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Plants in the Garden: Fun with a Sand Bed!

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Started by: Tim Ingram

Go to latest contribution by Tim Ingram, 11 June 2013, 08:51. Go to bottom of this page.

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Contribution from Tim Ingram 26 September 2012, 11:58top / bottom of page

Legumes with their deep roots and preference for the poorest of soils would seem ideal candidates for the sand bed. These are a vast group of plants to explore (also for the garden in general) and are pre-eminent amongst flowering plants for their foliage as well as flowers. Coronilla minima is atypical in many ways but an intriguing little plant that has seeded around gently in the bed, rather unique for its rounded leaflets. The sempervivums and other succulents are obvious candidates and, like those pictured in the latest Journal, make wonderful portraits - this one is ciliosum. We have now planted quite a number of small daphnes and most of these have thrived in deep gritty sand once they have established. Their strong roots rapidly penetrate to the soil below enabling them to withstand very dry spells at times. These can be more tricky in traditional scree or raised bed and must benefit from deep sand or gravel. The final plant in this group is hardly an alpine but is remarkable for being the hardiest of all aloes, A. aristata. Having now seen this survive with no protection through the last two relatively severe winters (dropping to -14C this year), it lives up to its reputation. It must benefit again from being planted in deep sand and grit.

In general the sand bed has been quite a good success for a wide variety of plants. However, there are exceptions and these few examples show that whilst one species can grow healthily others can show severe deficiencies. Douglasia (or Androsace) montana shows severe nutrient deficiency even though Arabis androsacea next to it, and several other androsaces show no such signs. Forms of Primula marginata generally grow and flower quite well, but again are probably not able to root down sufficiently to access nutrients from the soil below and show yellowing of the older leaves. For these plants the richer soil of a more traditional scree would be better. A species of Azorella, like the aciphyllas, was happy when sufficient moisture was available, but struggled through dry spells, even though the bed has been watered quite regularly. The final example, a Ewartia very like the raoulias which have been a great success on the bed, has been much more prone to botrytis and die back. This seems hardly surprising given the very wide range of plants we are growing but in a way act as the exceptions that prove the rule, which is that the great majority of plants have adapted to these growing conditions, and that trying different ways of growing alpines in the garden is the only way of beginning to home in on what is best for different groups of plants.

Contribution from Tim Ingram 28 September 2012, 08:07top / bottom of page
'So you see an alpine plant is just potted romance'

It is fascinating to delve back through old AGS Bulletins to gain an appreciation of how the Society has been seen and developed in the past. In many ways not too much has changed; exciting plants grown beautifully, stories of travels and sometimes tribulations, and maybe in a different age more description of rock gardening in general. Only occasionally does a brave character like G. E. Barrett (Vol. 33, p.165, 1965) play devil?s advocate by running against the tide and there is probably little consequence.

None the less on this website there are some 4000 wonderful portraits of Show plants over the years but very very few contributions on growing these plants in the garden, or emphasis on this for new members looking in, and that does seem a shame. There is a great difference between the two, in that discussing one?s garden is more ongoing (as with our sand bed). Does this make it of less relevance? And probably of more concern does the wonder of plants in the Shows somehow diminish the perceived value of our growing them in the garden? Emphatically not from my viewpoint, but a garden is personal thing that can never have the perfection of plants displayed at the Shows.

Amongst the various comments made in previous Bulletins are those that specialist nurseries and open gardens both prove excellent recruiting grounds for new members. But the best couple of lines I have discovered came from Sir William Lawrence (Vol. 18, p.194, 1950) - viz: ?I remember meeting a honeymoon couple in Skye; they brought back Droseras and Pinguiculas which they grew for several years with great success in a window box at Bickenhall Mansions, opposite Baker Street Station. So you see an alpine plant is just potted romance.? Nowadays we might start with seed or plants from a nursery, but the sentiment remains the same.

Contribution from Helen Johnstone 28 September 2012, 12:38top / bottom of page

Hi Tim

As a new member it is the show plants that have fascinated me and drawn me in as it is something very different. However, as a new member and someone exploring the world of alpines I would very much welcome very simple advice. Such as what are good plants for a beginner to start with, which plants should only the experts or those with an adventorous streak try. In this respect I am talking both about showing and in the garden.

