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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 09 May 2016 by Tim Ingram

...continued, a 'Plantsman's Spring'.

'A Plantsman's Spring'


This beautiful and intricate flower arrangement from Lee and Julie Martin (made by Lee) sums up my title for this entry. Alongside was a list of the various flowers used, and they are all pretty special and equally all plants that can be grown very successfully in the garden too.

The Easter AGS Show at Sutton Valence, just south of Maidstone in Kent, marked a change in venue and a new outlook for the Show(s) [there is an Autumn Show too], which have been held so memorably for over twenty years under the stewardship, first of Eric Jarrett, and then David Hoare. Adrian Cooper and his wife Samantha, whose really remarkable garden overlooking the Weald of Kent is just nearby (see my Diary entries for 15th February and 18th June 2014), worked with the school at Sutton Valence and many local contacts to create a very enjoyable event for visitors. Over 200 people came, as well as AGS members, and the only downside for the nurseries attending was relatively limited space. It would be good, if possible, to develop the Show as much for the Plant Sales as the exhibition of plants, and already there was an excellent range of plants available, including hardy perennials as well alpines and bulbs.

Although there are fewer individuals bringing plants now, there was no diminution in the interest and wonder of what was displayed, and several more local members contributed with the prospect of more of us joining in  in the future! 

What was particularly nice was the intimate relationship between the Show itself and the adjacent refreshment/seating area, including art and craft displays, and a superb exhibit from the Alpine Department of RHS Wisley.

The catering was very imaginative too, from 'Home Gurr'own Caterer's', which all made for a comfortable and relaxed atmosphere for visitors, and I think little doubt that many, and more, are likely to return this autumn and next spring.

These are a few of the plants with short comments, and there is more from Jon Evans in his detailed account in the Discussion pages of the website (q.v.). Easter was early this year and it was a cold day, which would have restricted nursery displays outside, but there is the prospect of creating a fine entrance with plants in the quadrangle outside the two halls used, and an even more appealing event for visitors. One of these, as a result of Adrian's personal contacts, was Fergus Garrett (with his family) from Great Dixter, which certainly brought a touch of celebrity to the event - though the plants themselves do this best 🙂 - and will lead on to the next part of this entry about the Spring Plant Fair at Dixter, after I show a few of the plants on display at Sutton Valence!

Fritillaria gibbosa - grown by John Kemp. A pretty spectacular plant.

Fritillaria gibbosa - Kent Easter AGS Show 2016

Primula clarkei - lovely potful from Keith and Rachel Lever. Kind of makes you want to read up on the genus from John Richard's book. (Just too many plants to learn about sometimes!!).

Romulea bulbocodium - an easy and useful garden plant which seeds around in our dry Kentish garden, here shown by John Millen. (This is Jim Archibald describing R. requienii in 'Corsican Spring' [AGS Bulletin Vol. 31, p. 211, 1963]: ' "It's a Romulea isn't it?" And so it was, sitting right in the middle of the path in iron-hard clay, its little goblet of intense Tyrian purple opened flat in the morning sun to the size of a florin, showing its golden anthers and infinitely more lovely than any crocus'... my italics, could be some argument there but you can see what he means happening on vivid flowers like these on a sunny Corsican hillside!).

Romulea bulbocodium at the Kent Easter AGS Show 20

Saxifrage displays... now these were nice, from David Hoare, and really do stimulate interest in the diversity of cultivars. More displays like this I think would greatly appeal to visitors and also probably encourage a greater number of present members to consider exhibiting plants. We don't all have venerable specimens that have been shown over many years, and now could be a good time to start! 

Saxifrages at the Kent Easter AGS Show 2016

Narcissus jonquilla var. henriquiesii grown by Janine Doulton, who must know more about daffodils than most of the rest of us! These are always a great feature of the Kent Spring Show, and so many are well adapted to growing in the garden as well as pots - long flowering, sometimes beautifully scented, and often- times extremely elegant.

Narcissus jonquilla var. henriquiesii at the Kent

Scilla messeniaca - less often seen in the garden and I hope a patch we have now freed from the embrace of nettles and other weeds will clump up as well as this has. Like narcissus this is a particularly valuable genus of bulbs for the garden, and a good one to collect a wider variety.

Scilla messeniaca at the Kent Easter AGS Show

Serapias neglecta - an orchid of very considerable beauty and attraction from Barry Tattersall, but from where comes its specific epithet?

Serapias neglecta at the Kent Easter AGS Show 2016

Gladiolus huttonii x tristis - grown by Colin Rogers. An interesting cross and Julian Sutton of 'Desirable Plants' has produced a range of similar hybrids which are hardy and potentially striking new plants for the garden. Many of the smaller species of gladioli are really exquisite in flower, not so difficult given glass cover and winter protection, and spread the wings of these Alpine Shows rather nicely, along with many other slightly tender species which might test the purist definition of 'alpine' if you are too pedantic!

