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First month as an AGS Apprentice

October 20, 2021

Welcome to the first in a series of diary entries describing my year as an AGS apprentice. In September 2021, I left my role of managing William Shakespeare’s gardens and started a new exciting position in which I am specialising and training in alpine plants.

This year-long apprenticeship is funded by the Alpine Garden Society. I will spend six months at RHS Harlow Carr and then six months at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. After my first month in the job I thought I should share some of the things I have been doing.

Jobs in the Alpine Department

One of the jobs involved checking over different pots of Triteleia bulbs. The pots of bulbs are carefully emptied out, each bulb has any old skin removed and is inspected for any pest or disease damage. They are then potted up into a freshly cleaned pot using an alpine bulb compost mix. Our general bulb compost mix is made up of 2 parts John Innes, 1 part grit, 1 part perlite (which is changed to an extra part grit if the bulbs are to be planted outside).

The bulbs are arranged so as the larger ones are in the centre for a better display. They are then covered with more compost mix, topped with a good layer of grit and well-watered.

I’ve also been shown how to maintain the plunge display in the Alpine House. As the plant collection changes with what’s of interest for the seasons, plunging new pots is done regularly. You have to make sure the hole is slightly bigger than the pot and at the correct depth. Not too shallow as the plant could dry out. The sand is then carefully firmed back around the pot, making sure not to leave any air pockets. A brush is then used to blend in the sand to leave a neat finish.

Back stage, working in the alpine collection, we applied nematodes for vine weevil to lots of the plants (including Lewisia, Primula, Hosta, Sempervivum, Cyclamen, spring gentians, autumn saxifrages, Roscoea, Hepatica, and more). Unfortunately, one of the autumn saxifrages had already been damaged by vine weevil. Amy, head of the alpine department, showed me how to save sections and to pot them into modules for them to hopefully root up.


Autumn Harrogate Flower Show

During the past month I was able to attend the Autumn Harrogate Flower Show. This was held at Newby Hall and Gardens. There were lots of huge vegetables being judged, and bright, impressive Dahlias were on show in the floral marquee. One of the nurseries there was Kevock Garden Plants. Stella and David Rankin, of Kevock, gave a talk about the exciting Rock Garden project at Newby Hall. The redevelopment is currently in its second year and planned to continue, a section at a time, for the next three years to fully complete the area. Definitely one to visit in the future to see the progression.

Potting and planting

I’ve done lots of potting up of different primulas (Pp. heucherifolia, burmanica, jesoana, and japonica varieties) and Trollius hondoensis from seed modules that were sown in spring. Once these have matured, they will be planted in the streamside areas. Cuttings of Jamesbrittenia bergae were also taken from the plant which is flowering its socks off in the Alpine House at the moment. We then planted various specimens on the limestone rock garden, among them sternbergias, veronicas, geraniums, and a Ginkgo.

One of my days was spent working along the streamside under the guidance of horticulturalist Aimee Beth. Going forward this will be a regular job. I planted Hakonechloa macra to help hold the sloped soil together as well as some Primula ‘Harlow Carr’ hybrids. These will make a dazzling display in late spring. There was also weeding and dead-heading to be done, and chopping back some of the tired ferns to give space for the small Acer trees who were giving their all at that time.

I also helped with a new Hepatica planting project in the woodland. We dug up and moved Carex and hellebores, and then dug over the area. This was no mean feat, considering how dry and full of fibrous roots the ground was! We then searched for aesthetically pleasing logs from the woodland and took time to place them in the most natural way we could. The logs were dug into the ground, with a layer of leaf mulch spread between them. The next stage will be adding a specific compost mix for the planting pockets and the planting itself.

End-of-season jobs

One of the main tasks has been “picking over” the collection of mature primulas (Pp. allionii, auricula, and marginata). Picking over is where all yellow/brown leaves and any other detritus are removed. It takes a lot of patience and attention to detail but is very satisfying. It also leaves the plant in a much healthier condition because you can check for any lurking pests and diseases.

In the Alpine Department other end-of-season jobs include the washing shade paint off from the alpine cold frames, cushion house, and hot house. This ensures the plants enjoy the last bit of warm sunshine before shorter and cloudier days draw in. Every five weeks or so, a dusting of the windowsills and lower windows of the Alpine House also takes place.

Finally, I have started creating alpine plant profiles to help improve my knowledge of the plants I’m working with. This would be a useful reference folder with information for others to use too.

I hope you have enjoyed reading my account of my first month as an AGS apprentice and you will come back to this diary throughout the following months.

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The AGS currently provides funding to various projects across the UK. By donating you can ensure we will continue to support young horticulturists like Bertie learn more about alpine plants.