A particular reason for organising our afternoon meeting last weekend in Kent was to try and bring the four AGS Groups in the county closer together, as well as to attract a new audience. As it turned out it succeeded partially in achieving this; a good third of the audience were not members of the AGS, but bringing the AGS Groups together is a trickier objective when they (we) remain very independent in outlook.
I start here, rather than describing how enjoyable and stimulating the afternoon was (and will come on to that), because it is very evident that the AGS in Kent, as well as more widely, does need to look out to a new audience and find ways of inspiring gardeners in this new age of the internet and digital conversation. It is clear that social media has become, almost overnight, a powerful new force for good or ill, and yet as gardeners we still need our local connections and local groups, even if these can only persist by change and adaptation.
Both speakers, Hester Forde and Sarah Morgan, have run societies and brought gardeners together and this is a good part of the reason for asking them to talk to us, as well as their undoubted horticultural talents and creativity.
The paradox for us in Kent, the supposed ‘Garden of England’, is that we are also regionally out on a limb and the costs of attracting speakers to specialist gardening groups such as the AGS becomes more and more challenging. For it to be divided further between four small independent groups is an additional pressure and makes it harder still to attract that new audience we really need to truly prosper and gain support.
Though social media makes it easier – and free – to advertise events, at the same time the proliferation of online connections means that competition for attention is much greater and it is likely that retaining new members will be even harder than in the past, just at the time that it becomes more necessary.
For this meeting we distributed printed cards widely at gardening events, talks, garden centres and locally, and attracted a good audience, but still not enough to cover the costs of speakers and venue and AGS members were not charged.
So future days of similar form will likely require a differential charge for both AGS members and visitors and subjects that will connect effectively to a new audience as well as present one, plus significant publicity.
The AGS Shows in Kent are a strong focus for gardeners in the south-east, so capitalising on these to promote other local events and meetings must be an aim. All it is possible to say now is ‘watch this space’. In a county of 1.5 million people there must be a significant number more who would find what we do inspiring. This was certainly true of both talks and I can find no better way of expressing this than in the comments copied below:
“Just wanted to say how much we enjoyed the afternoon at Lenham yesterday. Interesting speakers, lovely pictures and such instructive, down-to-earth demonstrations. Added to which were excellent refreshments (so glad they used proper cups and mugs and not unrecyclable stuff), and a good haul of plants purchased. And the crowning moment of the day – my husband Barry winning the “alpine bowl”. We were so glad that Chris Gifford was able to give us a lift to Lenham. Thank you and all your team of helpers. I do hope you’ll do something similar next year.”
“Just wanted to tell you that Edith and I very much enjoyed the combined AGS groups meeting at Lenham today. Many thanks for your efforts. Hope it can be repeated sometime.”
“We greatly enjoyed our day out yesterday. We both thought the timings were very good with the first talk followed by a free hour + demo and tea etc and then the second talk. We were amazed and tempted by the variety of plants to buy. The second talk was equally fascinating, quite uplifting and stimulating.
There are several E. Kent talks which look interesting and Picos de Europa is next month. As I have multiple sclerosis we take private guided tours with Naturetrek and Picos de E. is one place we’d like to go, having toured Aragon through Naturetrek in 2016.”
The theme of both speakers was how alpine plants can form part of the wider garden scene. Hester showed this especially in her own garden but also in several she has visited, including Sissinghurst and John Massey at Ashwood Nursery (it was particularly nice to have a couple of gardeners from Sissinghurst at the meeting!) and Pamela Schwerdt and Sibylle Kreutzberger, the Head Gardeners there between 1959 and 1990 were past members of the East Kent AGS Group – the picture below is taken from ‘Making Gardens – A Celebration of Gardens and Gardening in England and Wales’, published by the National Gardens Scheme in 2001).
Hester began with the practical process of growing plants in troughs and raised beds, but then showed many telling examples of a wide range of plants that would only encourage anyone to emulate the harmony and detail of her garden. Most were not the rare and unusual species that committed alpine gardeners will cosset in alpine houses and frames, but good garden plants that perform reliably year on year and used in ways that integrate with choice small trees and shrubs to create a year-round picture. Some of the examples she showed, such as Daphne ‘Bonnie Glen’ and a white form of Cyclamen graecum, have grown for fifteen years or more in troughs – occasionally partially refreshed with new soil. Others expressed her particular interests, such as in small narcissi and woodland perennials. A few are decidedly special – the lily L. oxypetalum and Dactylorhiza ‘Eskimo Nell’. And all were planted in ways that complement the overall garden scene as part of a landscape, just as plants are in the real world. I took this picture in the greenhouse at Coosheen in October 2016, where some of the future imagination of her garden is nurtured.
Her talk was a fine introduction for gardeners less aware of this diversity, as well as stimulation for those who are already captivated by it and admire the skill of others in growing plants. (The picture below is Cyclamen graecum ‘Album’ growing in our garden at Copton Ash, flowering well after this hot and dry summer.)
In the interval for refreshments we had two short practical demonstrations on making and planting troughs which were more interactive and from past experience a good and popular way of directly involving an audience.
The four troughs I have illustrated through this entry were made especially as examples of the contrasting types of plants that can be grown in these ways (and the smallest one raffled at the meeting, as a visitor mentioned) and are rather overplanted for longer term use. But those readers who have come across Ian Young on the Scottish Rock Garden Club forum and Jan Tholhuijsen and Kevin Begley on Facebook will know the imagination and fascination that growing plants in these ways can lead on to.
Sarah Morgan’s experience with alpine plants is very different and more pragmatic because her use of them is constrained by the gardens she designs for others and their particular needs. In horticultural terms this is highly relevant in promoting the value of alpine plants generally in landscape design, such as on green roofs and steep banks, and varying climatic situations.
Plantings have to work over time and satisfy the particular viewer and place and this makes a connection rather different than usually expressed within the AGS. One picture she showed for example was of the rock garden bank in Faversham which has been made and kept by volunteers over many years, and is a perfect use of plants on a hot and sunny bank entering the town.
But of course the knowledge and cultivation and skill is little different in landscape design compared with our private gardens; the resulting plantings have that same expression of an affinity with plants, with an added discipline as focus. The Scottish Rock Garden Club, for example have part sponsored such a planting at Dunblane where they regularly meet.
From a social perspective it was the final section of Sarah’s talk that resonated most strongly. Here she talked about the village where she has a home on the flanks of the Pyrenees and relationship with her neighbours and friends there, and with the nearby landscape. The way of life here resembles the more sustainable relationship with the environment that gardening engenders (and instils). And Sarah’s particular fascination with the plants and landscape on her doorstep there, combined with that ‘sense of place’, has led her to work with local people to create a garden in the village using only the local plants of the nearby mountains. Here is the title of her talk: “The Mountain Garden, Plants & People”.
(The picture is of my daughter, Heather, at the Grey Mare’s Tail Waterfall, Kinlochleven, just south of our climb of Ben Nevis two years ago. That same immersion in the landscape and plants…)
Tim Ingram runs Copton Ash Nursery in Faversham, Kent with his wife Gillian. He has has a keen interest in plants since childhoos and his first patch was a raised rock garden in his teens.
Tim has been a member of the Alpine Garden Society for most of his gardening life. He is also an active member of two AGS groups: East Kent and Mid Kent.