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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 29 September 2014 by Tim Ingram

Autumn AGS Show in Kent

An Alpine Show may hardly be high theatre, except for those that participate, but there is theatre about it, and this must have an influence on the feelings visitors come away with. These are some lines from Churchill, actually referred to as an apology (although it's hard to see why), and which put the viewer rather than the actors at centre stage:

The stage I choose, a subject fair and free

'Tis yours - 'tis mine - 'tis public property.

All common exhibitions open lie

For praise or censure, to the common eye.

I suppose that might sound twee, and it does come from a book of quotations published in 1920, but as a place to start it has value.

What can you say about an event like the AGS Autumn Show in the South when you look at it in the round? And how would the common eye see it? The following are my best efforts, and if apologies are needed they are only in the fact that we don't make enough of this theatre that we put together. There is more to it than just an exhibition of plants - especially if you are a nurseryman - but for the visitors this is just the impression thay may take away. There are certainly ways it can become more attractive, with, to view it as a play, more characters involved.

First of all there is nowhere in Kent that you would find such horticultural delights in the autumn if your ken is the diversity of bulbs and woodland perennials that bring the garden so much more excitement through the winter and spring. Despite the fact that autumn planting has lost the importance it once had before the instant appeal of plants in pots, autumn still is the best time  to plant bulbs and so many other flowers whilst the soil is moist (or can easily be made so) and warm and will remain so for many more weeks. And those plants, just these I mention, that are naturally adapted to grow and flower through the cooler months will be in their element.

Just look for example at this selection of erythroniums and trilliums from Neil and Sue Huntley (Hartside Nursery Garden), who regularly make the little journey down to Kent from the North Pennines! Where else would you find seed raised plants of the pink form of Trillium grandiflorum or a deep pink selection of the rare Manipur lily, L. mackinlae, first introduced by the incomparable plant explorer Frank Kingdon-Ward in the 1920's? Given care these will bring magic to the garden that you rarely ever see at no more cost than a meal out at the local pub. Primula reidii williamsii, discussed in the latest AGS Journal, is sweetly scented and completely beautiful in flower: not necessarily easy to grow (especially in the drier south) but it has been maintained by collecting and sowing seed ever since its first introduction in the late nineteenth century. 


Forms and hybrids of the Martagon lily, here from Jacques Amand, are amongst the easiest and most reliable of all lilies in the garden, often self-seeding in dappled shade. Damp packed bulbs like these are far better for planting, and a much better investment, than dried out loose bulbs often found at Garden Centres, and another good reason to frequent specialist Shows like this one. The range of bulbs at Rainham this year was the equal of anywhere, and anyone who has become hooked on snowdrops and crocus in particular will know how much they light up the winter garden.

This pot of Sternbergia sicula, a lovely form of the species well over 20 years old, was sitting next to the bulbs available from Rannveig (Wallis) - Buried Treasure - and you will see later several of the fine plants exhibited by Bob and Rannveig. For as long as I remember they have been an inspiration to everyone for the wonder and variety of bulbs they grow in ways that most of us can only marvel at. The opportunity to see plants like this is what makes the Alpine Shows irresistible to anyone who really delights in the detail of plants.

(one often makes errors when one transcribes - the Manipur lily was introduced in the 1940's; see an earlier diary entry for more details).

It is also a great time to see what is flowering now, and again there is so much more than many gardeners will appreciate. The trademark of the Autumn Shows must be the cyclamen. Some of the plants on display are decades old and exquisitely presented (for specific details please see the photographs posted by Jon Evans and on the Show section of the website). Many though are reliable and long lived in the garden too. Here they have a different sort of charm and over time appear in unexpected places - and increase - from seed distributed by ants or the imaginative gardener. I'm not sure about the very dark forms of C. hederifolium? They certainly stand out at the Show but are less effective in the garden than massed displays, such as those shown below around an old crab apple.

Mind you a garden also has its wildlife. Fortunately cyclamen are rarely damaged in the way other bulbs such as crocus often are, unless the dog gets it into his head to dig out a hole like this one!

In the garden too the foliage of C. hederifolium can be a great feature over autumn and winter - especially silvered forms derived from the Bowles' Apollo Group (these originated from selected seed from Jim and Jenny Archibald, but are easily raised from fresh seed available from the Alpine Societies exchanges and from the Cyclamen Society). You can never have enough of this autumn cyclamen in the garden!

Admittedly many of the other cyclamen on display need, or are much better, grown with the protection of an alpine house or deep frame. A few - especially these selected Tilebarn forms of C. mirabile - have such delicate and individual beauty that they are perfect grown in pots, even if they will establish with care in the garden.

Cyclamen are perhaps a rare example of how the wild charm of natural species can actually be enhanced in cultivation, even though so many people are drawn to the blowsy flowers of florist's C. persicum

Although the large specimens of cyclamen in full flower are magnificent - and heirloom plants - I must say I particularly liked this rarer specimen of C. rohlfsianum and some of the smaller pots in which the individual flowers radiate charm.

Taking this way of looking at plants further even the smallest of specimens, if naturally delicate and not commonly seen - here Primulina (Chirita) tamiana complemented by a very special pot - can be immensely appealing. Small is definitely beautiful in more ways than one.

