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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 19 March 2014 by Tim Ingram

Fitillarias and muscari by way of Iris Ney

Fritillarias and muscari by way of Iris Ney

Earlier in the week we were visited by a small but enthusiastic group of gardeners from Germany, led by Iris Ney, who also visited us at snowdrop time in 2013. Iris is well known to plantspeople on the continent as well as in the UK and worked for a while at Beth Chatto's garden and nursery in Essex. There is nothing a gardener likes more than meeting those with the same fascination and passion for plants, and we are very grateful to Iris for introducing new people to our garden and the encouragement this brings to working on the plantings and propagating more plants on the nursery.

Iris specialises in organising tours for real plantspeople, visiting gardens that they would otherwise never discover. But she herself would also like to discover more gardeners with the same interest to join her tours - none will be disappointed! (There is a super picture of Iris, with Beth Chatto, on her website    

I think she has quite a skill in associating plants, just as she has with people, and left us with a lovely photograph of plants in her garden - a dark hellebore underplanted with Isopyrum thalictroides and a double blue cultivar of Hepatica nobilis. The way early bulbs and woodland plants can make a tapestry in the garden throughout spring is one of the great delights of gardening and over time becomes quite serendipitous and natural as a result of self-sowing and even some degree of neglect! The skill lies in careful and thoughtful weeding to allow the plantings to develop as you wish. These are two pictures from Gill and Peter Regan's garden, not too far from us in Kent, which is managed with a light and educated hand and contains some wonderful lilies including stands of L. martagon and a beautiful specimen of the Turkish L. monadelphum.

Fritillarias and muscari by way of Iris Ney

One plant that everyone wanted was Muscari armeniacum 'Gul', rather unique for the rich-pink colour of its maturing florets. This came originally from Rannveig Wallis (Buried Treasure), and is just one of a very worthwhile genus (along with related plants) which we are steadily growing more of as the years pass. I have already mentioned M. pseudomuscari, and in the same group, but smaller and free seeding, is M. azureum.

In the same bed grows the variable strain of M. armeniacum named for Valerie Finnis. From seed this varies from nearly white to soft and deeper china-blue, and this is a large part of its appeal. Loveliest of all might be 'Jenny Robinson' (of uncertain botany) which generally flowers a little later in our garden. This was introduced from Cyprus and has the most delicate and softest-blue flowers, tidier in leaf than others as well as not setting seed appreciably.

These all grow in a small, reasonably sunny bed in the lawn, which at the moment is slowly filling with 'Little Blue Bulbs' of the Hyacinthaceae (described very helpfully in the Bulletin of the same name published by the RHS and summarising their Plant Trials and Awards). This bed is modelled on the amazing bulb walk at Sissinghurst but on a much more intimate scale, and fills later with small narcissi, fritillarias and tulips, and in summer sedums and a range of dry adapted perennials. Here are a few examples now...

One muscari-relative that we must add to this bed is the curiously coloured Bellevalia pycnantha.

A bed like this is more a cornucopia than a work of art, and you never know what might prosper at times. Another Bellevalia, forniculata (does it get this name because it grows in such abundance in its native habitat?), is the most extraordinary turquoise-blue, and this has been tried and failed - but here it is 9scanned from a slide) at Bryn Collen, Jim and Jenny Archibald's garden in S. Wales (growing in a polytunnel), and from where I originally obtained seed.

The camera may never lie but it is often selective, and to put this bed in the garden in context here are several wider views. At this time of year as the cherries begin to flower and new growth develops on Cornus controversa and magnolias, there is an extraordinary beauty in the garden and a sense of harmony which is impossible to achieve except as plantings mature and develop steadily over time.

