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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 17 September 2016 by Tim Ingram

... continued.

Epping Forest Group 1966 - 2016

Kath Dryden VMH, Memorial Conference, Saturday 3rd September 2016.

The 50th Anniversary Conference of the Epping Forest AGS Group - named in memory of that great gardener and plantswoman, Kath Dryden, who so many people in the Society will have known and respected very highly - was a thoroughly enjoyable day. Many thanks to the Epping Forest and Essex Groups whose members organised the day, and especially Kit Strange from Kew, whose 'baby' it was!  We have our 60th Anniversary in Kent next year but I'm not sure we could emulate such an erudite line up of speakers, or draw in such a good audience. It could be that some gardeners would view the rarified and botanically inclined world of the plantsman as being beyond their ken, but the truth is when a knowledge of plants is shared with such accuracy and passion it can only inspire and enlighten, and the richness and diversity beyond our gardens can then appear within them too. Compare this cartoon with the one I will show at the end...

Ray Drew, who knew Kath very well, introduced the meeting with a short biography of her life; her wartime experiences and the profound effect these had on her (as they must have had on a whole generation who lived through such times); her involvement in Radar defence; a fascination with Auriculas before joining the AGS in 1949; her long role as Director of the AGS Shows from 1972 to 1981; and the real wonder of her garden - which wasn't large but just as remarkable as many that are - and the skill with which she grew plants, as well as even more her ability to positively inspire others. A pretty good introduction and also an emphasis on how important and vital have been the Local AGS Groups and those who run them for the success of the Society as a whole. It is easy to see why she should have become one of those just 63 gardeners given the Victoria Medal of Honour by the RHS, and the concomitant relevance of Alpine (and Woodland) gardening within the wider world of horticulture.


The day began with Julian Sutton, botanist and co-owner of 'Desirable Plants' talking on 'From South to North', an overview of the major bulb/geophyte regions of the Southern Hemisphere and - for gardeners - hints and tips on growing these in the generally colder and more erratic climate of the UK, such as in Epping! The underlying premise of his talk was that gardens can be places of experiment and surprise and that (as runs though the whole ethos of societies such as the AGS, SRGC and NARGS) the more you discover and learn about plants in their natural environments the more successful and harmonious - but also unique - a garden can become. By far the majority of the plants he described come from the incredibly diverse and rich, and climatically and geographically varied, southern parts of Africa, which holds such attraction to anyone fascinated by plants (as well as so many valued species we do grow in our gardens). The whole basis of diversity arises from geography and climate and adaptation (evolution) and this is as obvious across gardens within the UK as it is across landscapes in South Africa. Very many of the plants Julian showed do require frost protection, or even more, specific cycles of wet and dry periods, but others are more tolerant and amenable in cultivation and bring considerable excitement to the garden. Perhaps few gardeners would turn their back lawn to a rich meadow of rare bulbs in the manner of John Davies in Sutton Coldfield (who burns off the grass and foliage in summer as will often happen in the natural environment) but the idea of experimenting, as Julian is doing with a 'crevice garden' for bulbs, and testing plants in different microclimates and situations is inherent within the plantsman and makes a garden thoroughly beyond the norm. For the exhibitor at AGS Shows these plants add interest and variety that may go beyond the rather traditional boundaries of the Society in the same way as they can do within the garden too.


The second talk, from Tony Hall on the Juno irises (Iris, subgenus Scorpiris) was a tour de force of botanical and scientific analysis of what must be amongst the most extraordinary and beautiful, and challenging to grow, of any group of plants in the world, by one of the most remarkable and foremost growers in the Alpine Garden Society. This was not so much a talk for the gardener as a fantastically detailed and rigorous consequence of a lifetime growing and studying these plants at Kew and combining the results of research on their geographical occurrence and distribution, morphology, cytology, pollen and plastid DNA sequence relationships. There are few of these plants growable in gardens (at least in the UK; more are possible in hot continental climates with cold winters and arid summers), but those few that are, such as I. cycloglossa and I. aucheriI. graeberiana and I. willmottiana, and the more widely available I. magnifica and I. bucharica, hint at the supreme beauty and fascination of the Junos as a whole. Tony took the audience carefully through the most up to date conclusions on Species groupings and relationships (according to his observations and those of Arne Seisums) and must have led many in the audience to eagerly anticipate a forthcoming monograph on the Juno Irises. These will never be plants grown by more than a handful of growers and gardeners and many are native to politically highly troubled and reactionary places in the Middle East, but they exemplify the beauty there is in the most climatically hostile of places, and the real wonder of the World of Plants.

This is a picture of Iris bucharica planted out in the gravel garden at Hyde Hall in April 2013. Can anyone comment on whether this has persisted and thrived over time? Certainly I. cycloglossa can make a spectacular plant in cultivation as Tony Hall illustrated grown in the rock garden at Kew. And the second picture shows a whole variety of very choice bulbs, including Juno irises, thriving in a hot bank at the top of Stanislav Čepička's garden in Czechia.

Iris bucharica Juno Irises and choice bulbs.

