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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 02 March 2017 by Tim Ingram

... and a little more.

The Early Spring RHS Show at Vincent Square had rather less plants on display than my memories of it from earlier years, but Jon Evans has given a good photographic survey on the Discussion pages of the website, and there were some very interesting plants on show. 'To reflect the enhanced show experience and as part of the RHS’ commitment to grow the next generation of gardeners, there was a small entry charge for members (£5)'; this I have to say was a bit of a surprise: none the less it was enjoyable to see what was on display, and certainly vying with the snowdrops I've shown was the colourful and exciting exhibit of Reticulata Irises from Jacques Amand. Searching for refreshments we found none but were directed to a very good shop just around the corner from the Show - and then returned with coffee and cake and gained this wonderful view of the Irises from the gallery in the New Hall.

Amongst these were examples of many of the new hybrid Irises raised by Alan McMurtrie, which gave the display double the fascination!

Wait for long enough and it's possible to take a lovely picture of Kit Strange from Kew speaking with Alan McMurtrie, two of the premier growers of Irises in the world conversing; in the same way that these Irises have been shown previously at the Early Spring AGS Show at Harlow in Essex (coming up this Saturday for the reader who may like to see more...).

In the garden we have had mixed success with Reticulata Irises, but 'Clairette' has grown well in gritty soil for five or six years or more, and the famous cultivar 'Katharine Hodgkin' (despite probably showing signs of virus) has thrived in a hot spot in our front garden, building up this spring to a really striking display.

This is the first year we have had flowers of Iris 'Lady Beatrix Stanley', with its really fine deepest-blue flowers, and it will certainly be exciting to see if this prospers and increases in future years in this bulb bed mixed with Ipheion and Anemone blanda.

(Travelling up on the train from Faversham we met with Steve Edney, the Head Gardener at The Salutation Garden, Sandwich, who also gave an inspirational talk to the Kent Hardy Plant Society recently on 'Succession Planting'. On sandy soil at Sandwich he says that the Reticulata Irises thrive in a grassy meadow, to the extent that they grow some forty different forms. In our garden on heavier loam they have often been less persistant, but given beds enriched with plenty of gravel and in troughs, as a group they would be well worth trialling more, and this display by Jacques Amand certainly inspires.)

But back to snowdrops because although now at the end of their season in early March they have been especially good throughout February. This picture of Galanthus 'Mrs Thompson', growing under Rosa moyesii shows how impressive established colonies can become in the garden. This cultivar can throw up whirligig-like multiple tepalled flowers, as the second picture shows from a display at the Kent HPS meeting last weekend, but even without this is one of the showiest snowdrops in the garden and increases well.

As the years have passed the variation we have in the garden has grown, and even more interesting have been an increasing number of hybrids occurring in different places. This picture taken a few years ago shows the two fine large flowered cultivars 'Bertram Anderson' and 'Gerard Parker', along with 'Wendy's Gold', 'Lady Beatrix Stanley', a couple of the Greatorex Doubles, and a hybrid ex. 'Trym'.

Galanthus plicatus is quite unusual amongst snowdrops in often freely setting seed and crossing readily with nearby snowdrops. In particular this is true of the famous cultivar 'Trym' in which the outer tepals are strongly marked green. The forms derived from this are now becoming legion and often relatively indistinguishable, but all are strikingly different and really contrast with other snowdrops. We have selected two forms that have arisen with us (crossed with G. nivalis): 'Copton Trym', and a second with more pronounced and paler markings, we now call 'Trymingram', following recommendation from a friend. They both appear more vigorous, larger and earlier flowering than 'Trym' itself, and add considerably to the February garden.

Similar hybrids have appeared with the broad plicatus-leaf of G. 'Augustus' (which we have never found to self-seed but presumably must have crossed with the more fertile G. plicatus 'Trym'. These in their way are just as interesting and very different in leaf, and will no doubt become more common generally over time.

The very distinct cultivar (if not variable selection), G. plicatus 'Gerard Parker', is also highly fertile, readily self-seeding, and in this example showing hybridisation with (probably) G. nivalis in the background. Typically 'Gerard Parker' has a relatively pale olive-green ovary and marking. We have fine colonies of 'Gerard Parker' in the garden but it also has shown signs of unusual sensitivity to infection by Stagonospora curtisii, a bane of many snowdrop collections, which has heightened our awareness of this fungal disease and ensured that multiple colonies of snowdrops are established in different parts of the garden. 


