Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Where have all the alpines gone?

Where have all the alpines gone?

Here, I want to ask this question, and I am illustrating it through the generous donation of pictures by Harry Jans, but I do not get round to talking about him 'til the very end. Harry is, you could say, the light at the end of the tunnel.

When I was growing up, alpines and rock gardens were a big thing. There were various things every serious gardener had to have, and a rockery was one of them. For a plant-mad teenager, helping my father build a rockery was a thrilling project. I remember studying closely a magazine pull-out special on how to layer the rocks, for stability as much as naturalism. My dad had taken very early retirement and spend an awful lot of his time in the garden. We moved to a town in Kent in 1968 and I remember him building a whole series of low rockeries, using retaining walls made out of old paving slabs – clearly he must have sweet-talked someone in the local council for these.

My first independent venture here was a 'peat garden', again something many serious gardeners used to have, before peat became so politically-incorrect. Actually, for us in Sevenoaks, it made sense, as the soil is so poor and sandy that it is rhododendron and ericacous plant paradise, without having to add much to it. I remember my first independent trip to a local rock plant nursery, to buy plants. There were then quite a lot of nurseries in the south-east of England which sold alpines, peat plants and other choice, slow-growing plants. I remember this one was called Robinsons, and I remember being surprised at what a mess it was (I understood better why, when I came to run my own nursery many years later). I remember Mr. Robinson wrenching the weeds out of the pots of the plants I had bought. Another was W.E.Th. Ingwersen's, down a long track on the edge of the estate that William Robinson once owned in Sussex. The son kept the business going long enough for it to coincide with my own modest nursery, and I remember him coming to RHS flower shows in London, plants packed into an old camper van, a few years later he gave up the business.

But, where have all the alpines gone? Last year, I decided I would try to research some in order to evaluate plants for possible use on small-scale green roofs. And could I find a nursery? Eventually I got them all from Potterton's Nursery in Lincolnshire, a very long way from home. There are a couple of others, but only a fraction of the number that there used to be.

I was well aware that rockeries were thoroughly out of fashion, but it took a while for me to realise just how much they have taken so many alpines with them. One thing which brought it home to me was reading the autobiography of Lawrence Hills, the founder of what is now called Garden Organic. Hills had started out as a specialist propagator of alpines, and he was clearly a very busy man, churning out vast numbers of plants – this was back in the 1930s. A skilled propagator was clearly someone who would have no problem in finding a job.

Rockeries and alpines had come into fashion in the late 19th century and had something of a heyday in the interwar years. Travelling in Switzerland and Austria was one of the spurs for this. Germany too went through a rock garden craze at the same time. Grand rockeries were quite simply, a status symbol for wealthy gardeners. Expensive they may have been to build and maintain, but they would have been cheaper than the greenhouses full of (mostly) orchids which had been the previous way to show off your combination of wealth, status and good taste. The ever-expanding middle classes went in for them too, so the market for plants was clearly enormous. With the demise of the rockery, there has been a massacre of plant availability. I am in the almost-final stages of writing a plant reference book right now, which highlights history in cultivation; one of the things which I am realising is just how many 'alpine' type plants have vanished from general cultivation.

Back in the day, when I had my nursery, which was 1985 -1993 (not very long I know, but I rapidly realised this was no way to make a living!), I started off doing a mix of hardy perennials and alpines. I had calculated (wrongly) that a thriving local branch of the Alpine Garden Society would be good customers. I also realised quite quickly that the whole concept of the alpine had come down in the world; for many garden centre managers, and customers, it meant something which could be shoved into a 9cm pot and sold for 99p. Now, even a great many of the 'small but cheap because it spreads quickly' type of alpine have disappeared.

What the Alpine GardenSociety did do very effectively was have shows, indeed it still does and has an excellent online encyclopaedia. Growers would turn up with pots of plants, grown to a kind of unnatural perfection. Such as Primula allioni or Dionysia or Androsace species grown in perfect hemispheres so covered in flower you could hardly see the leaves. The shows were competitive, and maybe it was this competitive element which brought out an odd kind of underlying nastiness which is generally rare in the garden world. I remember one local show secretary being a particularly aggressive character who once reduced a nurserywoman to tears over some misdemeanour or other.

I find the disappearance of the alpine sad. These are often exquisitely beautiful plants, often not at all difficult to grow if a few basic needs are met, and remarkably well-adapted to that obsession of the garden media industry – the small garden (yes, I am writing a small garden book at the moment, for my sins (was we often say in Britain), and no, since you ask, there are no alpines in it). But how do you grow alpines if you do not build an unfashionable rockery, and do not want to grow them in pots like the AGS gardeners with their travelling mini botanic gardens? This conundrum appears to have so defeated the British garden community that they have given up on alpines altogether.