I do wonder if the AGS is missing a trick on this website (which incidentally I really like). There is a whole world of garden blogs out there, I know as I have written one for probably 5 years now. They cover a multitude of topics and range in quality. I know that many gardeners, like me, use blogs to learn from and to discover new plants etc etc and I wonder if this is something the AGS might consider attending to their website at some point.

For interest and possibly amusement you can find my blog at

Contribution from Tim Ingram 28 September 2012, 13:49top / bottom of page

Helen I agree very much - blogs are often great because you get to know the gardener writing them and come to respect their opinions and ways of gardening and learn a lot along the way. They are often written by very remarkable gardeners like Panayoti Kelaidis in the States, or Noel Kingsbury and John Grimshaw in the UK (not to mention the diaries on this website). What I miss here though is some interaction with others who garden with alpines; even within our local Groups this is relatively limited. And I can only conclude that fewer and fewer gardeners are developing 'Alpine Gardens', or at least want to tell us about them. As Maggi Young has said on the SRGC site, I am a passionate believer in the importance of our gardens, even if I am not so brilliant at growing plants, and I would love to hear about many more of the gardens made by members of the AGS. Unlike the Journal the website is the perfect venue for discussion and sharing our experiences of growing (often most usefully, the difficulties), but it doesn't really happen even with some 7000 plus members. I see it as a real lost opportunity.

Contribution from Helen Johnstone 28 September 2012, 18:09top / bottom of page

I suspect that many members join for the journal or the seed list that was certainly the reason I joined and why th AGS was recommended to me.

I cant remember if the survey asked but it would be interesting to know how many members had alpine gardens. I am about to do my first trough and would welcome advice especially as its likely site is a little shady.

Contribution from Jon Evans 28 September 2012, 18:45top / bottom of page

Hi Tim

I think this is an unnecessarily pessimistic conclusion to draw (few people developing alpine gardens). There is an active discussion of alpines in gardens in the UK on the SRGC forum, and I suspect that most AGS members who want to discuss their gardening with others online are also members of that forum.

The lack of response you see here is exactly that; an unwillingness to respond in this format / forum from what is, by and large, a rather conservative membership, and should not be taken to convey anything about the interests or gardening habits of the other members.

I know a good number of members who visit the website regularly, read the diaries, the forum and the show reports and results, and who are great gardeners, both in pots and the open garden, but who are incredibly reluctant to contribute to discussions here. It is them who keep me posting pictures from shows; if I relied for encouragement on the level of response in this forum, I would have given up long ago.

Contribution from Tim Ingram 28 September 2012, 19:02top / bottom of page

Jon - I take what you say and others have said the same, and I am being deliberately, and perhaps not very effectively, provocative, because I am not so sure it is a good thing for the Society to remain so conservative. It probably will, and what I have said will just be an historical hiccup. It is a curious thing though that so many members chat to each other elsewhere when the AGS is the Alpine 'Garden' Society. In the long term though anything that anyone says will only have an impact if others think it valuable; I view our gardens as so important because they inevitably allow for many more alpines to be grown and propagated, potentially by very many gardeners, which is how my interest began over 30 years ago. I certainly agree about the seed exchange which is a tremendous resource, and how can one criticise such a brilliant Society except in its ability to put itself across to new gardeners. That's why William Lawrence's simple little sentence carries so much weight - convey that to new gardeners and so many more can appreciate the magic that we do.

Contribution from Helen Johnstone 30 September 2012, 09:55top / bottom of page

I think the other 'problem' is that people arent that keen to show their gardens so publically. I know that when I started blogging years back to start with I showed close ups of flowers and I was really nervous when I showed a long shot. I don't really know why but its is opening yourself to comment and possibly criticism and after all a garden is a very personal thing.

Contribution from Tim Ingram 30 September 2012, 11:59top / bottom of page

But it is that personal thing that can come across, and often it is those of us with the most fascinating gardens that seem most shy. What you can say is that if plants fascinate you, any garden and gardener who has that same involvement will appeal. It is the gardener as much as the garden. Our town holds a 'Secret Gardens' opening with 20 plus gardens, most small, some with hardly anything in them at all, but it gets people walking around the town and meeting - and a few of the gardens are beautiful. I am biased because we have a large garden and have opened it for many years, but it has always been enjoyable except for a few days with terrible weather. Even a few days after the 1987 storm we had 15 people visit! Do it for your local AGS Group and before long you might think of opening for the NGS!

