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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 24 November 2016 by Tim Ingram

Autumn Reflections - the Kent Alpine Show

Most of the autumn leaves have dropped now and there are still a few late flowers on fuchsias and Saxifraga fortunei, but the first frosts can't be far away and winter is just around the corner. 

Saxifraga fortunei

The past couple of months have been quite eventful and positive in gardening ways (as well as highly negative in political ones), so I thought I would spend the next few Diary entries looking back, and then forward to work in the garden clearing and preparing for the snowdrops to come. 

First though I will return to the Autumn Kent AGS Show at Sutton Valence, having only shown that one picture of the exquisite white form of Crocus banaticus. For those readers who may not be members of the Alpine Garden Society, this event (held on Saturday 22nd October 2016 - remember this for next year! Saturday 21st October 2017) belies the view that autumn is not a time full of floral interest. Not only that, it is also a time ideal to plant woodland and other perennials, including many alpines, and a real opportunity to extend the interest of the gardening year. This really came across at the Show with a wonderful - and surprising - variety of plants on display and a wide range available from specialist nurseries, plus a very enjoyable atmosphere and much more encompassing audience than I remember from the recent past (this is no reflection on past Shows which have always been exciting for the plantsman, but gained less support from the previous venue and public alike). A good day in other words

Jon Evans has already given an in depth photographic record of the Show on the Discussion Pages of the website, so this will just be a personal selection of highlights, starting with this typically fine flower arrangement by Lee (and Julie) Martin, which sums up the variety of species flowering still in late October.


Transpose this image to the individual plants on display across the Show and you have this beautiful array of crocuses, nerines, sternbergias, autumn snowdrops and cyclamen - as well as those archetypal alpine cushion species which are a particular delight for the rock gardener and lover of mountains and wide open spaces. Autumn bulbs may steal the show but there are plenty of other plants of great interest to catch the eye.

Autumn Kent AGS Show, at Sutton Valence, October 2

Crocus species are quite ephemeral in flower and so lend themselves especially to display like this (when the timing is right - which it certainly was this year), when their simple beauty is perfectly expressed. These are just a couple of examples: Crocus cartwrightianus in a particularly striking form from Lee and Julie Martin...

Crocus cartwrightianus

... and the pure white Crocus boryi, one of an exquisite trio of plants from George Elder which really stood out for the purity of their flowers.

Crocus boryi

Bob and Rannveig Wallis have such a skill in growing bulbs, and grow such a diversity of them, that they must (and must have) inspired a whole gamut of other gardeners to be drawn into growing and exhibiting alpine plants - and most of all to really observe them in detail. As at so many AGS Shows the plants they bring always stand out and thrill, and these are two examples: the rare and tender Cyclamen rohlfsianum from  Libya - so striking in this already unique and special genus of plants that has a place in any true gardener's affections...

Cyclamen rohlfsianum

... and variation within Cyclamen graecum (subsp. candicans). This latter can be grown in the garden but rarely flowers well, unless benefiting from the stored heat and moisture amongst rocks, so is much better appreciated grown for exhibition like this, in an alpine house or frame.

Cyclamen graecum subsp. candicans

Cyclamen are infinitely variable in leaf - in the way of snowflakes - and this is another and tiny example of the  same subspecies grown by that other great aficianado of the genus, Ian Robertson, and shown at the Loughborough AGS Show at the beginning of October.

Cyclamen graecum subsp. candicans

For completeness, and acknowledgement of the extraordinary skill Bob and Rannveig have in growing bulbs,  here is a collection of their plants at the Fritillaria Group meeting held at Theydon Bois in Essex the day after the Loughborough Show. The biggest plants here are several decades old and will have delighted AGS members for most of those years!

At the Fritillaria Group meeting, October 2016.

Even though these two species are not really plants for the garden, Cyclamen in general are amongst the most valuable and reliable of all garden plants, as well as for the more rarified world of horticultural exhibition. The autumn flowering C. hederifolium will be the most well known of all, perfect in dry shady spots where little else will grow, such as beneath this crab-apple in our garden...

Cyclamen hederifolium

This picture shows some of the variation in leaf and flower, originally from seed obtained from that great plantsman Jim Archibald and selecting out plants from hundreds of seedlings. Even this is only a small indication of its variability.

Cyclamen hederifolium

Elsewhere we grow it in an open bed in full sun devoted to bulbs and summer perennials, where it consorts well with the Greek Crocus goulimyi.

