Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: 04 March 2018 by Tim Ingram
February under the Cobnut.
February under the Cobnut
It's hard to describe the way this part of the garden has developed throughtout February without starting with the picture below, taken just into March (but the cold weather and snow arrived a few days earlier). This has been the first real snow we have had for five years since January 2013, but in addition it has brought the lowest temperature we have ever recorded in over 40 years of gardening here, -15.5°C. Fortunately the blanket of snow will have protected many plants but there will be a lot of damage or more to less hardy species, and rather like the serious winter storm that came at Christmas 2013, a clear-up operation later into spring. Temperatures fropping to -10°C or so are not historically unusual for us in N. Kent, but the last three winters have been pretty mild, and the Snowdrop Day we held in the middle of the month was sunny and very pleasant at around 10°C. Absolute lows such as this define the plants that really give structure and form to the garden so this arctic snap has been a salutary experience.
Going back to early February this photo was taken on the 3rd with many snowdrops just beginning to really make a show, in what was quite an early year.
It can be difficult to determine the best time to open the garden for the NGS when we only choose one weekend and there is so much competition for attention (and attending) other events, but with an extensive planting like this the snowdrops do carry on pretty well right through the month and these two very similar pictures taken on the 15th and 24th suggest that choosing the middle of February seems about right.
The Eranthis is self-seeding here freely, though not actually spreading that quickly, and we must try and distribute the seed when ripe right across this and adjacent beds. Apparently in one of the major snowdrop gardens this is achieved by strimming plants when the seed ripens, which broadcasts it far and wide!
Interestingly many of the older selections of snowdrops do start flowering later than many modern-day forms (probably because gardeners' interest and snowdrop days have tended to occur earlier and earlier - with the Myddelton House sale held in late January - and as the passion for growing these plants has developed in recent years). Here 'Augustus' is just starting to flower on the 9th February and nearby one of the 'Mighty Atom'-type group of snowdops, 'Bill Bishop', in mid-February. ('Mighty Atom' itself has only started flowering recently in late-February/early-March).
That wonderful and ever-valued snowdrop 'S. Arnott' has been superb throughout the month and harks back to that love affair plants-people have had for this genus over a century or more. We try to convince visitors that snowdrops, just like plants in general, are worth looking at in much more detail, but also the straightforward worth of tried and tested varieties such as this, and 'Straffan' that I opened with, is good to emphasise.
A modern-day variety very likely to hold its place into the future is 'Diggory', with especially 'lampshade-like' flowers.
And whether our own 'Copton Trym' will is a moot point, with innumerable similar plants named from other gardens, but some of these hybrids do show strong vigour and 'Trym' has proved a remarkable parent.
It can be that snowdrops begin to pall after a while? Everyone wants to capture them for themselves and the proliferation of varieties can appear ridiculous unless caught up in the drama, but they ARE the flower of winter, and especially the month of February. To explain more why, this picture is taken under a row of dwarf apples where we first began to establish and try to naturalise G. nivalis by 'sowing' ripe seed capsules nearly a decade ago. Later this becomes a haze of blue Brunnera macrophylla. But these drifts of the common snowdrop are what instils the passion to grow more snowdrops and in more detail, and that's not a bad direction for the evolving garden to take.
Just before the snow arrived we began to take the final steps (or really the beginning of a final push into the wilderness area in the middle of the garden) to connect across to the part we began clearing last autumn, and which I showed earlier. Here Cyclamen pseudibericum is flowering in the pine-needle leafmould beneath Pinus strobus.
This is a war of attrition on the remaining brambles and roots of nettles! The intention is to try and continue this foreground planting of small dryland alpines and sub-shrubs, along with larger Mediterranean climate species behind.
The weather we have just had may make us more circumspect in choosing plants to grow here when we fully see the affect it has had on present plantings, but many small hardy dryland plants will tolerate lows to -15°C and more and can form the basis of the planting. And these are a distinctive group of plants that would be well worth highlighting more again, including a wide variety of dwarf shrubs that have been popular in past years. Olivier Filippi's book 'Planting Design for Dry Gardens' is superb inspiration for both this and other parts of the garden, even though it largely draws on a more truly Mediterranean climate than our own (hopefully this freakish cold snap will be an extreme unlikely to return regularly).
The plantings he describes are similar to the 'alpine lawn'-like principles laid down by Clarence Elliott nearly a century earlier, and which the AGS was in part founded upon. So this could presage a modern-day revival in gardens, and Panayoti Kelaidis has said how Clarence Elliott's thinking very much motivated some of his steppe plantings at Denver Botanic Garden too. They are not so different to the long established rock garden bank in Faversham where we live, which I have mentioned before, and can be equally applicable both in urban landscapes and private gardens. This would be a good topic to move into and explore in more detail. This is another example - part funded by the Scottish Rock Garden Club - alongside the river at Dunblane.
For now it is the snow and cold spell that has captured all the attention, so I'll finish with this picture of teasels in the field alongside our garden...