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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 07 March 2016 by Tim Ingram

'Gardening on the Edge'

'Our plantings today are a bequest, and a positive symbol to the future, and should always be perceived in this perspective'

(Dr. Chris Page, in his chapter on Conifers in 'Gardening on the Edge')

This is a very stimulating book that a friend in our AGS Group has just lent me: it is 'Gardening on the Edge' for a number of reasons; first, practically, because of growing rare and often quite tender and untested plants in the mild climate of Cornish gardens; second, by treating the garden more as a botanical collection and in certain cases - as described in the chapter by Chris Page - with potentially high conservation value for endangered species (in fact the study of plants within an individual garden is just a realisable study of the plant world more generally); and third, simply for the fascination and intellectual satisfaction of experiment and discovery and the knowledge gained from a more adventurous attitude to the garden.

It informs because of having chapters on a whole range of different plant groups written by recognised authorities from personal experience, and with real insights. Chris Page, for example, in his chapter on 'Conifers' describes how many of the genera found in Japan - which has not been glaciated - once also grew in pre-glacial Europe and so 'is the nearest living equivalent to the [gymnosperm] flora of Britain and Ireland before the glaciations decimated them'. Tom Hudson describes a whole list of obscure trees and shrubs of fascination to the plantsman even if you are never likely to grow them; what about the orange-red Hypericum revolutum from equatorial African mountains? Or who has heard of Dipentodon sinicum from Yunnan? This small tree sounds more like a species of dinosaur from its name(!) but was in fact collected by Forrest in the 1920's, and 'with simple glossy leaves and wonderfully curious, sparkler-shaped, fragrant off-white flowers'. There is a specialised chapter on Hedychium and related genera, some of which - such as Tony Schilling's introduction H. coccineum 'Tara' and the genus Roscoea are hardy and exciting plants even in colder gardens like ours. Paul Barney (Edulis Plants) grows unusual species of these and described their particularly strong distribution in his recent talk to us in Kent on Manipur. Especially interesting to me, because it is a family that we have grown a number of, and in certain ways defines the flora of the Southern Hemisphere, is the chapter on Proteaceae. Robbie Blackhall-miles is experimenting very successfully with these in North Wales and a number grow in alpine and sub-alpine environments.

Any gardener worth their salt really likes to know more about the origins and ecology of plants even if this may not directly relate to how they may be grown in the garden, or even if they are not grown in the garden at all! Just like meeting new people, meeting new plants opens up the world and expands horizons.

Our garden, of course, is not in Cornwall but part of its raison d'être is to experiment with unusual and rarely grown plants often raised from seed. The picture I show is against a warm wall with Arum pictum 'Primrose Warburg', Papaver triniifolium, and a species of the South African legume, Lotononis. Just out of view is the Californian Mahonia (Berberis) fremontii, Chinese Rehmannia henryi (from Derry Watkins, Special Plants), and Arum dioscoridis and Cheilanthes sinuata (from the very interesting Decoy Nursery, whose inspiration has come from Elizabeth Strangman and Washfield Nursery on the Kent/Sussex border). The only way such plants will be maintained in cultivation, and therefore more widely known, is within private gardens as much as Botanic Gardens, and along with this goes a much more informed view of the Plant World in horticulture.

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