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Plants in the Garden: Summer 2013

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Started by: Tim Ingram

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Contribution from Tim Ingram 26 June 2013, 05:48top / bottom of page

Anyone who has gardened for many years cannot help but be in thrall to the wonderful diversity of plants, and a garden can easily contain several thousand species. Gardeners with this more botanical perception of plants are relatively rare, which must be why specialist societies like the AGS have only a few percent the membership of the RHS, but in terms of knowledge and expertise they are very considerably stronger. This strong botanical bent favours the individual culture and exhibition of plants - which results in the wonders of the Shows - but plants have evolved in the real world subject to the environment, competition and predation, and growing them in a garden setting brings out their true nature. Alpines favour both aspects of cultivation because even in the garden they give of their best with space to show off their form properly. A picture like this one, taken in Vaclav Vostrak's garden in the Czech Republic, illustrates to me why a garden is THE setting for many of these plants, despite their extraordinary individual beauty at the Shows.

Such gardens are not built in a day (or even a TV makeover!) which is probably why they don't catch the imagination of gardeners easily. Our garden is too eclectic to have beautiful plantings like that shown above, but these are some examples of plants flowering now in a range of contexts in the garden, which show this wonderful diversity, an essential feature of the AGS as a whole.

The border below was made to complement the alpine plantings, with a mix of silver foliage plants like Convolvulus cneorum, Phlomis italica, Salvia argentea, and various pinks. Of the latter Dianthus deltoides 'Leuchtfunk' is spectacular for its bright red flowers - a true alpine but never likely to be exhibited at Shows. Why not? Because it is too common, too untidy and lacks any kudos. But it makes a superb garden plant. Dianthus 'Night Star' doesn't qualify for a different reason. It is a lot more tidy and showy, but it is a border pink and not really an alpine. But again a fine garden plant.

Move to the sand bed, a few feet away, and the situation changes. Scutellaria laeteviolacea from Japan is a particularly lovely species of this interesting genus. This I thought I had lost but it has grown away again this year, which shows the value of the garden where busy lives may not allow so much individual care of plants (and it is often said that younger people do not join the Society because their lives are too busy - a comment that can work both ways). Campanulas are excellent on the sand bed; the first is Graham Nicholl's fine selection of C. rotundifolia, 'Timsbury Perfection' - I am sure this is nowhere near as perfect as one of Graham's Show plants but it is still very pleasing in the garden, and this was a particular reason that it was first selected.

Campanula 'Covadonga' is especially striking for its deepest blue-violet flowers, and these two pictures show how it has increased over the period of one year. The grouping with Onosma echioides works well because blues and yellows always harmonise.

The garden shouldn't be underestimated as place to maintain many plants, when you consider how quickly they can come in and go out of fashion. A species like Catananche caespitosa has deep roots and a strongly perennial habit but is pretty rare in cultivation. The yellow Centaurea drabifolia is just one of many small species from dryland habitats, easily raised from seed but not very popular with gardeners. Why not? There are just so many species that we can grow and study and the garden often gives the best opportunity to do this. Thalictrum tuberosum is a beautiful species in our dry garden but never seems to set seed. I now have two forms (with smaller and larger flowers and vigour) and must try crossing between them. The garden often provides the best way of getting good seed set on such uncommon plants.

In some cases the problem is the opposite one; plants like Eryngium bourgatii can self-seed much too freely, but on occasion this puts them in just the right place like this picture on the edge of the drive. Penstemon ovatus never quite seeds enough but has maintained itself in the same spot for seven or eight years at least and is one of the best blues in the genus. The garden also potentially teaches so much about plants, or raises intriguing questions - is this clump of sempervivum flowering because it has an ants nest in the middle of it? Has anyone else had the same experience?

The garden can keep the most cherished but easily overlooked plants going for very many years - Mentha requienii, which I have written about elsewhere, has grown in cracks and crevices on our patio for as long as I remember, but perhaps only really gets looked at closely when you take photographs for a description like this; those flowers are tiny - only about 1.5mm across. A better quality camera and macro lens would have brought out the detail of them and those hairs on the leaves even better.

Finally there are always plants that we search for and can take many years to find, even with the munificence promised by the Plantfinder (and I speak here as a struggling nurseryman!). Globularia incanescens is one such for me and is now flowering in a trough, hopefully will produce seed and cutting material, and enable us to continue propagating it into the future.

You may think that I have laboured the value of growing alpines in the garden, but this is how I have always looked at them and I believe it is an important way for the Society to talk about these plants and encourage new gardeners to take them up. Or is 'gardening' somehow of lesser significance than a more botanical bent? (And I do speak as someone with a strong scientific background). That could be a, or the, conclusion which is drawn. I would like to think that the two have a synergy which makes them greater than either alone.


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