As a quick aside the Epping Forest Group meet in a fine modern village hall at Theydon Bois, easily accessible from the M25 - the same venue that the Fritillaria Group of the AGS meet in spring and autumn - and it would be easy to imagine this hall making a perfect venue for an Alpine Show too, perhaps on a smaller and more intimate scale (with fewer gardeners now growing and exhibiting alpine plants) - and less judgemental, more educational, than these have been in the past. There is plenty of room outside too for displays and nursery stands, likely to draw attention from passers by... Certainly the Conference held here by the Epping Forest Group, and the Fritillaria Group meetings, have been very friendly and welcoming, and within a reasonable radius of Epping Forest there must be a large potential audience of gardeners yet to discover the fascination of these plants and the prospects of growing them.

One of the great attractions of these meetings is the plants available from specialist growers and as an example, and without doubt one of the most valuable and interesting of quality bulb suppliers, John Amand brings along his plants - in collaboration you can see here with Kit Strange from Kew and other growers within the Alpine Garden Society. With the developing interest once again in independant and specialist nurseries ( and a more individual and informed view of the world of plants, the Alpine Shows and meetings like this one at Epping, lead the way.

Growing alpines and rock plants is undoubtedly a specialised and rather extraordinary way of gardening and perhaps inevitably it gets less attention than it deserves. The third talk at this meeting set out to address this in an interesting way because it was the story of a very fine crevice garden constructed at Bangsbo Botanical Garden by the doyen of Czech rock gardeners, Zdeněk Zvolánek, in collaboration with other local botanical experts and volunteers from the garden's circle of friends. This relationship between people with different skills and a desire to display alpines to a wide audience is at the heart of gardening and the rock garden societies and has been brought off with consummate skill at Bangsbo in Denmark.

Kaj Anderson took the audience through the planning and construction of the garden and showed the wide range of plants growing very successfully in what is one of the largest and most significant rock gardens in the world. The garden has used 250 tons of limestone sourced in S. Germany, covers 500 square metres, and grows over 10 000 plants. Associated with it is an area of 'peat blocks' used for growing ericaceous and calciphobe alpines, and of tufa for saxifrages and other slow growing 'cushion' alpines. The north of Denmark is ideally situated to grow a wide variety of these plants and very close to Göteborg Botanical Garden in Sweden, renowned for its collection of alpine species. 

The scale and drama of a garden like this is obviously way beyond a private garden, but many of the ideas of growing are not, and what struck me especially from Kaj's talk was the involvement of skilled volunteers in planting and running the garden, and as he said: "when something is beautiful no-one wants to destroy it" (so the garden is open to everyone 24 hours a day and there is no vandalism or pilfering of plants). Every year also is the Bangsbo Flower Festival in the first weekend of June which attracts 15 to 20 000 enthusiastic gardeners. Amongst these there must be a good proportion drawn to these small plants of the mountains and the idea of making rock gardens.


The final talk of the day was from John Fielding on the 'Flowers of Crete'. John is co-author with Nicholas Turland of the outstanding detailed photographic and botanical study of the same title published by Kew Gardens (, and it would be hard to find anyone better qualified to talk about the plants from this (one of many) unique Mediterranean islands. His talk began by setting the flora into geological and floristic context, the links with the N. African flora, high levels of endemism, and simply the magnificent landscapes and mountains of the island. So many people will visit the Mediterranean and Greek islands in particular on holiday but probably relatively few will explore in more detail and discover the excitement and diversity of the natural flora - or even more consider growing these plants in British gardens. But many are grown in rock gardens and displayed at Alpine Shows and the prospects and reality of a warming climate, particularly in the south-east tending to milder wetter winters and hotter drier summers, gives these plants more and more horticultural attraction. 

Crete is the size of Cornwall and Devon combined to put it into scale, and very rocky with mountains reaching 2500 metres. Some of its plants are amongst the most beautiful in the world if you are an alpine gardener; species such as Paeonia clusii (which John showed in an uncommon pink population); Anemone hortensis subsp. elwesii, quite exquisite for its blue anthers against white petals; Anchusa caespitosa growing en masse as you would never see it in cultivation; and montane specialities such as Lysimachia serpyllifolia, Petromarula pinnata and Verbascum arcturus (this latter he showed growing naturalised in a wall in Cumberland, which might prompt some adventurous ideas for cultivation more widely in the UK!). One of the most memorable pictures he showed was of the rare palm Phoenix theophrasti growing alongside water - a Cretan version of an African oasis - and the variety of bulbs on the island from tulips to crocus to cyclamen of course draw attention from many alpine gardeners. From a personal viewpoint we grow many Mediterranean species in our often summer dry and hot garden in Kent and so this talk was especially interesting and florally provocative, and it takes the idea of the rock garden in a very different direction than many gardeners will think of - proving that alpine plants are far more diverse and distinctive than usually realised.

The meeting ended with a short discussion between the audience and speakers and it could be that here is one of the obstacles that a specialist society such as the AGS faces in attracting a wider membership - there can be/is a division between 'gardening' and 'botanical expertise' and it is easy to feel overawed by the knowledge and experience of others. The four speakers here come to plants from very varied directions but the commonality is that fundamental fascination in their variety and cultivation, which any enthusiastic gardener will identify with, even if less expert. The meeting balanced this rather well and if not many in the audience would have the amazing plantsmanship of Tony Hall from Kew - and have his knowledge of plants, and the Juno irises in particular - a lot more would would share his enthusiasm for growing and learning about plants, which he showed in his wonderful cartoon at the end of his talk!

Thanks again to the Epping Forest Group and Kit Strange, and the four speakers shown here (from left to right with the Chairman at the meeting, Ray Drew): Tony Hall, Julian Sutton, John Fielding, Ray Drew and Kaj Andersen.

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