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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 07 November 2017 by Tim Ingram

Marchants, Brighton Plants, Hilliers and polypodiums

It's a truism to say that the most stimulating aspect of gardening is discovering a new plant. In a way the whole of Botany is predicated on this and why should gardeners feel any less excited by plants? In horticulture then, it is the specialist nurseries that really attract the plants-person, the gardener who not only collects plants but does so for reasons that so closely connect to their diversity in the Natural World.


(Brighton Plants)

In October we invited Steve Law of Brighton Plants to speak to us on 'Thistles for the Garden'. Steve is a gardener and nurseryman with a strong scientific/ecological background who also has an eclectic interest in plants and grows many species which are rarely if ever seen in gardens. This was an excuse to visit his nursery, and also Graham Gough at Marchants not so far away, and as I will describe, the wider connections between plants-people that result.


This year is the 60th Anniversary of the East Kent Group of the AGS, which began with those significant gardeners such as Jack Elliott and Paul Furse, and amongst others, Hilda Davenport-Jones who ran Washfield Nursery at Hawkhurst. Washfield will be a treasured memory for many gardeners - and certainly for myself - where Elizabeth Strangman grew so many interesting and choice perennials, alpines, and woodland plants, which found their way to gardens right across the country, but especially in Kent and the south-east. Plants draw gardeners together so it was lovely to meet with Liz again at the Autumn Plant Fair at Great Dixter this October, and also (along with Kemal Mehdi, a lecturer at Hadlow College who carried out breeding with hellebores there as a part of the syllabus) at the Easter AGS Show at Sutton Valence. Here is the value of 'plant society'.

For many years Liz was helped at Washfield by Graham Gough. And so visiting Marchants now, where Graham has made such a remarkable garden with his partner Lucy Goffin, reminds me greatly of those times I travelled over to Hawkhurst and returned home with a boxful of new treasures for the garden. Amongst those plants I picked out at Marchants this time is a very good form of Scabiosa columbaria var. ochroleuca, the Japanese perennial Angelica edulis, and the unpronounceable Persicaria dschawachiswilii (which I was first introduced to by the Belgian landscape architect Denis Dujardin, who I will return to later). Graham has such a good eye for plants, which must go with his musical past and an innate artistic gardening talent. In autumn the grasses in the nursery and garden really come into their own...

... and late flowering species such as Salvia uliginosa are stunning on this heavy fertile moisture-retentive soil below the South Downs.

Protected in a tunnel in the nursery is a super collection of Nerine species and varieties...

... including this very beautiful N. pudica from West Cape Province.

Marchants is a place that many of us who propagate plants and make a garden would be more than happy to emulate!

Where Graham is quite canny and commercially astute, growers like ourselves and Steve Law at Brighton Plants come from a more botanical emphasis, perhaps illustrating those different perspectives of the arts and science when applied to plants. One very interesting species that both grow is the South African Salvia chameleagna, which despite its origins in the Cape of Good Hope seems reasonably hardy and very distinctive in flower and foliage.

The climate here near the south coast must be pretty mild and in few gardens would you see the Chilean Lobelia excelsa flowering, albeit with some winter protection.

Just below, tucked up tight against a wall, Steve grows this succulent Echeveria, and a number of these and related genera such as Dudleya and the Mexican Graptopetalum (Tacitus) bellum, will tolerate just a few degrees of frost They may not be so 'popular' at AGS Shows but certainly are as hardy as some of the Mediterranean-climate bulbs quite often exhibited, and must appeal to many 'alpine' gardeners.

This picture, taken in the summer in the garden of journalist Francine Raymond in Whitstable, shows how Echeveria (along with Sedum and Sempervivum) can be especially good in coastal places that experience little frost.

Such plants can be highly effective in shallow troughs too - this is an example at Great Dixter.

One of the reasons to visit Brighton Plants is a fellow interest in dryland shrubs which we are keen to use as we replant overgrown parts of the garden (a subject for a future Diary entry).  Examples are the Californian Buckeye, Aesculus californica - and Steve also grows the Eastern USA, A. pavia - and the rarely grown Ribes cereum, here pictured on the rock garden at Kew.

Others are the Californian Mahonia (Berberis) aff nevinii...

... the exquisite tree lupin Lupinus albifrons...

... and from Texas - and pushing our climatic limits - Buddleja marrubifolia, which rather expands traditional views of this genus.

Brighton Plants also list a good number of smaller alpine species, amongst which I am trying again Stachys lavandulifolia, the yellow Teucrium flavum and Linum hypericifolium. These are being planted with other similar plants in this new narrow sand bed in our front garden where once an ugly Leylandii hedge divided us from our neighbours.

Only by alpine gardeners and specialist nurseries growing these plants are they likely to be retained and distributed in cultivation, because few have commercial interest widely in horticulture. Yet to lose this diversity would diminish UK gardening.


Via Steve Law I have been introduced to an informal Group of professional horticulturists, from varied backgrounds, who meet occasionally at the Hilliers Arboretum in Hampshire. This picture, shared by Razvan Chisu on Facebook, shows some of this Hillier Lancaster Plant Group in March. It includes gardeners, plants-people, plant breeders, nurserymen and plant explorers - including of course, the great plantsman and broadcaster Roy Lancaster. 

As well as being quite surprised to meet Razvan here in the spring it was also nice to meet again with the plantsman and fern expert Tim Pyner (on the right), and then in the summer with Denis Dujardin, who via connections with Botanic Gardens in Eastern Europe and Russia has introduced some fascinating species that he uses in landscape projects. 

The real emphasis of the Group is woody plants - not surprisingly - but interests vary greatly, and it was founded in 2005 by Kevin Hobbs, head of Hillier Research and Development.

This example is Lavatera oblongifolia, endemic to the arid Baetic Mountains in SE Spain, brought along by Charles Valin, who works as a plant breeder for Thompson and Morgan.

Along with Tim Pyner, who writes regularly for 'The Pteridologist' (the British Pteridologial Society 'Fern Magazine'), the Group also includes another great fern expert, Julian Reed, who holds a National Collection of the genus Polypodium. At Great Dixter in October Julian made a striking display of some of the collection he grows and this drew great interest amongst nurserymen present. 

Many polypodies are valuable ferns for dryish to dry situations because of their often summer dormant/wintergreen and epiphytic growth habits. And long collection of aberrant forms has resulted in remarkable diversity. At the most extreme polypodies can have the intricately cut fronds of these examples...

... and they can have a long horticultural history; this is P. cambricum 'Richard Kayse' discovered near to Cardiff in 1668.

They are particularly beautiful and well suited to growing in hanging baskets as shown here.

Dixter is really another story but this picture speaks for itself, and the Autumn Plant Fair has that comfortable and friendly ambience that only a well planted garden and a love of plants can bring, at a time when it is still a good time to plant whilst the soil remains moist and warm into late autumn - a fine opportunity to meet with old friends and new. 


For the alpine purist this may seem a Diary entry hardly related to the plants celebrated by the AGS, but very many members will be plants-people first and alpine gardeners second, and there is often debate about the very name and scope of the society because of its unique appeal to those of us who have this depth of interest in plants in general. For the gardener it is an entry to do with the friendships that gardening instils.

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