Contribution from Helen Johnstone 30 September 2012, 12:36top / bottom of page

Oh I wasnt talking about me. I frequently have long shots of my garden on my blog and have had visitors. There is no point me opening for AGS due to the current lack of alpines and also it has been neglected for 2 years whilst I was trying out an allotment. Now the allotment is going and the garden is being re-discovered.

Contribution from Tim Ingram 30 September 2012, 15:40top / bottom of page

These plants are not all on the sand bed but mostly growing under similar conditions on a raised bed with more soil and peat (ie: typical scree, suitable for a wider variety of alpines, especially those that are more vigorous). Again it is the fascinating variety of foliage that appeals at this time of year. The little Celmisia, sessiliflora, is actually growing in pure grit at the cool end of the bed, at ground level, and if I can manage to keep this going over the winter it will be exciting. I've been intrigued by these New Zealand mountain plants since I was a student and read of them in a classic book by Philipson and Hearn. The diversity of these 'silver daisies' is remarkable. The variegated Aubrieta is growing in the same place, but a much more easy going plant, and we put it in very poor soil to keep it as compact as possible. Tuberaria lignosa is a relative of the cistus, but a tidy compact little plant with yellow flowers. The leaves just have something about them which appeals but i don't think it is a plant very much grown. Ramonda (this is nathaliae) on the other hand is very widely grown and a must for any alpine garden; really great foliage! We have tried growing Cyclamen graecum in the garden and whilst it is hardy it rarely flowers. Like all cyclamen though the foliage can be superb and the silver marked form is just appearing now. A more familiar form with nicely patterned leaves did actually flower quite well this year, but still nothing like they can in pots. The ability to grow many obscure plants from wild collected seed may only interest a few gardeners, and especially nurserymen, but does open the eyes to how many extraordinary alpine plants there are around the world. The starry foliage of Lactuca intricata could be regarded as a weed by many gardeners, but this is a little sub-shrubby relative of chicory with bluish-purple dandelion-like flowers. Still a weed you will say! The last plant, Acaena buchananii, is growing in heavy loam just top-dressed with 6mm grit and can form quite widespread groundcover like a number of other species. But they have very good foliage, varying in colour from green to blue to purple to brown.

I find the variety and detail of these plants thrilling, and the fact that so many can be grown in a garden setting one of the most marvellous things about alpines and similar plants. But I'm not sure our garden would win any prizes!

Contribution from Tim Ingram 11 February 2013, 20:48top / bottom of page

Mid-winter and the sand bed is under wraps, not much happening and most plants quite dormant. However, putting together ideas for a talk on growing alpines in this way has made me think of from where inspiration comes. Certain gardeners find ways of growing plants well and have so obviously tuned in to what they need that you look on with wonder. By definition they are few and far between, but looking back through the Bulletin shows many examples. The sand bed, though perhaps a more modern approach to growing alpines, is really little different to the scree and other growing methods described over the past century or more. The fundamental feature of it is that it can work very well, but the types of plants grown and situation of the garden play a big part. These are two very inspiring examples - first the Kelaidis' garden in Denver, USA (pictured in Ken Druse's book - 'The Collector's Garden'), a continental climate with very hot, dry summers and cold, often snowy winters. Second - Peter Korn's garden in Sweden (pictured in his book, which I have referred to elsewhere), a much less extreme climate with considerably higher rainfall. But in both alpines grow like many alpine growers could only dream of - the essential feature that of the ability of sand to provide perfect drainage, and yet hold moisture, and create the spartan conditions that keep plants growing hard and in character. The ideal is to create such a garden on a sufficiently large scale to overcome shorter term vageries in climate, and in Peter's case make the best use of natural features such as streams and aspect. But even without this the sand bed can work well on smaller scales, and who wouldn't want to walk up to their front door through a garden like that pictured in Denver?


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