A New Alpine Garden at the Frank Bond Centre
In 2014 I happened to hear about an AGS group in the north of England who had constructed an alpine garden outside their regular meeting hall. As the Somerset Group now meets in a Community Centre that was previously a house and was surrounded by former gardens, mainly lawns, it made me think that we might also build some sort of alpine garden there. This might act as advertisement for the group and the society while also giving users of the centre something to look at and enjoy. When the idea was suggested to the trustees of the Frank Bond Centre they immediately said yes, in fact their meeting happened before our own committee had a chance to discuss the idea (fortunately they also liked it). We were offered a site that was clearly in need of some work (see picture, above) but did contain some small rocks which could be used. The presence of two trees was a problem as the trustees were initially keen to retain them as well as the bench that was there. Fortunately we were able to point out that the old Christmas tree, which would have made life impossible for us, had to go anyway as it was only a matter of time before it swallowed the seat.
Once this had been agreed a number of us quickly got on with clearing the site (see picture) with some young ash trees also being removed but one weeping conifer being left at one end. We proposed to create a shaded bed under this and site the seat in front of it. A substantial passion fruit growing up this tree was cut back but initially was not removed. It remains to be seen if it becomes a nuisance if and when it re-sprouts.
Much of the site was covered with plastic sheeting and horticultural membrane with a layer of gravel on top. The gravel was collected up, bagged and later used to mix with the soil used in the construction of the garden to improve drainage. This was much to our advantage as it meant that much of the area would be weed free before we added the additional soil so minimal work was needed to remove perennial weeds. Some paving slabs also had to be moved.
Planning and materials
The general feeling of the committee members was that we should construct more than one type of alpine garden if possible to demonstrate ways of growing alpines. We were fortunate that Alan and Jenny had a good number of larger rocks they wanted to get rid of as well as a significant amount of walling stone left over from work done at their house. Much of this was duly collected in the campervan and moved to the site with Alan and Jenny bringing additional bags of walling stone in their car. A breeze block wall at one end of the site (see picture) was ideal for the building of a narrow raised bed. This wall faces south so this will be the hottest part of the garden. It was quite fortunate that the area behind this wall was the designated site for a barbecue and much soil needed to be removed to give the new paved area the necessary foundation. Unfortunately we were asked to move the soil onto our area more quickly than we would have liked as it was difficult to store it and work round it. Moving soil unnecessarily was the major hold up in the work.
The raised bed has been built as a dry stone wall structure. This will make it easier to dismantle and rebuild should we be unhappy about the result but it does also run the risk that it may not be stable enough. It was filled with soil mixed with shingle as it progressed so that it was supported from behind and the soil had plenty of time to settle. As there is no mortar inserting plants in the wall should be easy. The local red stone used for this structure is not ideal against the breeze block background as can be seen in the picture but we want to show that it is possible to build a successful garden with whatever materials are available. Once this part was completed and the seat had been re-sited we could start on the building of a rock garden.
Rock garden construction
The limited size of the available rocks meant that it was not possible to raise the garden much on the flat site and the first attempted area did not have sufficient depth of soil. The soil mix was therefore laid under some of the rocks to raise them and make the planting pockets deeper. There was no drawn up plan for this construction and it evolved as it progressed. The fact that we had a mix of three different types of rock to use made it an interesting puzzle to sort out. The greatest number of rocks were limestone, though even this was not of a uniform type as some was originally on the site while Alan and Jenny provided the rest. It was felt that the different rock types could not be mixed so the area towards the back was constructed of the limestone rocks while red rocks of two kinds formed the front adjacent to the paving slab path. To try to help them blend the space between was partly filled with a mixture of smaller rocks of the different types. Time will tell whether this “dry valley filled with scree” will ever look convincing but it is hoped that it may at least provide some particularly well drained planting sites. It was quite fortunate that during the time of the work a local DIY and Garden Store closed down as it sold of various types of gravel at much reduced prices. Some of this was obtained to be used as top dressing and for a new path between the raised bed and the rest of the garden (see picture below). Some of the old membrane we had taken up could be used underneath this path. It was quite pleasing that we received favourable comments from the trustees even before the garden was completed and planted.
The remaining areas
The large pile of soil we had accumulated from the barbecue area was more than we needed and looked like becoming a problem but fortunately an area behind a gate in one corner was unexpectedly cleared. This had been full of weeds, especially brambles, but these have been cut down (unfortunately not removed). After digging up the weeds nearest the gate it was possible to move the soil so clearing the last part of the site. Once the last part of the “rockwork” had been completed the shaded area could be done. Once again Alan and Jenny came to our rescue with some good leaf mould to mix in with the soil here. We hope that raising the soil level will keep the plants away from the tree roots. This shade bed will merge with the planting along the fence at the back of the site.
Planting the garden
Planting could now begin in the early spring of 2015. Although this spread over a considerable period of time and will continue as plants become available and some die or become a nuisance it was decided to hold a planting day. This was 21st March and we asked members to bring whatever they could, collecting donations in advance from those who could not come that day. We were very fortunate that Christine Skelmersdale brought some plants down for us which were particularly welcome as some were in flower giving some early colour to the garden. Not all who came could stay for long but with only room for at most 5 or 6 people to work at the same time there was more than enough help. The greatest amount of time was occupied by deciding where to plant but we avoided too much discussion by having people working in different areas. Once an area was planted others could bring in gravel for top dressing. Most of the available space was filled. It was decided that we would not have labels in the garden but, where the plant name was known, a record is being kept. Pictures of members planting up the garden are shown here and below.
We have perhaps been fortunate that 2015 has been a cool damp year at least in spring and early summer so that little watering was needed after the first day. Members are encouraged to visit, with a watering can and weeding tools, whenever they are in Taunton. We have had very good comments from the trustees and from people using the centre. So far there have been some plants in flower almost continuously and we can hopefully fill in any gaps in the future. Members are requested to inform us if they have any spare plants that might be suitable for filling the available spaces.
The raised bed after planting