very practical implications of considering plants in this way which for example the recent hoo-ha about EU regulations highlight. Restricting and controlling and legally regulating plant diversity is anathema to anyone with a knowledge of genetics and understanding of the importance of variation, even if paradoxically such restrictions come about with the important aims of improving productivity of crop plants in particular, and as conservation measures, as well as straightforward politics and ownership. A good example mentioned recently on the Scottish Rock Garden Club Forum is the naturally selected strains of the oat Avena strigosa grown by crofters in  the harsh climate of the Western Isles. These have resulted from long selection to local conditions, and as any gardener knows microclimate in the garden as much as broader disparities in climate on the larger scale have subtle and vital consequences on the adaptability of plants to different places. Lawyers and bureaucrats will often be less aware of this when drawing up overarching ‘regulations’, whereas gardeners and farmers will sense it far more directly. The Alpine Garden Society may be specialist but it has members who have much more knowledge and realisation of these things than the majority of people - so ‘gardening’ is not such a trivial and rarified activity as it might sometimes appear, and nor is it a mundane activity only applicable to the school drop-out. The important thing from my point of view is of the role of our ‘gardens’ and the practicality of growing plants, particularly the role of specialist nurseries, as compared with the exhibition of plants. Discussing this with a recent speaker to our group it was mentioned how some members of the AGS feel that the Shows are for members and for no-one else, and the same attitude is observed by F. H. Fisher in his writings on the history of the Society. For a nurseryman like myself, and generally, this seems a very narrow minded attitude and not conducive to expressing the interest and knowledge of alpine plants to a wider audience. It is interesting to me that this is discussed elsewhere but not here on the AGS website and I question the desire of members (and there are many but probably not enough exceptions) to share their interest in these plants more effectively with others? Our small contribution is to display plants at the ‘Best of Faversham’ market that I mentioned earlier on - here with a few of the plants that I have just described. This market brings out quite a bit of imagination amongst those involved - I rather like dressing up a tree in this way! - plus a lot of interest in the town at a time when people may be reviewing the financial foolishness  of recent years with some dismay and looking to more community spirit once again. It’s difficult to resist a Rhubarb and Raisin ‘Gardener’s Delight’ and the whole market has some of the thrill that we used to experience selling more specialist plants many years ago, including meeting several people who have strong and valid environmental concerns, which must run through specialist societies like the AGS.

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