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Trough makeover and other autumn jobs – September 2023

October 20, 2023
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After arriving back from my trip of a life time, working in the Schachen Alpinegarten, I had a couple of weeks of annual leave before heading back to the Royal Botanical Gardens Edinburgh.

The rockery at RBGE

The rockery at RBGE

Throughout September we have carried out a number of jobs in the alpine department. We started the extensive task of repotting the large bulb collection held at RBGE. This important job should keep us busy for the next few months. We have also revamped a trough in the alpine yard, crevice style. And as always, we did the weekly change-over in the alpine display house. Last month, my colleague Aaron propagated a large number of alpine plants from cuttings, so we have been busy potting them up. Near the end of the month, I was fortunate to spend two days at Aberconwy Nurseries. This is a well-known specialist alpine nursery, where I was shown around the site and was able to learn a tremendous amount about how to run a succesful plant nursery.

Autumn bulbs in the Alpine Display House at RBGE

Autumn bulbs in the Alpine Display House at RBGE

Alpine house

One of the routine jobs in the alpine department is managing the display house. Each week plants in flower are brought from behind the scenes to the display area for the general public to enjoy.

As autumn approaches the Sternbergias are at their best, with many pots filled with flowers. I rather like this genus I first saw growing in the wild on an AGS tour, in autumn 2018. My trip to the Peloponnese was funded by the Merlin Trust. Seeing the pots of flowering Sternbergia reminded me of the spectacular fields of autumn bulbs I saw in Greece.

Lots of cyclamen have also started flowering, from C. purpurascens to Cc. hederfolium, mirabile and many others. After repotting, towards the end of September, the autumn-flowering Crocus collection has started to make its way into the display house too.

Sternbergia lutea

Sternbergia lutea in the display house

Revamping an alpine trough

There is a large number of alpine troughs at RBGE, and after a while, the planting can become tired-looking and needs to be refreshed.

This month, the team has started to freshen up the troughs in the Alpine Yard. Firstly, we dug out any plants which were salvageable and potted them up. We also removed all the rocks and remaining compost. For drainage we placed mesh over the holes and added a thin layer of gravel in the bottom of the trough. We topped this up with fresh compost using a loam-based mix with a large proportion of grit for improved drainage.

As we had decided on crevice style, we positioned the thin pieces of rock until we were happy with how they looked, then we back-filled with compost, making sure the rocks were stable. We sourced a variety of plants which had been grown on site in the alpine department. When positioning the plants, we had to bear in mind some plants may need increased protection from what the Scottish weather has to throw at them. I found a hori hori knife was helpful for digging the holes among the crevices. Small, broken-up pieces of the rock we had already used to create the crevices, made for perfect top dressing material. We then gave the trough a good soak of water to settle in the plants.

Planting troughs is great fun. It gives you the chance to be artistic and create mini landscapes. This is something people can easily do at home in their own gardens. I have done so myself on numerous occasions.

A visit to Aberconwy

Towards the end of September, I had the opportunity to go to Aberconwy for two days. I was shown all of the day-to-day jobs involved in running a successful alpine nursery, and Tim explained how these change throughout the seasons. It was interesting to see how the nursery operates and the fantastic set up they have in place; I have learnt a lot. At Aberconwy they grow a vast range of alpines .

Young plants in the propagation tunnels at Aberconwy Nursery

Young plants in the propagation tunnels at Aberconwy Nursery

On the second day, I spent time with Rachel Lever. She gave me a masterclass in propagation, from selecting the right material to preparing the cuttings and then to after-care. Cuttings need air, light and water to establish. Many people make the mistake to compress the compost when preparing the pot. This is wrong. Compacting the compost removes the air, which cuttings need to root successfully. A double firm tap is all the pot needs to settle the compost around the cuttings. For a higher rooting success rate and in order to produce a strong, saleable specimen, they take cuttings from young plants. Cuttings are prepared using a sharp craft knife; always slicing without adding pressure. Too much pressure can damage the cells in the stem. Cuttings are then dipped into rooting hormone.

After giving me these tips, Rachel let me have a go at taking cuttings myself. Firstly, I propagated Anthemis cretica v. lencanthemoides and Arenaria festucoides. I then moved on to take cuttings of Saxifraga ‘Mona Lisa’. I spoke to Rachel a few weeks later and she told me they had been a success, my Anthemis and Arenaria cuttings have rooted well.

I went back to Edinburgh with lots of new and fantastic knowledge, and a notepad filled with useful notes I can refer back to in the future. A huge thank you to everyone at Aberconwy for sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm.

As a charity, the AGS supports the development of knowledge and skills in the alpine field by funding the AGS Trainee Scheme. During the 18 month placement, the successful candidate has the opportunity to work at various horticultural institutions (such as RBG Edinburgh, RBG Kew, RHS Garden Harlow Carr, RSPB Haweswater Nature Reserve and the AGS Garden at Pershore). The work includes maintaining and enhancing the alpine plant collections in all the gardens as well as management of plant records. At RSPB Haweswater the trainee with help with conservation work.