Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: 24 March 2014 by Tim Ingram
Arriving early in the morning the Show is being staged - here is a picture of two fine lady gardeners, doyennes of the alpine world, Joy Bishop and Cecilia Coller, and a few of the plants they brought to the Show. All those involved with the Alpine Shows will be very aware that they come about through the efforts of very many people, and not least in the case of Kent, David Hoare and the team who prepare the Show with him, as well as all those who bring plants. It does behove the AGS in general to recognise this properly (and of course it does), but as a consequence to put more of its resources into advertising the Shows and highlighting their importance to gardeners in general. I hope a more detailed look at a Show like this might help put this across. It is unrealistic to expect the Shows to make significant financial returns to the AGS (as others have said in the Discussion pages) without actually becoming more visible, and relevant, to gardeners who at present don't grow and love these plants.
Cecilia really is a wonder and here is a group of the wonderful plants she grows, and close ups of two, Iris babadagica and Asarum maximum. The former is described back in 1972 in the AGS Bulletin by Richard Gorer in an article on dwarf bearded irises, many of which are delightful garden plants, given care. The latter can grow well in the garden but the flowers tend to be lost to view.
The blue tropaeolum was shown by Joy, and also by Jon Evans, here are both - and what a good example, compared with the iris and asarum, of the extraordinary variety of plants that are displayed at Alpine Shows. This is not really a plant for the garden - not hardy enough, and too delicate and special - but perhaps someone might prove this wrong? The red T. speciosum is a well known plant in gardens and would be next to impossible to stage at an alpine show.
As someone who grows plants to sell the nurseries really draw my eye (and my fellow feeling), and there are always plants for sale which most gardeners will never discover for their gardens - what about Erythronium hendersonii for example? Not really a difficult plant in the garden in coolish woodland places with plenty of leafmould, and tolerant of drying out quite a bit in the summer (we have it below a birch for example - not noted for its deep roots!). But slow, like so many choice woodlanders, and very beautiful. These plants from Aberconwy are the palest of pink and cream, but it can also be deeper in colour and rather unique in the genus.
Jillian Agg (Choice Landscapes), who with Michael played such an important part in the AGS display at Chelsea last year, had an intriguing selection of Lachenalia. I think she said that they had grown 30 or 40 species, long flowering and colourful plants just requiring a frost free greenhouse - not alpines but plants of fascination to the sort of gardeners that might well frequent alpine shows - and an indication of how the specialist nurseries in association with the Shows, play their part. Many more gardeners should be aware of what we are all growing!
Even less 'alpine' are the plants brought along by Graham Blunt from Plantbase - but I think these puyas would have an appeal to many AGS members. Graham also grows many of the South African and Australian Proteaceae, plants that I became fascinated by many years ago and that I also remember the respected plantsman Noël Kingsbury growing in the past. They may not be grown by many gardeners but for those who discover the real diversity of the plant world they are immensely fascinating, and like alpines they take time and thought to find how to grow well.
Much more for the alpine gardener is this form of Primula allionii from Pottertons. If this wasn't such a tricky plant to grow in the garden, it would attract any gardener, but it can be grown more naturalistically as I showed earlier on in these diary entries.
Alpine gardeners are skilled and generous in other ways too. This slate trough is a work of art and yours for the price of a Tombola ticket (and a touch of luck!). If that didn't work - well here is another for sale! Just the price of a choice snowdrop and it would be great to see this planted up and brought back to the show next year for visitors to see! (I've no idea who bought it). Otherwise there were some very good books, bottles of wine in the Tombola and a valuable contribution to the costs, always increasing, of running the Show.
Back to the plants. Iris reichenbachii, here shown by Pam Turtle, is another of this appealing group of small bearded irises, not so distinct from the species I. suaveolens, though a little larger, and the latter is a good success in gritty soil in full sun in our garden. Last year at the Kent Show I bought an exquisite pale yellow form of this plant from Jillian and Michael and this is just flowering the garden now and will be exciting to increase and propagate in the future.
No one looking at these two plants, without labels attached to them, would be able to distinguish them! So is it questionable whether they are really two different species? The sort of question botanists consider at depth and gardeners become puzzled by. These irises are very good garden plants, but when you see a species like I. iberica (this grown by Bob and Rannveig Wallis) it is hard to take your eyes off it - the flowers are extraordinary and like no other plant. Suppose you visit an alpine show and see this for the very first time? It is a reasonable to wonder about growing it in the garden if you have no experience of these very tricky irises, and an educational display that compares these plants and gives gardeners more information about their cultivation would be valuable. They are primadonnas on the showbench at times, but some can be primadonnas, and actually quite successful, in the garden too.
This plant, Fritillaria yuminense, also shown by Bob and Rannveig is to my eyes the most beautiful of all that I saw on Saturday. The colour is such an ethereal-blue, and the plant strong and robust. In the December 2001 issue of the AGS Bulletin it is shown growing as field crop in China (!), with reference to an article by Martyn Rix, 'In Search of the Blue Fritillary'... 'more like a blue notholirion than a fritillary'. There is the good prospect that this would grow in the garden too and what a talking point it would be (and perhaps already is?).
Bob and Rannveig are simply in a class of their own when it comes to growing bulbs and it is hard to imagine a more complementary combination of plants than these three...
Here is a closer view of Iris attica which has become another essential addition for our garden, if not to grow and show like this too.
You do have to sympathise with me for my fascination with umbellifers! Few of the latter are ever likely to grace an alpine show with the same style as the iris, although Nigel Fuller has exhibited the wonderful New Zealand species Anisotome imbricata which can hold a candle to any other choice cushion alpine. At Rainham on Saturday Nigel also brought along a little potful of Narcissus watieri; only just over twenty years old! Bob and Rannveig may be bulb growers extraordinaire but they do have competition - here though are another three potfuls that have made their way from South Wales, and the charm of these little daffodils is irresistable.
In his round up of the Show Jon mentioned the photographic and artistic display and I asked Janine at one point which of these particularly appealed to her. It is impossible to give proper credit to these pictures as photographs of photographs, but both of us liked thse two groupings of three photos showing plants in habitat and then in closer view.
The irises, really finely photographed by Kit Strange, have that same draw that they have in the Show itself, but in habitat just so much more evocative. My personal favourite though is Potentilla aurea, photographed by John Hill, partly for those amazing lichens covering the rocks, and its tremendous setting.
These two portraits - with very similar feel but actually taken by different people - also caught my eye; the Iris from Graham Nicholls and Petrocosmea from John Hill. Very lovely and both would grace any wall.
Here too is an example of embroidery of three fritillarias from Jean Morris - almost three dimensional and really quite remarkable. Jean says that she uses up to 50 or more embroidery threads in making these pictures, and my wife who has done something similar affirms to me the time and skill that lies behind this; rather unique and compelling examples of the artistry at the Alpine Shows (again a photograph can in no way do it justice).