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Galloway gardens

October 11, 2019
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Read previous diary entries here.

Three weeks ago, we upped sticks and enjoyed a short break in Galloway, due west from here and a very mild, Atlantic-influenced peninsula, ‘roofing’ the Irish Sea.

We spent five nights in a small hotel on the west coast at Portpatrick (good seafood!) and then two nights on the way home east of Castle Douglas. Naturally, we spent much of our time visiting some of the magnificent gardens of the region and, if September was not the ideal time to visit (no Rhododendron, Magnolia or Camellia flowers), there was still a good deal to see.

Portpatrick is less than three hours from here by car, so we took the opportunity to visit our old friends Carol and Ian Bainbridge in their new(ish) home and garden at Gatehouse of Fleet. As leading lights of the Scottish Rock Garden Club for many years, Ian and Carol ran two houses and gardens for some years, so that they were able to develop their new acquisition in the far west while continuing to live and work near Edinburgh. The result is a really interesting, quite steep and rocky site in which many wonderful plants flourish.

I seem currently unable to grow petiolarid primulas, so was very envious of the wide variety of forms they cultivate in excellent health – and without winter cover too. They also have many New Zealanders which clearly enjoy their soft moist conditions. Here is a view of one of their New Zealand plantings.

Notable in the planting shown above is the fine cushion of the Kiwi Myosotis pulvinaris (left central below). This is shown in close-up in the next picture, together with the North Island Edelweiss, Leucogynes leontopodium and Aciphylla (?) hectori.

I was also pleased to see a healthy, if still fairly juvenile, example of the ‘Mount Cook Lily’ (Ranunculus lyallii) grown from seed. This plant has become increasingly difficult in recent years. In this picture, the Celmisia on the right is C. walkeri which has also become rare in cultivation.

Two more interesting plants from the Bainbridge garden. Firstly, Koenigia forrestii, a plant I have seen in quantity at high altitude in W. Sichuan. I was not aware that it is in cultivation and indeed seems to form an attractive groundcover. Even better, Ian gave me some bits to root last weekend! It is a good deal more attractive than our only Koenigia, an almost invisble alpine from two western Scottish mountains!

I have long admired Gaultheria itoana which grew on the peat walls at RB Cooke’s garden at Kilbryde near here which I used to help manage back in the 1970s. Ian and Carol grow this well and I now have a personal interest as they kindly gave me some berries!

Moving further west to the southern half of the Rhinns, south of the port of Stranraer, we visited the wonderful western outpost of the RBG Edinburgh at Logan. This subtropical garden is immaculately maintained, imaginatively planted and full of fascinating plants. For instance that ‘alpine’ bromeliad, Fascicularia bicolor, is grown everywhere with great impact.

Here, Fascicularia dominates the front of the ‘scree’ with Yucca and Cortaderia.

Some of the plantings at Logan are regional. Here is part of the Tasmanian ‘wood’, full of atmosphere and wonderful plants.

This final shot of Cordyline and Dicksonia, with dwarf Chamaerops palms, encapsulates the spirit of the garden well.

We visited other gardens in the far west too, including Glenwhan (good) and Castle Kennedy (better in spring, I guess). On the way back east, we thoroughly enjoyed Threave, just outside Castle Douglas. Although I have been there in the dark fairly recently to give a talk, I hadn’t been there for a garden visit since its low days two or three decades ago. It is now greatly transformed. I particularly enjoyed the rock garden and the Rhododendron and peat beds right at the bottom of the garden which are easily overlooked.

Here is a view of the rock garden, which is very well made but, like so many old rock gardens, is in need of resoiling and replanting – a huge job.

And here is a view of the peat beds with a wide variety of excellent Rhododendron species.

Before we leave Galloway, can I recommend Kirkcudbright? It’s a delightful little town, and of particular note is Broughton House, a NTS property in the town with a fine view of the estuary from the bottom of the garden. The house was the home of the artist E.A. Hornel and his sister and is a treasure trove. The garden, though not large, is beautifully laid out and planted by Hornel’s sister.

Back home now it is autumn show season, and for us: two down, one to go with Harlow Carr this weekend. Set in such a beautiful garden, with certainly the best public alpine house in the land, not to mention Betty’s luxurious (and expensive) cakes, this is perhaps my favourite AGS show, even if it is the last of the year for us (Kent still remains for southerners). I have enjoyed showing autumn gentians this back end. This year, the best has been ‘Murrayfield’, which is vigorous, beautiful and with a good upright habit not shared by all its cousins.

I usually struggle with forms of Gentiana farreri, such a beautiful piercing pale blue, but this year I have been growing my autumn gentians in a mix of Singletons JI3 plus perlite rather than a humus-based compost, and G. farreri ‘Alec Duguid’ seems to have responded to this.

In past years, it was said that G. farreri was the only autumn gentian to enjoy a lime-rich soil, so perhaps the neutral compost suited it better. In this picture, it is next to the Aberconwy selection ‘Goran Glas’ (said to be a pure G. sino-ornata but I am not convinced).

Cyclamen hederifolium in its white-flowered form album has also been a useful standby this year. When it appeared that this old plant was going to be exceptionally well-flowered, it was lifted in bud. This form produces its leaves early, as soon as the flowers open, so it produced a pleasant contrast on the bench compared with leafless (although magnificently flowered) competitors. This is, I think, the first cyclamen I have ever exhibited in the senior classes.

In common with many other exhibitors, I have found that crocuses are flowering very late this year so that few are ready for the shows. Looking back on past diary entries, I find that many of my pots should be in full flower now when they are hardly through the ground.

As always, Crocus goulimyi is a good standby. Here it is in the form of its attractive pale variant from the eastern Lakonia peninsula of the Greek Peloponnesos, subsp. leucanthus.

Crocus asturicus is new to me. This little autumn-flowering member of the C. serotinus aggregate from north-west Spain was grown by the late Ray Johnstone and came to me after his sad passing last year.

I have featured Campanula isophylla before but such are its qualities that I feel the need to metnion it again. It is planted out into the plunge of the alpine house here. I very much doubt if this cliff plant from the warmer parts of Italy would thrive in the open garden, but here it is very long-lived (pobably more than ten years old now) and has a three-month flowering period.

Finally, with regard to flower power, this admixture of Clematis orientalis and C. ‘Nelly Moser’ on the garden shed has been continuous since late May. The shed had nearly disappeared and access through the door had become increasingly problematic so finally, after this photo was taken, out came the shears and the growth has been cut hard back for another season.

Image of John Richards John Richards

John Richards has lived in south Northumberland for 50 years and has been a keen grower of alpines, and visitor to the mountains, throughout the half-century. He and his wife Sheila have been in their present garden 30 years and John has been writing this diary about the garden since 2006.

John is Emeritus Professor of Botany at the University of Newcastle, where his research interests centre on the evolution and genetics of plant breeding systems. He is an authority on the genera Primula and Taraxacum (dandelions!). John is an AGS judge, exhibitor and Vice-President and previous President (2003-6).