There is no doubt that a finely grown and mature plant - here Ian Robertson's C. graecum ssp. anatolicum - will win the Farrer medal at a Show like this: to have grown a plant for many years and present it in such pristine and full flower is a marvel of cultivation. For the viewer though, smaller plants, as beautifully presented, give the same sense of skill and care and equally embody the Alpine Shows. They also bring the benefit of increasing diversity in the plants displayed which will appeal to the 'common eye' (especially if suitable for the garden). I should say of course that those who exhibit such superb medal winning plants often also bring along many smaller and lovely things too. The Show categories that group plants are particularly enjoyable, especially when they have the variety in the second picture (from Don Peace).

This Crocus banaticus - which has an even more beautiful white form - is unique in the genus for the form of its flowers, and it will grow successfully in the garden too (indeed it self-sows from a humusy raised bed even in to the lawn in our garden), but to enjoy the detail of these quite transient flowers it is really so much better grown in a pot.

Other plants are much more suitable for the garden and although there was such a diversity of cyclamen at the Show there were none of that archetypal alpine flower, the autumn gentian. Displaying, and highlighting, good garden alpines is probably the biggest lack of the Show scene, which in the past has often relied on exhibits put together by the nurseries. One possibility would be to make a group display (as the Kent Groups did at the Kent Garden Show) which does show off plants in a more natural way to visitors.

The autumn gentians are certainly less easy to grow in the drier south than in the north of the country, and there are not the same traditions here, but they can be grown well - especially in gardens with acid and sandy soils and reasonable moisture, as well as in troughs and containers. There are also late flowering species such as G. septemfida and G. paradoxa (and some excellent hybrids) much more tolerant of varied soils and climate. Gentians will be on our agenda for 2015 and are of universal appeal to gardeners. The picture below shows the Willow Gentian, G. asclepidea, at Branklyn Garden this autumn: although it doesn't grow so well for us in dry Kent it is still a fine garden plant and well worth finding a good spot for.

(Before moving on it is worth showing these three pictures of crocus in Paul Powis' garden, taken a day or two after the Show. Crocus have such fleeting flowers that to exhibit them looking like this is often a matter of timing and luck, and few were displayed this year at Rainham. These three autumn species, though, just as the autumn gentians, can be glorious in the garden: the darkest form of C. speciosus, 'Oxonian'; closely related, C. pulchellus; and C. goulimyi. They benefit greatly from growing up through low mat forming plants - here helianthemums and Ceratostigma plumbaginoides - which support those fragile flowers and set them off).

A more general view of the Show gives an impression of the greater variety. The nerines in particular have a strong following and many are easily grown with the minimum of winter protection. The variation from vigorous and colourful hybrids like that shown to the petite species N. masoniorum (quite a surprise when you know only the easy garden N. bowdenii) is striking in the autumn.

Lovelier still, and a feature every year, is an assortment of alpine flowers from Lee and Julie Martin, which captures the essence of the Show in one immaculate arrangement. How many gardeners around the Medway towns and beyond missed out on seeing this?

Bob and Rannveig Wallis give the Show its edge, not only for the sheer quality of the bulbs they grow, but also the rarity and, at times, other characteristics too. The velvety spathes of Biarum pyrami on the right, as well as the more innocent looking yellow flowers of Empodium flexile (how many people have heard of either of these?), are, how do you say, less than fragrant! But the plants themselves are so interesting, even if it only the lovely pink Colchicum baytopiorum that most people would consider for their garden or alpine house.

These skills in growing the plants can also translate into painting them - here the white spring Sternbergia candida (Rannveig Wallis) and an Ophrys (Caroline Jackson-Houlston).

The Art display at the Show (and other venues) has been promoted by Jon Evans, and is as strong a feature as the plants on display in many ways. These are a couple of examples of photographs: a series of plants in habitat in Argentina (Joan and Liam McCaughey); and Scilla dracomontana growing horizontally from a rocky crevice in the Sani Pass, Lesotho (Ian Smith).

At the end of this rather long entry I would like to return to a couple of plants that make fine specimens to exhibit, but are also excellent garden plants: Sedum 'Rose Carpet' (Anne Vale) and Sempervivum arachnoideum (Michael Sullivan).

This was the theme of a display we made at the entrance to the Show. Alpines, rock plants, woodlanders - call them what you will - are equally compelling in a garden setting, especially in the ways they combine and associate with stone and each other. Even on the smallest scale of a trough they can catch the eye and make a small landscape - here with a range of silver saxifrages we were kindly given by David Hoare, who runs the Show. Many gardeners find these plants difficult to keep in the garden because they can be viewed as special and temperamental (some definitely are!), when learning a little more about them can lead to so much more success (and encouragement to grow more).

And here is a completely different example - a trough of acid loving plants in a shady spot in Paul Powis' garden. Even with no flowers this is fascinating, but just imagine it as the dwarf rhododendrons blossom next spring, or the saxifrages a little later this autumn.

Or you may be a connoisseur of the out of the ordinary and find this Aeschynanthus buxifolius from Aberconwy Nursery irresistible (I almost did!) - in a very mild garden this would do equally well outside in a cool trough, but more normally would require winter protection.

... a taste of the Autumn Show in Kent this year. There is a lot of work involved in preparing and dismantling before and after and it is the attraction that the Show has to visitors, as much as for those who grow the plants, that makes this especially worthwhile.

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