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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 25 October 2014 by Tim Ingram

Under the Apples

A garden is a place of change and development as it becomes more mature. Sometimes the weather brings this about with drought and storm - we get our fair share of these in Kent, though fortunately our particular garden is not subject to flood. At other times, in the same way as redecorating a room, areas need to be cleared and replanted at longish intervals. There is scope then to learn from past mistakes and make new ones! Like viewing a landscape though (I am just reading Oliver Rackham's magnum opus, 'Woodlands'), time and observation does give the garden a bit more clarity.  Different parts develop their own character, sometimes quite away from the original intentions of the gardener.

These rows of dwarf apples - planted over 30 years ago - are becoming a major feature of the spring garden by underplanting with snowdrops and a wide variety of woodland species and ferns. In naturalistic terms this makes sense as a garden grows, woody plants mature, and it effectively approaches woodland in parts itself. The ability to grow very many plants in a relatively small area is very like rock gardening, and so it is hardly surprising that the Alpine Garden Society has really as much interest in plants below the tree line as above it.

A lot can happen in the garden between February, when the snowdrops are in their full flush, and May as the fruit trees blossom and expand their leaves. The snowdrops presage what is to come, which must be part of the reason gardeners become hooked on such subtle differences between them. Two and a half of our apple rows are carpeted with these through the earliest months of the year, and an equal number are still not planted, which gives us a chance to expand the collection! In their natural state there is considerable variation within as well as between species, so galanthophiles can feel that nature supports their discerning eye, even if upwards of a thousand or more named snowdrop varieties does have something of the ridiculous about it. The plants that arise in your own garden, or that you discover in naturalised stands in the countryside are always likely to hold a personal appeal despite being little different to many others. 

Naturalised snowdrops, like those in Lorendon woods not far from us, grow in combination with nettles and brambles and other coarse vegetation. On the whole these are not so appreciated in the garden so we mix them with more ornamental perennials and woodlanders; in our case Brunnera macrophylla, Viola odorata, aquilegias, hostas, geraniums, hellebores, epimediums, ferns, and a whole lot more. The more vigorous and 'weedy' (i.e: self-seeding or spreading) of these are cleared away now for the snowdrop display next year. In the case of hellebores this also lessens the risk of incipient flower buds being eaten by mice, hidden beneath the old leaves, a big problem even if you have patrolling cats or terriers in the garden. The benefit of perennial cover over the snowdrops in summer is to lessen the risk of damage from narcissus fly and swift moths, whose larvae eat the bulbs. Once the woodland beds have been cleared and well mulched for winter, the prospect of what is to come in next months is greatly enhanced.

If rock, gravel and sand (and pumice, perlite and vermiculite), with only a little soil or leafmould, is the fare of many alpines, woodland plants live on a much richer diet. Good well rotted compost is little different to the tilth built up over years on the woodland floor and so these apple rows get a good top-dressing regularly.

Compost like this is a vital resource in a garden and we probably make upwards of 20 cubic metres each year, plus smaller amounts of pure leafmould (the latter takes a lot longer to break down). Each row of apples takes up around 4 cubic metres to top-dress thoroughly, and with other parts of the garden are refreshed every two or three years. It's hard not to regard home-made compost like this as equal in value to any of the plants in the garden.

Once mixes of woodlanders become more mature and give good year-round groundcover, as with this area at the entrance to our back garden, they are effectively self-supporting with little input apart from a general tidy-up each year. The skill, which can only take time, is in choosing plants that meld together well.

The rows of apples have enabled us to grow a widening range of slower and more choice woodlanders from trilliums and erythroniums to species hellebores and epimediums. Summer dry periods limit growing later flowering and more vigorous plants - cimicifugas for example don't keep good foliage and flower, and podophyllums are pretty much at the limit of their tolerance, not growing to their full potential - but we are testing some later flowering plants like Roscoea 'Red Gurkha' and the herbaceous Clematis heracleifolia 'Cassandra' pictured below. The Persicaria sp. (from Cally Gardens) has made a long flowering and effective specimen, with (so far anyway) not the invasive habit of other species.

 After earlier describing the woodland saxifrages grown by the German alpine nursery Staudengärtnerei Peters, several of these are being tried under the third row of apples, and in time we would like to introduce a wider variety of bulbs, especially narcissi, to follow on from the snowdrops. These plantings do take quite a bit of upkeep through the warmer months, but the long spring display coupled with blossoming of the trees make this well worthwhile. Winter now gives the chance to plan ahead for future plantings.

Just below the apples is this more truly woodland part of the garden which is treated in the same way and is beautifully scented early in the year by a large specimen of Azara microphylla. Here 'Sweet Cicely' (Myrrhis odorata) and Cyclamen hederifolium give good foliage now and in  late winter it lights up with the longest established stands of snowdrops and aconites in the garden.


'Autumn is a time of sweet disorder and permissible procrastination.'

(Allen Lacy,'The Garden in Autumn')

And he continues: 'Certainly in most of America, the best time to be in the garden is in the fall, even if only to do the chores. It is a kindly season, and a forgiving one, with its own special rhythms'.

This is especially true in regions with real winters and snow cover, but anyone who has walked through woodland kicking up the leaves will know what he means.



In our garden sedums contribute to the disorder, planted in a bed which is full of winter and spring bulbs. Here they self-sow in the gravelly soil, very different when viewed closely and the 'sharpness' of the individual flowers become apparent. These plants derive from a mix of Sedum telephium forms - several from Joe Sharman (Monksilver) with paler yellow and pink flowers, and the deeper coloured 'Purple Emperor' and 'Red Cauli' from Graham Gough (Marchants).

Garden fashion changes and in 'Perennial Garden Plants' (1976) Graham Stuart Thomas says of Sedum telephium: ' This British wild plant would scarcely find a place in our garden were it not for Gertrude Jekyll's selected clone 'Munstead Red': this is the soft-pink plant in the foreground of the picture below. The deeper red plant behind is 'Möhrchen', and the solidago an excellent form of S. rugosa named 'Fireworks', which gives Golden Rods a good name.

There is a jokey reference to sternbergias back in an old volume of the AGS Bulletin (see the Sternbergia thread on the SRGC Forum, where Oron Peri also shows a stunning picture of a wild plant in full flower!), and I think the reason is because this rather glorious autumn bulb is often very shy flowering in cultivation so when you see it on the showbench you have to conclude that the exhibitors are magicians. As John has intimated they probably are, but time is also a factor and the last couple of years have seen good flowering of this plant in a raised bed in our garden. The very mild and wet winter of 2013/14 and good warmth and dry spells through the summer has also contributed, and we have had relatively good flowering of Cyclamen graecum on the same bed - but a large old established plant which must have put its roots down deep. Other forms of C. graecum have never flowered but are as extraordinarily attractive foliage plants in the garden as they are on the showbench.

Foliage is a feature of so many alpines and a very narrow planting strip on the cool side of this raised bed gives a chance to grow a number of small ericaceous species such as Andromeda polifolia 'Blue Ice'. Unfortunately it doesn't have the space to spread so naturally as in the second picture growing in a bog at the Prague Botanic Garden.

(Here also was a super plant of Ledum at the time of the Czech Conference in early May 2013)

This is the bulb bed pictured in the winter of 2011/12 with a different sort of beauty but with the same sort of promise of the apple tree rows I have shown earlier. In milder spells a good time to get outside and do more clearing and structural work in the garden and think of new plantings.

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