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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 10 October 2014 by Tim Ingram

Alpine Plants at Great Dixter?

Think of a garden like Great Dixter and alpines are not the first plants that come to mind. At the time Dixter was laid out by Edwin Lutyens and Nathaniel Lloyd though, with the writings of William Robinson, Gertrude Jekyll and Reginald Farrer to the fore, rock gardening did have a strong following. Now-a-days it occurs on a more intimate and private scale, except at places such as Kew and Edinburgh as I have described. Those who do grow alpines comment regularly that they are ideal plants for small gardens, but on the whole those with small gardens do not grow them. Those who do have more an expansiveness of mind than acres, and are often widely travelled and quite cosmopolitan. The plants cross boundaries rather than making them.

So, Alpine Plants at the Autumn Plant Fair at Great Dixter? A surprise or actually quite appropriate? At least three of the nurseries and gardeners attending do specialise in these plants and several more have an interest in them. It could be that the fashion for rock gardens of a century or more ago is finding a new form in the present day, less hampered by tradition but still desirous of learning from the past and contemplating the great beauty of these plants.

The unexpressed debate in the Alpine Garden Society is essentially between those whose primary interest is in growing and studying alpines - and woodland perennials - closely and for exhibition and display - and also who travel to see them in the wild - and a broader group of gardeners who grow a wider range of plants as well, and in a garden setting, but do view them in more botanical ways than the majority in other societies. In addition there are those who don't know about these plants - or as Ross put it at Great Dixter, who don't yet know how interested they are in them! The 'piggy in the middle' is the nurseryman who tries to cater to many tastes, but prefers his own. A garden like Great Dixter may not contain many alpines but it has that diversity and cultural 'know how' which is little different to that found within the specialist societies, if expressed with far more panache. So this Autumn Plant Fair at Great Dixter, which brought together nurseries and plants from as far away as the south of France and Sweden, Germany and Scotland, had great appeal to plants-people - including a few who are captivated by alpines - and to those who work professionally with plants in different ways. There may be a fundamental difference between an Alpine Show and a Plant Fair like this, but the latter can bring alpines to the attention of a whole new group of gardeners in ways that the former generally do not.

Opposite us at Great Dixter was the German alpine specialists, Staudengärtneri Peters. Their stand  was largely devoted to a range of cultivars of the autumn flowering Saxifraga cortusifolia and fortunei


A wide variety of these plants are grown in Japan, but their late flowering habit makes them less suitable for the garden than for display, where they can be admired under cover. Breeding, both in Japan and at the Peter's nursery, has aimed at selecting for earlier flowering forms that can be much more effective in the garden, and equally for attractive foliage which is an important feature of these plants year round. Such a variety of forms is at first hard to take in and for me it is the plants with starry flowers, closer to the natural species, that hold the most charm. These are just a few examples (more details can be found at

... and 'Ajyhna', which I found particularly attractive.

In cool woodland shade, not too dry in summer, these plants have great style and presence and bring surprise with their flowers late into autumn. Like many late flowering genera (asters and actaea/cimicifuga spring to mind) they retain good foliage right through the year, but need the right conditions to give of their best. Along with these woodland saxifrages the Peters nursery also grows very many choice hepaticas - again showing the connection to horticulture in Japan (and to John Massey at Ashwood and to Edrom nurseries in the UK).

For the alpine grower there were forms of Gentiana 'acaulis' and verna, a great feature of the Czech rock gardens at the Conference held by the CZRGS in May 2013.

Across from this nursery was Peter Korn from Sweden, who spoke about his gardening at the meeting in the Czech Republic last year, and takes growing alpines to a new level in the 21st century with his strong affinity to natural landscapes and 'biotype' gardening. He grows some fascinating plants!

Bring Peter together with Fergus Garrett at Great Dixter and you have two gardeners as different as you can imagine in their styles of gardening but with a spirit of adventure exactly the same. 

These plants inevitably have very specialist appeal, but given the simple expedients of using sand, screes and crevice gardening - plus a lot of imagination and experiment - many are not really difficult to grow and are completely enchanting in the garden. I picked up a collection of species Pulsatilla from Peter, which with gentians must impress all gardeners, alpine or not, when in full flower. A nice feature of the Dixter Fair is the short talks given by different nursery-people over the two days (similar incidentally to the 'Rocky Flower Show' - AGS Summer Show South - held at Wimborne in Dorset every year), and fortunately for us Peter played this role for alpines! None-the-less it was good to discuss these plants with quite a few gardeners who had a serious interest in growing and learning about them.

For many years I have wanted to visit Old Court Nurseries, next to the Malvern Hills, at Aster time, so it was a delight to meet with Helen Picton and Ross Barbour, not only to see their plants but also to talk about alpine gardening. Not too many of these were left at the end of the weekend, and I can't be the only one to look forward to following the progress of the new alpine planting Ross aims to develop at Old Court (even if, like me, he might wonder at times who reads these diaries on the website).

Bring so many interesting nurseries and plants together at such a well known garden -  and with rather unique style - and plenty of pretty interesting gardeners turn up too. There were two that were particularly nice to meet again. One was Elizabeth Strangman whose Washfield Nursery at Hawkhurst had such horticultural impact in Kent and further afield, and was simply one of the most delightful and stimulating places to visit for any plants-person. I think Liz felt there was a little too much going on at the Plant Fair and she could well be right: when you grow and propagate plants for a living your sense of time and gardening is rather different, but on the other hand it is so nice to have such an appreciative audience! And secondly it was a surprise to meet with Hester Forde, who has run the combined AGS/HPS Group in Cork for many years, and is part of that small but thriving group of enthusiastic gardeners in Ireland, north and south.

The nurseries present over the weekend included Crûg Farm, Cotswald Garden Flowers and Evolution Plants, with a truly remarkable variety of plants. For visitors though the overseas growers made the event a real European affair. Dino Pellizzaro from France presented an extraordinary mix of tender shrubs and species pelargoniums (which resulted in a lot of horticultural and botanical head-scratching), plus this little collection of puyas and other bromeliads.

From the Netherlands Kwererij Arborealis had a few alpine ericaceae (we picked up Cassiope 'Snow Wreath), as well as a superb collection of trees and shrubs - a mix of oak species are shown below.

Finally I must mention Beth Chatto, a great friend of Christopher Lloyd and Dixter, and who shares, as he did too, such strong affection and regard from so many gardeners, as well as being a particular inspiration for our own relatively dry garden in north Kent.

Great Dixter in the autumn is a colourful and exuberant place with plants far away from the alpines that captivate members of the AGS. For the gardener it holds a special appeal because of its personality, ideas and experiment, which is actually not so different to rock gardening in outlook. As a result it teaches as much as delights the visitor and confirms Christo's classic writing, 'The Well- Tempered Garden'.

Dixter also gives young gardeners the opportunity to learn and to express their artistic talents to the full - and gardening is most certainly an art as well as a craft - so I will finish with these two simple arrangements of flowers made by a past student of the garden...

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