A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: 24 October 2012 by John Richards
Gardens in the Czech Republic. Entry 226.
Apologies for the long interval between issues, but I have been greatly exercised recently with the sudden and completely unexpected decision by the University of Newcastle to close the Botanic garden, Moorbank, where I run the volunteers. As you may imagine, organising publicity and protests against this volte-face has taken much of my time. Doubtless, I shall write about it again.
However, it was with some relief that I flew to Prague last Thursday, October 18th to fulfill a long-standing engagement to give two lectures to the autumn meeting of the Prague Rock Garden Society. I should say immediately that my journey and stay was sponsored by the Alpine Garden Society, to whom I am very grateful. I was hosted by Vojtech Holubec, very well-known to the AGS as a lecturer, Lyttel Trophy winner, seed collector, and author of the magnificent book on the alpine flowers of the Caucasus. Vojtech was kind enough to use the start and finish of my stay to take me around six gardens, including his own, and these will be the subject of this entry.
First of all, Vojtech's own garden. This is situated in open country on the edge of a small village about 15 km outside Prague. Like all the Czech gardens I saw, it is not large, but in common with most of them, it uses every square centimetre to the utmost effect, and is packed full of interesting plants, very many of which Vojtech introduced himself.
Clearly the local climate and soil conditions greatly influence the plants grown. With a relatively hot dry summer and cold snowy winters, alpine houses are virtually unknown and most plants are grown outside without protection. However, it is clear that much effort is taken to source raw materials, and tufa (much imported from Slovakia), pumice, slate, limestone, granite and other materials are expensively and laboriously transported from quarries often far distant. A particular feature of many gardens is the abundant use of travertine, tufa rubble, as the soil growing medium in parts of the garden.
The main feature of Vojtech's garden was a large and complex limestone rock garden, built about 10 years previously with very large stone manhandled into position with a crane and sling.
As one might expect, the garden is beautifully constructed, and plants grown in it very well. A question I asked on many occasions, and not just here, was the extent to which the garden is rebuilt, resoiled and replanted. The answer seems to be 'very little'. Plants seem to live on travertine rubble and fresh air for many years and stay in good health. Sometimes a dwarf conifer gets too large, is removed and the hole created is resoiled, but this is the exception.
Elsewhere, Vojtech uses quite different material, including large lumps of what seems to be pumice, volcanic tuff. In one area, a pumice garden is cleverly linked to old stone troughs. Inclidentally, genuine old troughs feature in many of the gardens and seem to be relatively cheap by British standards, perhaps one tenth of the price.
Vojtech also has a remarkable collection of dwarf conifers, many of them collected as witches brooms by his son. Here is part of his 'pygmy pinetum'.
Jiri, which I learnt was the Czech equivalent of 'George', also lives not far from Prague, but to the north of the river. He has a larger garden than most, some of which is still under construction, but there were some notable island crevice beds. These are built in what we in the British Isles are starting to recognise as the 'Czech style', practised here by Zdenek Zvolanek and others, not least at the AGS garden at Pershore
Jiri has a particularly fine collection of daphnes, many of which are mature, and all of which are in superb condition. One expects to see many forms of Daphne arbuscula here, but rare Balkan species such as D. mayana, D. kosanini and D. velenevskyi seem to be grown quite commonly. D. jasminea is not hardy here, and D. petraea is not seen as often as in Britain, but a number of fine Chinese and Siberian species are grown.
Here is a final view of Jiri's fine garden with superb cushions in crevices.
Ota also lives not far from Prague where he has a small nursery and a fine garden. Ota travelled to the Conference in the Krkonose mountains the same afternoon, so I talked more to him over the following weekend.
Ota's garden is mostly limestone, and he grows a wide variety of lime-loving plants, including many saxifrages. I had expected to see Porophyllum saxifrages dominating most Czech gardens, but this is not the case, perhaps because the hot sunny summers tend to burn the cushions. However, Ota propagates them en masse in frames where they can be covered with shade nets in summer.
Here are two shots of his main rock garden.
The Conference was held in the Sports Hotel at Rokytnice, below the Krkonose mountains on the Polish border. Although the hotel was at only about 550 m in altitude, ski tows ran down to the hotel, and the Kotel ridge above involved climbing another 1000 m . Luckily there is a road to the top, although it is necessary to use Park buses for the final section of road. We did spend a lovely afternoon on the top, and I might write about this on another occasion. However, I thought you would enjoy pictures of what transpired in the early morning, even before breakfast, when at first light (we arrived in the dark the previous evening), participants swapped and sold plants in glorious confusion!!
Rokytnice church in morning light.
After the conference, Vojtech drove us east along the mountains to Hostinne to visit Vlastomil Pilous. This was perhaps the most remarkable garden of all. Name a group of difficult alpines, and Vlastomil grows them in quantity and to perfection. Here for instance are his shortias, pumice rubble over woodland soil in shade.
Vlastomils collection of Epigaeas.
Vlastomil first came to my attention because he was selling dozens of jancaeas of various sizes and at reasonable prices at the meeting. When asked he said they were divisions and I scarcely believed him, until I visited his garden that is!
Here are his ramondas and haberleas.
Vlastomil's bulbs, including large collections of juno and onco irises are grown under 'hoops' of plastic sheeting, cleverly held at tension between bars.
However, the more tender subjects are grown in pots, plunged in a sunken bulb house. This system helps to stop the plunge freezing solid in winter.
Late October is not the time to see many flowers, but here was Sternbergia clusiana, grown against the house wall in a very dry spot.
Colchicum peloponnesiacum is I believe rather unusual in cultivation. Vlastomil had several pans in flower.
Finally, and I could go on at length about this wonfderful garden, both Viola cazorlensis and V. delphinantha thrive. Here are large clumps of the latter.
On my final day, we motored a long way east into Moravia, attractive hilly, wooded country at about 500 m altitude. It was a lovely sunny day with superb autumn colours. First we went to the small town of Zdar where we visited Vlastomil Braun. More than any other grower there, Vlastomil collects primulas, chiefly European species and wild hybrids, of which he has a comprehensive collection. Some of the less common hybrids, actively sought in the field, were quite new to me,and it was interesting to see such rarities in cultivation as Primula tyrolensis and P. kitaibeliana. It was also interesting to see a plant labelled 'P. Miniera' which proved to be a new hybrid between P. allionii and P. marginata, raised in cultivation. Of course this is not the clone 'Miniera' but a new example of P. x meridionalis, which needs to be given a clonal name. It seems vigorous.
In fact the photo above was taken in Mr Pilous' garden, but Vlastomil Braun grows it too. Here is a Primula trough in the latter garden.
Mr Braun has introduced an enormous form of Primula auricula which he calls 'Elephant's Ears' (!).
I was hugely impressed to see a large colony of the rare Chinese blue-flowered Callianthemum farreri growing in a cool scree here.
For the last garden, we drove a few kilometres further east to the village of Dolni Radzinka where Jaroslav Balaz runs a small alpine plant nursery.
In general the quality of the plants I saw for sale in the Czech Republic was excellent, but I thought Jaroslav's plants were superb, and would compete favourably with those of our very best tradesmen.
This was the only place I saw many Cyclamen, grown under cover.
To finish with, here is a view of a small part of Jaroslav's excellently constructed rock garden, characteristic of all the fine small gardens I visited.