Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: 09 November 2014 by Tim Ingram
The North York Moors
Half term and a few days away exploring the North York Moors not far from where one of our daughters is studying at University. This is a region of rolling hills and secluded valleys, heavily planted by the Forestry Commission in earlier days with conifers, but also retaining natural deciduous woodland such as parts of the Bridestone Nature Reserve, cared for by the National Trust. We stayed at a small sheep farm surrounded by the Dalby Forest, with those rather beautiful old stone walls which immediately set up a train of thought about making rock gardens.
The woods nearby are largely coniferous, sometimes dark with that very limited ecology that goes with them, but on occasion a wonderful moss flora where there is reasonable light and moisture.
In rougher areas and alongside streams where more natural deciduous woodland prevails there are those mixes of ferns and understorey plants which can be so delightful - and occasionally striking patches of lichens like that shown on an old decaying tree stump.
Even though much of the woodland is coniferous and relatively homogeneous, where the larches are turning and small farms sit in the valleys below, it is a charming and varied place to explore.
For the metaphorical 'tree-hugger' there are specimens to admire, and the occasional houses and farms built with the local stone which appeal greatly to a southerner who gets a welcome which rather belies the north-south divide. Given stone like this and a prelediction for hills and plants it is easy to see how someone like Reginald Farrer found his muse. A couple of days is hardly enough to take much in but we will be back and see if we can persuade the girls that a trip to Harlow Carr is warranted.
A Master Class in Growing and Showing
At the Mid-Kent Group meeting on Friday Jim Almond showed how wonderfully he grows alpines (and especially Juno irises!), but particularly for myself the excitement of raising plants from seed. This has been less on our agenda over the past year or two with a need to work on the garden and rebuild the nursery, but it is fascinating when you do get good seed set on less common plants such as Eucomis vandemeyerei (ex. Darren Sleep) and Narcissus pannizianus (originally from Jim & Jenny Archibald, and which has self-sown in the garden in a warm spot).
Jim Almond's talk was superbly structured and presented, and thoroughly inspirational even if you may not be so involved with exhibiting plants. He made an interesting point about plants that self-seed in the garden with reference to Cyclamen libanoticum and C. pseudibericum. Both of these, especially the latter (shown below), have seeded and spread in our garden, even though often regarded as tender and rare, and over time seedlings are likely to become adapted to particular garden conditions, as well as the gardener becoming more attuned to different plants and their needs.
The most amazing picture of all that he showed though was his collection of Juno irises waiting to be put back into the boot of the car at one of the Shows - hard to believe they could possibly fit in!
At the same meeting Mike and Hazel Brett, who ran the Mid-Kent Group for so many years and have made what must be one of the finest rock gardens in the south of England, brought along old copies of Bulletins of the New Zealand Alpine Garden Society and American Penstemon Society. I have never belonged to either of these (though tempted in the past, along with other specialist groups), but just on skimming through them they make fascinating reading. Here are a few examples. In the NZAGS Bulletin No. 75 (Dec. 2000) Lesley Cox writes, in her forthright and reasoned way, about how bureaucratic red tape has made it almost impossible to import seeds and plants into New Zealand (there are good reasons for this of course, but they can be arguably over-zealous): 'Why should we, in New Zealand, grow our own plants?'. For alpine plants in particular specialist plant nurseries clearly play a vital role, and here as well, over and above the individual grower. That a similar debate is topical in the UK is evident from one of the lectures coming up at Kew: 'Plant Hunting. Does it have a future?'
It is always interesting to read and hear about alpines growing in a very different place and I can't help (I hope with the blessing of the NZAGS) reproducing this picture of the annual Gentiana concinna in the sub-Antarctic Auckland Islands (No. 66, June 1996). The article also mentions Helichrysum (now Anaphalioides) bellidioides, a superb 'everlasting' which I grew many years ago and would certianly like to grow again.
My first thought on viewing the Bulletin of the American Penstemon Society is of a genus that is thoroughly intriguing but also very tricky to grow successfully outside the much drier and nutrient poor conditions of their natural homes. This is true of a lot of the alpines we grow from dry climates but which often can succeed well in sand beds and the like. Although penstemons are particularly prone to fungal blight, when they do prosper they are glorious in flower. So more experimentation is worthwhile, especially with the smaller alpine species. Penstemon pinifolius is an example of a plant from a quite hostile and arid climate which does never-the-less adapt well to garden conditions.
Many really interesting gardeners and horticulturists do have a fascination with the genus and some fine plants have been introduced over the years - for example P. digitalis 'Husker Red' by Dale Lindgren at the University of Nebraska-North Platte.
For anyone who writes diaries or blogs like this one a notably nice feature of the Penstemon Bulletins is the 'Garden Reports'. The Dec. 1987 edition (which came close after the famous gale here in the UK) includes reports from gardeners in England, Germany, Denmark and Holland. Don Mann writes from Essex, and Deb Goodenough from Ventnor Botanic Garden on the Isle of Wight. I have mentioned W.H.G. Mann & Son's wholesale alpine nursery before. Deb Goodenough is a Canadian who trained at Denver Botanic Garden with Panayoti Kelaidis, before coming to Kew. We met briefly many years ago at an Hardy Plant Society event 'Success with Seed', involving amongst others Peter Thompson and Richard Bird, and organised by the then Chairlady of the HPS, Jane Sterndale-Bennett. Something rather intriguing about these connections between plants-people as well as penstemons! There could be a future for plant hunting so long as people remain interested in plants.
(Just have to add this little addendum after watching Brian Cox and Alice Roberts and Brian Blessed on BBC 4 tonight. A marvellous discussion with some amazing clips... but at one point Brian Cox said we want more science programmes, not more gardening programmes. Oh, how is it that gardening is nothing to do with science? I think we want 'better' gardening programmes in the sense that they are to do with science and exploration, and poetry - but there we are...)