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Cambridge University Botanics Mountain Plants Diary

This entry: December 2012 Winter work by Helen Seal and Simon Wallis

It’s December and winter has arrived.

In the Rock Garden, the deep frost of 12th December delighted the few brave visitors. We had deliberately left un-cut those herbaceous flowering stems still intact, and here the easy-growing Calamintha nepetoides (syn Clinopodium nepeta) becomes a remarkable beauty against the backdrop of the frozen lake.

Calamintha nepetoides (syn Clinopodium nepeta)

Calamintha nepetoides (syn Clinopodium nepeta)

The icing-sugar coating on this crucifer in the Balkan bed provokes a new-year resolution to have its name verified when it yellow flowers provide taxonomic detail.

Name the plant!

Name the plant!

Elsewhere we are reminded of tasks to complete this year: these Castanea leaves littering an Australasia bed need careful clearing, having been caught in the barbed Rubus squarrosus and the pesky, burred Acaena inermis. Pesky to gardeners that is, as these seed-head burrs hook into our gloves and socks and any fleecy clothing, as they must do to sheep’s fleeces, and we become unwilling agents in distributing their seed.

Meanwhile in the alpine yard, buds are emerging and we gardeners grow excited in anticipation of their growth, and simultaneously slightly anxious that their budding is premature, that they would have been better to stay under the surface and not be exposed to chilling winds and frosts.

These Trillium albidum first emerged in November,

These Trillium albidum first emerged in November,

This cold weather is the time for maintenance, and we have a very time-consuming job with the cedar slatted blinds which shade and cool the display glasshouse. Contemporary glasshouses use silver-foil backed fabric to control temperatures, but these would be quite out-of keeping with our 1920s teak glasshouses, so as part of the recent restoration of the Glasshouse Range, we commissioned new wooden slatted blinds to replace those that had been in place for about thirty years and had come to the end of their useful life.. We were able to do this with the aid of a generous grant from the Hendry Bequest of the Alpine Garden Society! We are therefore taking good care of them, and have taken them down to sand and oil with teak oil while shading is not required.

A small selection of the cedar blinds during maint

None of us having done this particular job before, we found after some experimentation that an orbital sander was the right tool for the job, being neither too fiddly nor too robust. Our communal potting shed was rather noisy and dusty during this process, so we had to alternate with the pot-washing team.

It is astonishing how much oil these thin slats absorb, and the smell is so outrageous that this has to be done in the open air. Danny Burlingham, this section’s current horticultural trainee is weathering both the cold and pungent smell. He is at least under the protection of the alpine yard canopy.

Back in the office, we have been having fun with the prodigious seed lists produced by both the AGS and Scottish Rock Garden Club, and alpine nursery catalogues. Like all growers, we have to remind ourselves that our growing space is finite and that each species and cultivar has to earn its place in the collection. Oh, but it’s so easy to be seduced.

 

Our seed store -  yes, biscuit tins with desiccating silica gel in a domestic fridge, just  like amateur growers -  already holds plenty of seed for us to either sow in the spring, or now for vernalising. During the cold snap we reviewed which species we want to resow next year either to replace plantings that have died or expand those that are too modest. We also review the pots of ungerminated seed which we keep for three years. Some we hardly expected to be viable as the seed was ten  years old, found abandoned in the seed store, but others were disappointing. We will change our seed compost next year. Seed failure produces as much record keeping as success, as we try to learn from both.

 

The season’s work includes arranging the visiting festive folk in the display house, all to scale of course


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Happy Christmas!

Happy Christmas!
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