Two more excellent and distinctive forms of G. plicatus are the long-pedicelled 'Percy Picton' (here in Elizabeth Cairns' garden at Knowle Hill Farm) and the famous 'Diggory', one of the most classic of recent snowdrops, surely destined to stand the test of time.

Galanthus elwesii, with its strong very distinctive foliage, grows well in our warm and summer-dry garden, often thriving in more open sunny spots. This, I think, is 'Fred's Giant', a Scottish snowdrop found at Cruikshank Botanic Garden in Aberdeen in 1949, flowering a bit later than many other G. elwesii forms that we grow.

Another is this seedling from G. elwesii 'Three Leaves', which we will keep an eye on and compare.

Kent is probably less known for snowdrop gardens than further to the north and west but one of the enjoyments of February is that chance to visit collections, notably those open for the National Gardens Scheme. That friendly rivalry and exchange of plants makes for greater diversity and a sharing of experiences which is a hugely valuable aspect of gardening. These are two highly contrasting gardens near to us, sitting on the North Downs escarpment, belonging to Elizabeth Cairns (Knowle Hill Farm) and John and Carolyn Millen (Spring Platt). I've mentioned both before and will just show a few examples of snowdrops, here on a sunny day 'Washfield Colesbourne' opening wide and attracting a Bumble Bee to its flowers.

A second example in Elizabeth's garden is 'Clare Blakeway-Phillips', which is described as apparently affected by a virus (though the leaves here show no obvious signs early on). It stands out for that pale ovary and very elegant flowers. So many snowdrops are clonal and one might suspect would be prone to picking up viruses over time, and yet these are not obvious problems in more than just a few cultivars. Viral infection must not be a serious problem in wild populations either where snowdrops very often increase much more vegetatively than they do from seed. (In the garden though, with many more plants close together and heightened horticultural interest, this is a potential problem worth keeping an eye out for).

Sitting high on the North Downs this garden must benefit from frost tending to be less severe than lower in the Weald of Kent, and this specimen of Euphorbia mellifera is certainly one of the largest I've seen in any garden, seven or eight feet high, quite a contrast to the small group of snowdrops below.

Carolyn Millen, and her daughter Julia, have an ever-growing collection of snowdrops mostly grown in lattice pots plunged in raised beds, which are especially interesting to view after reading about the wealth of cultivars in books and photographed each year on various websites. They maintain this collection by a regular routine of twin-scaling to renew losses and refresh plants, and very careful cultivation (plus meticulous record-keeping). Comparison in this way really shows certain cultivars that stand out, but at the same time simply widens that appeal of 'The Snowdrop' to the aficianado. This plant, named for Brian Mathew (one 't'!) is especially striking and quite rarely seen in gardens.

Another, 'Long Wasp', shows that particular elegance that the snowdrop flower can have in a selected form.

And another picture of 'Philippe Andre Meyer', perhaps destined to become another classic snowdrop for its very unique marking.

In most gardens though all this diversity is unknown and it is simply G. nivalis that colonises over time in its single and double forms, and this species is the one that the vast majority of gardeners will know and love in winter. Less usual maybe is to see this growing beneath a stand of Wellingtonias (Sequioadendron giganteum) as here at Doddington Place Garden near to us down the road from Faversham!

This magnificent stand of trees dates back to very soon after Sequioadendron was introduced to the UK in the 1850's, and these trees must be amongst the tallest examples in the country, though less substantial than specimens grown in isolation.

For the rock gardener Doddington holds another surprise - a substantial Edwardian Rock Garden, which has been partially restored and replanted - mostly with dryland/Mediterranean species - in recent times. It is a garden with great potential, but like all rock gardens, hard work to maintain and develop.

Above the Rock Garden is this finely structured Parterre, both high on the valley side looking down and along the Newnham Valley below.

The woodland garden beyond is extensive, though modestly planted. In February I was surprised to see this very early flowering Rhododendron species, well protected from frost by the high tree canopy.

And finally the very striking young foliage of another Rhododendron, making a neat relatively small specimen.  I would appreciate a name if any reader recognises this plant?

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