Cyclamen hederifolium and Crocus goulimyi

Finally here is one other, usually relatively tender, genus which contrasts with many others that are more familiar, Oxalis. These are three examples grown by Keith and Rachel Lever at Aberconwy Nursery. Some are annoying weeds, but others make good flowering plants for the autumn alpine house.

Oxalis species

For me one of the great highlights, and surprises, at the Show was to see a range of the New Zealand Celmisia species, brought along by Alan Furness from Hexham (whose garden I'd marvelled at when returning from the joint AGS/SRGC Alpine Conference held at Edinburgh in 2001). They are next to impossible to grow down in the summer hot and dry south-east, so added particular excitement to the day. This is a close-up of the foliage of a selected seedling from Celmisia semi-cordata subsp. aurigens, along with Alan's notes, and then a wonderful potful showing the variation of this plant.

Celmisia semi-cordata subsp. aurigens Celmisia semi-cordata subsp. aurigens - variation

A week or two later, on a visit to Ireland (which more of anon) it was interesting to see the famous form Celmisia 'David Shackleton' growing happily outside at Jimi Blake's remarkable garden, Hunting Brook, not far from Dublin, a reminder of how climate has such an influence on success and failure in growing choice plants such as this.

Celmisia 'David Shackleton'

On one side of the Hall the cognescenti share and discuss their plants in the Show itself, and on the other everyone - including a good number of visitors who were not members of the Alpine Garden Society but do have that same deep fascination in plants and the Natural World - congregated, bought plants from the specialist nurseries and probably talked of other things. In fact a great diversity of people came to the Show, both young and old, a good number local to the area who probably have never seen many of these plants before that those of us who have belonged to the AGS for a lifetime find so enthralling, and (as I have mentioned before at the East Anglia Alpine Show back in the summer) some of the finest and most respected horticulturists and plantsmen of our age. This says something about the specialist plant societies in general that the media might take more notice of - the very wide ranging talents and professions that they represent and share, and how gardening can be such a common motivation.

Those readers who look on Facebook and the Social Media may like to look here - - for future reference to Alpine Garden Society Shows, if you have not found this link. At this Autumn Show in Sutton Valence the buzz came very much from the caterer's and crafts and local connections that Adrian and Samantha Cooper (who organised the event) have, as well as the plants, and that is not always an easy thing to achieve. These did make the day very enjoyable for visitors, as well as members like ourselves, and great thanks are due to them.

Next to the Show itself the alpine team at Wisley made a fine display, enabling visitors to view plants whilst the exhibited plants were being judged; these are a couple of views, along with a close-up of the petite Nerine humilis, which particularly caught my eye.

Nerine humilis

Finally what lies closest to my heart as a gardener and nurseryman (and now Diarist); the plants available for sale from specialist nurseries! Next to us Keith and Rachel Lever - Aberconwy Nursery - had their perennially, beautifully grown, and remarkably diverse range of plants, especially these autumn gentians... and also some fine alpine ferns.

Across the way in another Hall, Hartside Garden Nursery from high in the Cumbrian Hills, had a fascinating collection of alpine Geranium hybrids which I'd not seen before, recalling the famous G. 'Ballerina' bred by Alan Bloom many years ago. It will be interesting to see if some of these make such good garden plants and they could add greatly to the rock garden in the same way that the larger geraniums do to the perennial border. 

And next to them, Cotswald Garden Flowers, Bob Brown's eclectic and always stimulating range of plants - which can take the garden to places the gardener might not ever imagine. Here late colour from more robust perennials and the rare and special Euphorbia stygiana, a critically endangered plant from the Azores which may well now grow in larger numbers in gardens than in Nature. 

This shows the value of growing endangered plants in gardens and collecting and distributing seed, with always the prospect that populations can be recovered in the wild by greater publicity and knowledge of them. The picture below shows the same species growing in Derry Watkins garden, 'Special Plants' near to Bath, which I visited recently. Derry grows this - but not Euphorbia mellifera, with which it so easily hybridises - and is able to collect modest amounts of true breeding seed.

The final picture I am going to show illustrates the very broad interests held by members of the Alpine Garden Society, probably not realised by many people who just see the word 'Alpine'. This is the very unusual New Zealand mountain conifer Phyllocladus alpinus 'Highlander', grown by Janine Doulton, better known for her interest in Narcissus. For most gardeners this is a plant that would be overlooked but for anyone who views the plant world with a more considered eye it is both fascinating and leads you to discover more.

Phyllocladus alpinus 'Highlander'
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