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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 06 September 2014 by Tim Ingram

Marshborough Farmhouse & Sussex Prairies

Farmers are also often fine gardeners. Agriculture and horticulture both result from an affinity with the landscape and climate and the changing seasons. Farms and gardens are regular venues for specialist plant sales and over the many years that the Kent Hardy Plant Society held a Flower Show and Fair we shared many such venues, notably Goodnestone Park as I described back in February.

This is an account of two gardens made by farmers in very different ways but both of significant interest to the plantsman. One, Marshborough Farmhouse not far from Sandwich in Kent, and the second, Sussex Prairies, which I referred to earlier. Autumn is not such a time for alpines but there are plenty of other plants to enjoy.

Marshborough Farmhouse


The Isle of Thanet in the north-east of Kent is a large area of low lying land that has been farmed for millenia and is one of the most productive parts of the country. David and Sarah Ash have farmed here since the 1960's growing vegetables, cereals and fruit. Some 18 years ago they converted three old farm cottages into a home and have developed a remarkable garden with many rare and unusual plants. This picture gives some idea of the site back when they began to compare with the garden now.

The climate is mild, mild enough to grow Cordyline australis to the sort of size you rarely see except in coastal gardens in the west, and fuchsias that are never cut back by the winter weather and develop into small trees. Someone who has farmed hundreds of acres is less likely to become hooked on alpine plants, but there are some nice touches in this garden - a small raised bed near to the house with a lovely clump of the autumn snowflake, and good containers of sempervivums - as well as the structure and design of the garden around the house which has that detail, with troughs and specimen plants, so reminiscent of many alpine gardens.

This picture shows the relatively hardy silver leaved 'tea tree', Leptospermum lanigerum (or myrtifolium?), an example of one of many fascinating Antipodean shrubs in the garden.

It is the variety of really rare plants which really catches the attention, illustrated well by this beautiful specimen of Arbutus xalapensis, a relative of the Californian Madrona, which occurs in scattered locations further east in Texas and New Mexico, and through Mexico itself and as far south as Nicaragua.

Near to this, in the hedge, grows a wonderfully free-flowering large leaved hawthorn (Crateagus), and it has been a particularly good year for berry and fruit set in general. 

The seating area next to the house must be delightfully perfumed earlier in the year when the Trachelospermum on the pergola is in full flower. Of all the plants here it was a soft-blue, glabrous echium that caught my eye, and next to it a curious variegated form of Tibouchina. These two in flower together would make a memorable sight.

I will leave Marshborough with these two pictures of my mystery plant for September - a useful small late-flowering shrub which I half recognized but had to search for the name. For anyone interested in visiting the garden it is opened for the National Gardens Scheme by appointment.

Sussex Prairies Plant & Art Fair

This is the second year we have been to this event and it was a sunny and enjoyable day. These first few pictures capture something of the essence of the garden, and one of the most delightful aspects is that you can walk in amongst the bold plantings of perennials: the plants may be exotic but the feeling of the garden is very natural.

(Aster macrophyllus 'Twilight')

The last picture shows what an excellent venue this is for a Plant Fair and it is organised with great care and aplomb by Paul and Pauline McBride, helped by many of their friends - so although the scale is quite large the atmosphere is very homely (the garden is beautifully photographed on their website by Marianne Majerus). Rather than describe the garden - which speaks for itself - I would like to show some of the nurseries attending which make it such a unique day.

Here for example are some plants from Beth Chatto's Garden, nicely arranged as you would expect, in the moments just before the first of several thousand visitors arrived. And secondly the sort of picture that warms a nurseryman's heart, even if many people simply wander past...

Alpines of course are particularly specialist amongst specialist plants, but we weren't quite on our own. Philip Johnson (also well known for a long held interest in sweet peas) grows a variety of rock plants, and the large strawberry pot on the corner of the stand, planted with sempervivums, must rival  some of the heaviest specimens exhibited at AGS Shows.

Steve Law - Brighton Plants - also grows a variety of dry-land alpines (such as penstemons) amongst a much more eclectic mix of unusual perennials and woody plants: these included Jamesia americana, a monotypic relative of Carpentaria with clusters of waxy white flowers (Bean also mentions a pink form, 'Rosea'), and the newly introduced Chinese Aralia echinocaulis. Just by contrast near to his stand was a collection of renewed garden implements (from Ian Swain), given that 'edge' that comes from being well worn in. The definition of 'luddite' (his website is www.the is not too far away from Don Quixote tilting at windmills, but for the gardener these tools speak craftsmanship.

The nurseries included such well known and respected plants-people as Derry Watkins (Special Plants) and Tom Mitchell (Evolution Plants), as well as a near neighbour of ours in Kent, Madrona. The plants of Fascicularia typify the rare and unusual species that Liam and Ylva grow so well.

Finally to return near to where I started this diary entry, this is Steve Edney, the horticultural driving force behind the Salutation Garden in Sandwich, which was so seriously affected by flooding this winter.  Like David and Sarah Ash, Steve also has a family background in farming in north-east Kent and is an amazingly talented gardener with a great ability to enthuse others.

Perhaps it is not so much of a coincidence that a group of Kentish nurseries will be holding a Plant Fair at Sandwich in a week or so's time, and the town is something of a horticultural enclave on the east Kent coast. We hope to interest some of these gardeners in alpine plants, the AGS, and our local Group that meets so close by. The Autumn Show South at Rainham at the end of the month will get a strong mention!

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