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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 22 May 2014 by Tim Ingram

In Pursuit of Gold

In Pursuit of Gold

I've just watched a couple of the Chelsea Flower Show programmes on the BBC, and - well - it is all about getting a Gold Medal above all else. The Alpine Shows can have the same air about them at times and one can sometimes feel woefully inadequate attending them. It's good to have something to aim for of course and there is little that brings more joy than growing plants really well. But this can be unrealistic when applied to everything you do, and a personal garden inevitably falls short. Or does it? Here are four examples of gardens made by members of the East Kent AGS Group, and there are no doubt similar gardens belonging to AGS members around the country on many different scales.

In Pursuit of Gold

You will notice straightaway that none of these are alpine gardens - but all of them contain alpine plants to different degrees, and they are all made by gardeners with that strong and knowledgeable interest in plants that typifies members of the alpine and rock garden societies.

In his review of the English edition of 'Peter Korn's Garden - Giving Plants What They Want', Richard Wilford points out that such skilled gardening is not so much finding 'the right plant for the right place' but creating 'the right place for the right plant'. This is nowhere more true than when growing the plants that appeal to the alpine gardener, and it can be easy for many new to the game to give up with these plants if they don't initially grow with the same ease that many other garden plants will. Many though do and given naturally well drained soil, or raising plantings above heavier less hospitable soil with plenty of sand and gravel makes these plants just as effective as any others in the garden: here are two good examples, as it happens in the gardens of Mid-Kent AGS members.

Once in a while, even, the garden produces something that approaches a Farrer medal plant (at least in the eyes of the gardener themselves).

The old adage of having 'green fingers' is certainly true and some gardeners have a sixth sense when it comes to growing plants. At the same time the idea of 'gardening' with alpines - actually using them in garden design as so many perennials and trees and shrubs are in the display gardens at Chelsea - is rarely described or practised. These are plants that above all tend to be lauded for their individual beauty and appeal - which they undoubtedly have. So the common refrain that alpine plants are ideal for small gardens - and the vast majority of gardens are small - really has no archetypes at Chelsea for gardeners to relate to.

Well we know that the Chelsea gardens in most instances are theatre rather than realism when applied to the view from your own window. All gardens though are to an extent about theatre - which is why I opened this diary with the pictures that I did - and alpine plants are no less theatrical than any others. In fact the ways they can be grown in troughs, raised beds, crevice gardens and tufa (or home-made hypertufa), and their individual appeal, give them a 'garden personality' more than most.

Chelsea, as the fine Scottish nurseryman and plantsman Ian Christie has observed, is a million miles from 'real' gardening. This is true in its celebrity but not in its fundamentals, and the fact that gardeners are attracted to it in their tens of thousands and television describes it in such overwhelming, and at times gushing, detail, shows how much plants do play a part in our lives. So an absence of 'alpine' or 'rock' gardens at Chelsea (though I know there are still good examples of the plants exhibited by nurseries) says a lot about the way garden fashion proceeds and how few gardeners gain excitement from these particular plants.

Size matters - and it is the size and drama of the outdoor gardens that capture all the attention. But as one garden designer said, who had made both large and much smaller more intimate displays at Chelsea, the latter is far more demanding. Since it is our own gardens that we gain pleasure and fulfilment from year round, there is a lot to be said for the smaller scale. Fashion is all very well but it can be nice if it is also comfortable: comfort tends to come with familiarity and balance, and alpine plants - alpine gardening - are simply not familiar to people and so are disregarded by gardeners, and that is a fair response if they are always thought of as very special, demanding and exclusive.

'Gardening' with alpines is at heart much more personal than a lot that is displayed at Chelsea. It lies on the outskirts of fashion, but this doesn't necessarily mean that it should be outside fashion altogether. Gardening with alpines and small perennials after all is as much about showing plants off as with any other plants, and the ways they combine, as they do in Nature itself, have an appeal that is impossible to resist.

Having written all this I now need to show an absolutely beautiful and perfect alpine garden to illustrate it. I'm not sure I've ever seen one, except in Nature itself, but what i have seen are plants well suited to their place and that give pleasure to the gardener, and a continuing desire to learn about these plants and occasinally give them what they need.

As with the wonderful plants that are exhibited at the Alpine Shows themselves there are amongst alpine gardeners those who make gardens that are extra special and that do inspire you to try and do the same. These final few pictures are taken from three such gardens I have visited and they are simply the result of great perception and understanding of plants and an ongoing sense of exploration.

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