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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 30 May 2016 by Tim Ingram

...the best kept secrets...

...the best kept secrets...

...the world of gardening is a "world as old as the history of man, as new as the latest contribution to science: a world of mystery, adventure, and romance; a world of poetry and philosophy; a world of beauty; and a world of work. Never be deceived about the work."


These are words written by the N. American gardener Elizabeth Lawrence in her first column for the 'Charlotte Observer' in 1957, which show what a great gardener she must have been. She continues:

"But I don't need to tell you, if you are a gardener, that no other undertaking will give as much return for the amount of effort put into it."

(I am indebted to Bobby Ward, Exec. Sec., of the North American Rock Garden Society for his reference to this remarkable lady on Facebook, and this seems an appropriate quotation to introduce some thoughts on three of the AGS Shows we have attended this spring...)





The 'Rocky Flower Show', Queen Elizabeth School, W

Perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that the Alpine and Rock Garden Shows are amongst the best kept secrets in the horticultural world? Rather like the plants they champion they take you into a world of gardening away from the familiar, and yet many of the plants are extraordinarily beautiful, or subtle, sometimes just downright weird and wonderful. It is their diversity and detail which fascinates and catches the imagination - but why don't they fascinate more gardeners? 'Why', those of us who grow these plants ask - because we were all young once - 'is there not that same inquisitive nature now as there was in previous decades?'  Or is it there still but expressed in different ways? The range of plants listed in 'The Plantfinder' is as extensive as ever, the interest in our environment and the Natural History of the world more informed every day, and yet the plants that express this most - because of the mountains and woodlands they come from - don't grasp the imagination of gardeners as they have in the past, or at least fewer people discover them at the Alpine and Rock Garden Shows.

The oft expressed view is that there is less time to garden now-a-days but this begs the question of what value is placed on a garden - not only in terms of the relief it provides from a busy lifestyle, but more fundamentally, in what it teaches about the realities of the world. I can only describe this from the personal inspiration it brings to me, so this is a closer look at three of the Alpine Garden Society Shows we have attended this spring - each an unique occasion for the place and people involved, but together a cornucopia of plants that it would be hard to find elsewhere; the result of skill and dedication in cultivation which says a lot about our horticultural heritage.

Silene hookeri - an exquisite salmon-pink form grown by Ian Robertson and shown at the 'Rocky Flower Show' at Wimborne in Dorset, last Saturday.

Silene hookeri.

The 'Rocky Flower Show' at Wimborne in Dorset. Saturday May 28th, 2016.

I will start here for several reasons: first it is the most recent Show we have visited and taken plants to; second it is held in the most superb venue - the Queen Elizabeth School at Wimborne - with space and light and architectural innovation; and third it has a certain autonomy which comes across in its name and in the energy of those who are involved in running it, which invites new gardeners to come along. The alpine shows can appear exclusive and the way they are presented to a wider audience is they way they will thrive.

Interestingly at this Show in Dorset on a May bank holiday Saturday, Paul Barney - who runs Edulis Plants ( and has travelled the world discovering and introducing plants - said to me that it was the edible plants he grows that really capture the attention of the informed younger audience of gardeners that he meets. There is nothing discouraging about that, in fact it shows how much genuine interest and value a younger generation does place on plants. And yet if you do have, and always have had, a passion and skill in growing plants (as Paul does and so do the other specialist nurseries who attended the Show, as well as everyone who exhibits plants), it is the whole world of plants which captivates; the origins of plants, an understanding of these places, climates and ecologies, and from this a greater sense of how our gardens are really microcosms of the wider world. It may be a cliché, but a very profound one, to say that this equates with Darwin's famous quote of 'the entangled bank', and it would be too much to say that the Alpine and Rock Garden Shows have this full depth of scientific enquiry. But of all plant events they come closest to this, so to inform and attract a new audience to them would be so stimulating in all sorts of ways.

Amongst the plants at the 'Rocky Flower Show' Paul Barney had these two very contrasting but immensely appealing species (to me): the W. Mediterranean scrubby Kermes oak, Quercus coccifera, and a chance seedling of the woodland Disporum cantoniense from Manipur, but an especially robust form with the loveliest of soft-pink flowers, 'Blueberry Bere'.

Quercus coccifera Disporum cantoniense 'Blueberry Bere' (Edulis Plan

The Kermes oak is a surprise to those who know only our native species. Historically though it has as great resonance, a famous red dye is/has been made from the insects which infest this species of oak and make galls. For the gardener though it is the distinctive holly-like foliage and habit of this plant which appeals, and for a hot and dry south-east garden like ours it can add another touch of the Mediterranean to plantings with species such as cistus, phlomis, salvias and much else.

Add to these two plants the rare and historical dwarf rose, Rosa 'Roulettii', which Keith & Rachel Lever (Aberconwy) had for sale, an unique mutation of the China rose which is the progenitor of most miniature roses and is small enough to grow in a trough, and you span half the world in just three plants! (This picture of Aberconwy's stand shows also several of the finest plants-people at the Show: along with Rachel, Paul Cumbleton, Keith Wiley, and Jon Evans - whose detailed photographic record of the plants exhibited at the Show will be found on the Discussion pages of the website, really helpful to refresh the memory and names, and to acknowledge everyone who shows the plants! A lot of horticultural endeavour in one picture!!).

( be continued)

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