Gladiolus huttonii x tristis at hte Kent Easter AG

Celmisia semi-cordata, grown by Robin Alabaster. These New Zealand daisies, which give composites a good name, are rarely seen or grown in the drier south so especially nice to see at the Show. This is a very wonderful genus, so varied in the wild, and we do have several smaller species growing in a cooler spot in gritty sand in our garden, which will encourage more experiment. A member of our East Kent AGS Group, Jeremy Spon, is also secretary of the Australasian Plant Society in the UK - other members are the fine plantsmen, Robbie Blackhall-miles and Tom Hart-Dyke - so we might expect more antipodean plants appearing at shows in the future, especially montane species from drier habitats than most of the celmisias.

Celmisia semi-cordata at the Kent Easter AGS Show

Early April sees the Spring Plant Fair at Great Dixter, a weekend of huge appeal for any gardener and plantsman because of that combination of great garden and varied range of specialist nurseries, always including some from the continent. We have only been in the autumn before (see my Diary entry 'Alpine Plants at Great Dixter', 10th October 2014) so it was especially nice to be invited to come in the spring. Even nicer was that Hester Forde - who runs the Cork AGS/HPS Group in Ireland - came over with a friend, arriving with us late on the night before, and then carrying on later in the weekend to visit Graham Gough at Marchants. This is Hester speaking with friends she met at Dixter, showing those strong connections between plants-people who often live a long way apart.

It was also lovely to meet again with Elizabeth Strangman, and there will probably be a few reading this who have great memories of visiting Washfield Nursery at Hawkhurst over the years, where latterly Graham also worked with Elizabeth. Hard to find two more inspirational growers!

Amongst the nurseries attending were Binny Plants from Scotland, Barnhaven Primulas from France, Monksilver, Decoy Nursery, and Marina Christopher (Phoenix Perennials), who shares my great interest in umbellifers. 

In the red jumper is Billy Carruthers, grower of peonies extraordinaire, now in partnership with David Wong, and the plants he bought to Dixter were superb! Here is a batch of the double form of Paeonia tenuifolia...

I don't know if alpine gardeners may be too snobbish to consider growing hybrid primulas, but if you are not then Barnhaven Primulas had probably the most directly appealing of all plants at Dixter - a whole range of primrose crosses, double primroses, auriculas and - quite rarely seen - many selections of Primula sieboldii.

Decoy Nursery had a fine batch of Muscari 'Jenny Robinson', originally introduced from Cyprus - a soft powder-blue muscari with better foliage than the similar M. 'Valerie Finnis'...

There is a unique atmosphere at Dixter, very much a result of the nature of the garden and remarkable legacy of Christopher Lloyd, his writing, and ability to inspire so many young talented gardeners with that combination of plant knowledge and artistry (specialist plant societies like the AGS take note, because 'we' have those same attributes but are not so good at expressing them), and which Fergus carries on with such amazing energy and aplomb.

One of the delightful consequences of an event like this which attracts such a wide range of people is that opportunity to meet up with individuals you may not have seen for many years. This is the acclaimed photographer Howard Sooley, with his partner, speaking with Fergus.

Howard has made a series of videos, including this one on Dixter ( and not far away, Derek Jarman's iconic seaside garden at Dungeness, and Anna Pavord's garden, all of which capture the person behind as well as the garden itself, simply and sensitively. Here is the truth of a garden which allows self-expression in a world of horticulture often ruled by short term fashion.

Dixter itself combines those two important things, great plantsmanship, great use of plants, and propagation and renewal.

It sits in the most most wonderful landscape - this is a view looking across the surrounding farmland - and has at its centre an extraordinary house, and yet is a personal garden still, a place anyone can relate to very easily if they find plants compelling.

What is even more impressive is that Fergus has the ability to hold all this together and at the same time play the role of personally directing the parking for visitors and aiding those who get stuck in wet ground... there is no hubris there and this is what makes the event so enjoyable and what Howard shows in his video.


Great Dixter attracts a whole cross section of gardeners, young and old, novices and enthusiasts, gentrified and fans. In this sense it acts as a model and inspiration for the way the 'Alpine' Shows might develop if they are advertised to a wider public and made more effective in engaging (especially younger) new members. The same is true of smaller and simpler days such as the Plant Fairs Roadshow held at Hall Place in the middle of April, important for small local specialist nurseries like ourselves. We found quite an interest in alpines, and from younger gardeners too, even though this event has none of the cachet of an AGS Show.

The venue is a valuable green space in the south-east outskirts of London and a good opportunity to bring these plants to the attention of a significant new audience, an important charitable aim of the AGS to widen knowledge and understanding of alpines. Local Groups have had displays here in the past and these could always be a feature in the future too.

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