Years ago, I spotted the answer. In, of all places the one country in Europe that lacks rock. Holland. In fact I remember actually sploshing through a minor flood to admire the wonderful sculptural rock gardens built at Utrecht Botanical Gardens by Wiert Nieuman. These had been built out of scrap building materials, with plants squigged into the cracks. Perfect drainage, which is requirement number one, and the possibility of putting all the sun-lovers on the south side, the shade lovers (like Ramonda myconi, the Balkan answer to the African Violet) on the north side and those that like a little bit of sun on the east and west sides. Problem solved.

Harry Jans' is a leading Dutch grower of alpines, I'm showing his garden here - he uses a lot of tufa but artfully arranged in a completly different way to the old-fashioned rockery. Time to re-think alpine growing in a sculptural and design-led way and start growing these amazing plants once again.

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Helen Johnstone said...

There are quite a few alpine nurseries, including Aberconwy in snowdonia, you only have to look at the AGS website or their quarterly journal. Also there is a real move to planting alpines in crevice gardens with a good example at Wisley and recently at Ragley Hall.

There is also feh Scottish Rock Garden Club with has a very healthy forum with an international membership and lots of support and advice on how to grow alpines. You don't need a rockery at all - troughs and the like are becoming increasingly popular

Panayoti Kelaidis said...

Alpines are alive and well--especially in Great Britain with both Alpine Garden Society and Scottish Rock Garden Society hosting dozens of spectacular shows, with monthly meetings of literally dozens of groups across your fair land!

Unknown said...

Nice post and you seem to be quite interested in alpines. Yes If we look around we will very minute percentage of alpine trees which were in abundance if we go few years back. This is either the result of human needs or the change of environment. We should look to save the trees which are remaining very few.

Unknown said...

I am designing my first alpine garden in years. They deserve a comeback. The antithesis of euro-prairies, they should not be despised as 'doll's house' gardening for those grown too feeble for 'real' gardening. Grown in decent numbers, in large groups, with some small grasses and shrubs, I think they are ideal for today's gardens.

Matt Mattus said...

Thanks Noel for this great post. It has inspired me to write a similar one on my blog in the States, as I too wonder about the same things - maybe it's not fashion, but the fact that alpine are more challenging to grow, and people need to not just care, but enjoy learning about cultural requirements, all this in a world where most blogs feature how to nail air plants to a wall. In the US too, nurseries which specialize in rock plants are few and far between. We need to find a reason for people to care, first, about such plants (save the high elevation alpines? vs worrying about non GMO perhaps?). Certainly, aesthetics, ease of culture and caring about something, adds to the experience. I've actually had young, hip garden bloggers write me such things as "I always thought those troughs were just tacky 1970's concrete planters and not meant to emulate sinks - thanks for sharing") so perhaps, we need to re-educate as well.

Lowcarb team member said...

Fashion changes all the time and it reflects on all aspects .... including gardens.

Sometimes plants come into fashion and then move out again.

In my opinion you can't beat the old fashioned cottage type gardens.

It's true alpines seem to be on a slight decline.

All the best Jan

Susan in the Pink Hat said...

Damn, those are gorgeous tufa walls. This, I thought I'd never say.

Roger Brook - No Dig Gardener said...

We oldies remember when every major flower show had wonderful rock garden displays. It is not fashionable now to strip rock from the wild -its not just peat that is politically incorrect these days!
In some ways the tendency to small gardens these days might suggest greater popularity of alpines, but lets face it they can be difficult to grow well and most people's knowledge comes from shallow and trendy tv.
I love alpines and when a special one such as Gentiana acaulis or verna starts to come into flower it still gives me a thrill

Wojciech Pomianowski said...

Except for diffculties in alpine plant growing, there is something fundamentally wrong with the whole setup, that is alpine ecosystem being squeezed into a garden. I do a lot of mountaineering and love surrounding landscape - in a rock garden (mostly) I feel like in a Disneyland. You simply can't transplant a landscape.

After saying that I must admit I DO TRY very humble rock gardening myself. I restrain to 1) small, specific areas (never more than 1sq. m) among non-alpines, 2) naturally sloping areas close to my house. I hope I would be able to create pockets of alpine plants without creating a rock garden. I will need few years to see if it works.

Another reason for rock gardening decline that comes apparent even with this approach is that alpine plants do not mix well with other plants and trees in terms of sunshine, air-flow and dipping rainwater. So true rock garden is limiting to the rest of the garden.

Peter Reason said...

I think that alpines should be used more these days, because we're in the age of small gardens and you can pack in quite a number into a small space and that will provide year round flowering and winter interest.
Alpines can be used in containers, or plant a few by the front door, or in a raised bed next to the patio, etc.
The problem is that people perceive alpines as being fussy and that they need to be at a high altitude(!) - some obviously will fall into that bracket, but most will survive happily in our gardens.
I hope this (very broad) group of plants will become more used by the general public.

Norma said...

I'm looking forward to having a small green roof on a bin store my husband is going to build for me - soon, I hope. I think it would be suitable for alpines. What do you think?