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Any Other Topics: Random Nuggets from the Bulletin

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Started by: Tim Ingram

Go to latest contribution by Tim Ingram, 11 December 2013, 18:34. Go to bottom of this page.

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Contribution from Tim Ingram 19 December 2012, 10:18top / bottom of page

(A 'true' alpine garden - Capt. Peter Erskine's garden near to Petersfield. Phlox subulata; Corydalis, lilies and trilliums; Daphne calcicola; rock garden crevices; overall view of the rock garden showing the value of small conifers and trees, and of a natural slope to work on).

(A nurseryman's garden made by Sue and Robin White at Blackthorn. Tufa garden; Physoplexis comosa; Epimedium and Dicentra forming an attractive combination. As befits those who propagate and distribute plants, Blackthorn has the most wonderful variety of plants which appeal to very many gardeners, and shows how a garden is a resource like no other).

(Rosemary and Paul Powis' garden at Old Wives Lees in Kent, one of those that the East Kent Group is opening for a Garden Safari next April. This is a very small garden which really does show the great value of alpines and small perennials where space is limited. It is also informed by a strong artistic sensibility as all those who have seen Rosemary's fine botanical paintings will recognize).

(Old Orchard at Loose in Maidstone, undoubtedly one of the finest alpine gardens in the south of the country with a large and extensive rock garden, many raised beds and troughs and a passion for alpine plants in general. This is the garden of Mike and Hazel Brett who ran the Mid Kent Group of the AGS for very many years and have strong interests in irises and in plants from South Africa in particular).

Although we are first and foremost the 'Alpine Garden Society' it is very obvious that members often have much more wide ranging interests in plants, and the essential feature of the Society for many is that deep and committed interest in plants in general, which other Societies don't satisfy. So I will finish with some pictures of plants that are hardly alpines (but sometimes verge on being these - and are in the case of many cacti - succulents. The first three pictures were taken at Logan Botanic Garden, perhaps the most interesting garden I have ever visited, showing plantings that alpine gardeners would immediately identify with, even if not considering in their own garden, and benefiting from the very mild climate in south-west Scotland.

And finally from a friend's garden on the south coast near to Hythe, similar plants but used in a wonderfully artistic way, absolutely proving Gertrude Jekyll's principle of 'fine art' in the garden. Few of us can ever manage this but when you see it in the garden of another it gives the greatest inspiration of all.

'What Serves in Yorkshire Loam is Fatal in Suffolk Sand'

The celebrated American gardening writer Elizabeth Lawrence said, in friendly vein, that ?all rock gardeners are snobs?. Perhaps we can agree with her if we accept a justifiable pride that comes from learning about these plants and cultivating them successfully. While few may become as enraptured as the patron saint of rock gardening, Reginald Farrer, plenty of gardeners derive a deep fascination from alpine plants and the places they come from, which gives them a presence in the garden out of all proportion to their size. Elizabeth Lawrence went on to say that ?all gardeners eventually become rock gardeners?. I am not sure this was really meant literally - her book after all was entitled ?A Rock Gardener in the South? - but the enchantment that alpine growers find in the individual nature of plants and their origins is much less evident in other gardeners where drama and colour predominate. It is clear from her writings that she was just as interested in other people as their plants, and the devoted gardener always cultivates friends as much as their garden.

Alpine plants in particular do seem to occupy a gardening territory that only few discover. Whether this is due to their historical associations with the large rock gardens of the over indulged or, at the other extreme, the arcane skills of the exhibitor, few gardeners think of gardening with alpines these days. As someone who has loved these plants since childhood - but not at the expense of many others - I am convinced they really do deserve a bigger audience. But this is only likely to come if they find their place in the garden designer?s canon. And for this to happen there need to be archetypes that appeal to new gardeners who haven?t yet appreciated how wonderful these plants are!

Alpine plants more than any others, except those of deserts, are adapted to place. They are moulded more by climate and geography than by competition and this is the essence of their individuality. They are also infinitely more variable than most gardeners realise who are brought up on the blue poppies, primulas and gentians of Himalayan hillsides, or even the saxifrages, androsaces and edleweiss closer to home in the Alps. Gardeners in the dry south can struggle with such plants, beautiful as they are, and once bitten twice shy. But there are plenty of alpines from dry places; chalk downlands are home to the opulent Pasque Flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris) and the exquisite little blue Polygala calcarea, which is one of the longest flowering plants in my garden. Very many more come from the hills and mountains around

the Mediterranean, bringing the magic of the High Atlas or Mount Olympus into the garden, and places like Turkey, which has the richest of floras just as it has been a meeting place for different peoples over millenia. In North America the Rockies and Californian hills have many other exciting plants rarely seen in British gardens. So alpines are not all one and the same and give unique opportunities for gardeners living in driest Essex or under the downpours of the Cumbrian Lakes.

Frank Kingdom Ward, who knew a little about these plants in the wild, described rock gardening as ?fun?, and perhaps the point is that it does appeal to the explorer in us all. Like any good garden you have to work at it, but unlike many it really does draw you out into the world to discover where plants come from and why they grow as they do. There is a thrill in this diversity and capturing it in your own garden, however fleetingly at times.

Rock gardens may no longer be the thing - and one of the last made at the Chelsea Show was for the 60th Anniversary of the Alpine Garden Society in 1989 - but there are other equally effective ways of growing these plants. For many species the absolute prerequisites are good drainage and sunshine. In Sweden the literally groundbreaking gardener, Peter Korn, is building an alpine garden on the scale of no other, simply using sand surfaced with varying grades of stone and rocks. Sand provides superb drainage and freedom from many pests and diseases. The plants grow hard and in character and their roots can range widely in search of moisture and nutrients. It is a simple and, on a smaller scale, inexpensive way of providing ideal conditions for many plants - and everyone knows that a large pile of sand never dries out! In North America alpine growers use sand to make ?berms? which are especially suited to the dry loving plants of the Wild West, epitomised at Denver Botanic Garden, which climatically is similar to Ankara in Turkey, and grows many species from such summer dry places very well.

These may be a long way from the traditional image of an alpine garden but they open up possibilities of new ways of growing these plants which could be incorporated into the modern garden palette, and can succeed on any scale. All that is needed is imagination and the desire to discover how to grow these plants well. Maybe not all gardeners end up as rock gardeners, but those that do undoubtedly have fun.

Contribution from Tim Ingram 19 December 2012, 16:17top / bottom of page

This last piece (the Title was taken from 'My Rock Garden' by Farrer) was not written for rock gardeners, who after all know all this already, but for gardeners who have not yet cottoned on to alpine plants. I have sent it to various publications with no response which is perhaps proof that alpine gardening is not regarded of sufficient general interest, and if it is, is rarely looked at in detail. This is in great contrast to the early days of the AGS when the Society was very much in the mainstream in its relationship with the RHS and significant gardeners around the country. Times are obviously very different now, but it would be hard to argue that the the gardens of many AGS members are still not amongst the most significant in terms of cultural and lasting value of any in the country. We should see more of them on this website and written about elsewhere.


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