The grassy area under the cornus in the picture above has been left for bulbs but turns out to be in too much shade for crocuses and snowdrops, or not dry enough in the summer, or the grass is simply too strong. Several fritillarias do well here, along with the cowslip and erythroniums. Seed of Tulipa sprengeri has been broadcast liberally but it will be while to see any potential results. We will try Anemone nemorosa and apennina in here too having seen the former growing well in short grass at Beth Chatto's, and the latter in stronger sward at Spillshill Court. Gardening does involve experiment especially when you are none too good at it!

The petite Iris cretica (or unguicularis subsp. cretensis) growing in the bulb bed in the lawn I am now told by Michael Baron should be named for Ken Aslet (who is also mentioned by Robert Rolfe in the latest Journal). These connections between plants and people become more and more interesting as a garden develops and you learn more of the historical associations of plants.

This picture of another Muscari, macrocarpum, was taken at the Fritillaria Group meeting last Sunday, and the first time that I have heard Jānis Ruckšāns speak. A day for the real connoisseur of the genera Fritillaria, Crocus and Iris. 

Most of the plants discussed and shown are not for the garden, though I would very much like to try more of the woodland fritillarys, but the display of plants was a plantsman's dream - these are some examples with apologies that I haven't acknowledged grower with bulb. It is easy to understand how growing these plants to exhibit at Shows becomes an over-riding passion! A smaller more specialised event like this though has a different and very friendly feel to it - without any judging of the plants - which I found most enjoyable and could more easily imagine becoming involved with. Fritillaria rixii shown at the end does draw the eye and the prospect of a monograph on the genus must be eagerly anticipated. Rannveig in her short talk encouraged the audience to hand pollinate plants and help maintain them in cultivation by the distribution of seed, which any specialist grower and nurseryman will echo. A stimulating day.

And what about Tulipa regelii? If a plant like this shown in a pot can be so thrilling to anyone really interested in plants - how much more must it be to see it in its native habitat? Lucky are those who have...

Seeing the botanical detail of plants like this is of course at the heart of the AGS but your own garden holds similar detail which can be observed at any time We don't grow many saxifrages but the article by Adrian Young in the December 2013 Journal is a real eye-opener and some troughs in cooler spots in the garden will definitely be set aside for these. Saxifraga apiculata 'Alba' has grown for a long time with periods of neglect on a raised bed and is in full flower now. It may not be the equal of many of the choice kabschias, but is an essential garden plant none-the-less.

A few other members of the family are flowering now too and the detail of their flowers is striking. Bergenia ciliata is probably the best of the genus; early flowering and succeeded by good and very distinctive foliage which gives the plant its specific name.

Mukdenia rossii has opened those creamy-white flor buds shown earlier and they share the same design but on a much much smaller scale.

Most delicate and lovely of all are the tiarellas, far more refined generally than the related heucheras. Like the latter many have been selected for unusual leaf markings and colourations (a fascinating feature of many woodland plants in general which John has alluded to in his Diary) - this one is Tiarella 'Timbuktu', but the species T. wherryi is perhaps the finest of all. A quick look at the Plantfinder reveals over 50 cultivars in the genus - an indication of its popularity - but the one I have had and lost, T. wherryi 'Bronze Beauty', introduced by Chris Brickell, remains my personal favourite.

Just to finish here is a picture of little blue bulbs at the Kent AGS Show last spring (the Muscari in the centre is M. pallens) and two displays of plants from Little Heath Farm and Aberconwy, which show how enticing the nursery stands are, quite apart from the Show itself. John Spokes is not at the Show this spring but I am always personally drawn to the wide range of plants that he brings, which include rare and unusual woody species as well as alpines and bulbs, and give the Show an appeal to knowledgeable gardeners who grow many other plants than just alpines.

It has been a mild and very wet spring, some fine sunny weather recently, but for many people not an easy time earlier on with flooding and damaging winds - so the Show should provide well needed recompense. We look forward to seeing a good number of gardeners, new and old, on Saturday, and especially anyone tempted to join the Society (why has it taken you so long?!). Even if the East Lancs. Show might provide an alternative delight on the same day - bonne chance to both!

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