A North Wales Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: Introduction to our garden - Entry 1 by John Good
This is the first posting in a new monthly diary describing our garden on the North Wales coast
Our current garden, which we have created over the past twenty one years, is our sixth and the third in North Wales. It is by far the most adventurous both in terms of the range of gardening situations we have created and plants we have grown. Since most of the garden design, planing and maintenance are left to me, with Pam helping with weeding and general clearing and tidying, it may be worth, for one time only in these chronicles, revealing my gardening philosophy, which is quite simply to grow anything that takes my fancy and which I feel has a reasonable chance of growing in the conditions I am able to provide. This wish for diversity, which has led me to cultivate all manner of alpines, woodland plants, bulbs, perennials, dwarf shrubs, trees (as long as they will not grow too large!), and even some cool-house orchids, cacti and succulents, is driven by my lifelong interest as a plant ecologist in plant diversity and in trying to understand how particular plants are able to grow in some habitats and not in others - it has always amazed me that plant life is so diverse and that many ecosystems can contain hundreds and in some cases thousands of species. Almost equally intriguing to me is the fact that we can grow such a wide range of plants from almost every temperate region and ecosystem in our gardens, often with minimum intervention. Of course, we all have successes and failures, and much of what will appear in this diary will describe and try to explain them, but the surprising and satisfying thing for me is that on the whole plants grow and thrive without much fuss, and that unresolved failures are relatively infrequent.
So, what is our garden like? If I tell you that it is located on the North Wales coast on a N-facing slope 150 m (450') a.s.l. and only 1 km (three-quarters of a mile) from the sea, you will realise that it is wet (average 1200 mm precipitation/year) and windy, but generally mild, winter temperatures rarely dropping below -5C (28F), and then only for a few days. Paradoxically, though, it is a late garden because being N-facing and with hills behind which cut out direct sunlight for all but a few hours in winter and early spring, and receiving what sunlight it does get at a glancing angle, the soil takes a long time to warm up. As to the nature of the soil, it is derived from glacial drift and is therefore stony and overlies (at varying depths from a few centimeteres to more than a metre) an intractable, compacted clay, which I endeavour never to disturb. The surface material is mostly a well-drained medium silty loam, pH 6.5, but there are areas where springlines emerge that remain permanently moist - a very useful feature when wishing to grow a wide range of plants. Most of the garden benefits from an open aspect, which of courtse suits most alpines, but there are several large mature trees that were planted when the house was built in the late 19thC, including a spendid Himalayan cedar (Cedrus deodora) that, with a silver birch (Betula pendula) given to us by our daughters to commemorate our Silver Wedding, frames the view of the sea from the house. There are three principle areas in the garden, the top level area and series of terraces around the house that provide homes for most of the alpines and other smaller plants, two middle terraces comprising two lawns separated by a long raised bed topped with crevice gardens, with shrub beds on either flank, and the lower garden which is separated from the rest by tall shrubs and is home mainly to a range of choice larger shrubs and small trees, underpalnted with trilliums, erythroniums and the like. Paeonies, especially the species, most of which I have raised from seed, are a special interest and may be found throughout the garden, also daphnes, while members of the huge family Ericaceae are also among my first and abiding loves.
There is not much out in the garden this early in January, and despite the mild winter so far there is no indication of plants being ahead of normal, rather the reverse, with the first snowdrops only starting to open on 6 January, but there are one or two nice bulbs including one of my favourite dwarf narcissi, Narcissus minor 'Cedric Morris', which is always the first to flower here. It is named after a famous artist and horticultualist, Sir Cedric Morris (1889-1982), who had a notable garden in suffolk where he raised huge numbers of plants, but especially bulbs, from seed. Also named for him, among other plants, were an iris, a hardy geranium, and an Oriental poppy. Joy Bishop gave me a few bulbs of the narcissus about 10 years ago and they have increased well so that now as well as having several potfuls for display in my small glasshouse I have a small patch in the garden.
Also in flower are various early flowering species and forms within the group of daffodils usually known, for obvious reasons, as 'hoop petticoats'. Especially good with me is a form of Narcissus romieuxii var. rifanus, from the Rif Mountains in N.E. Morocco., but there are many more and sorting them out taxonomically is a nightmare, at least for me!
Many Kabschia saxifrages are beginning to show signs of opening, but the only one fully out is Sax. x salmonica 'Maria Luisa', growing in a crevice garden in a trough. More about crevice gardens in later entries to this diary, suffice it to say here that to my mind, if well constructed they undoubtedly provide the ideal home for saxatile plants, but that should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen such plants growing in this way in their natural mountain habitats.
Sweetly scented shrubs are one of the joys of late winter and while Viburnum x bodnantense 'Dawn' has been perfuming the air for several months, the witch hazels are only just beginning. While many people like the dark red and orange cultivars, and I concede that they have a place in a largish garden, I much oprefer the pure yellows and among these, of the ones I have grown, Hamamelis x intermedia 'Pallida' and H. x intermedi 'Arnold's Promise' are my favourites, both being very free flowering, the latter in a more golden shade of yellow. Also just coming out, and a good deal later than usual as we often have branches in the house before Christmas, are two forms of Daphne bholua, 'Jacqueline postill' and 'Alba', the latter much less vigorous here but making a lovely rounded bush about 1.5 m high after 8 years. 'Jacqueline Postill' requires regular pruning to keep her in bounds and I cut back with the shears immediately after flowering, an indignity which she suffers without complaint. She, unlike her less vigorous white-flowered sister, produces strong suckers here when well established. If separated from the plant and potted up or planted elsewhere in one step these rarelly survive, much better to sever the root connecting the sucker with the parent plant in the autumn or spring and then leave the sucker alone for six months, during which time it will probably form vigorous new roots that will stand it in good stead when the final separation is made.
Finally, for this month, mention must be made of a small tree that has been gracing a corner of the garden with its succession of pale pink flower clusters throughout the winter, Prunus subhirtella var. autumnalis 'Rosea'. This must be one of the most widely planted trees in smaller gardens, but it is none the less beautiful for that, and like many 'common' plants it is so frequently encountered chiefly because it is such a good and reliable performer.
I almost forgot!
I forgot to include a photograph of one of my favourite winter-flowering shrubs that is, as usual, in full flower now, and will remain so until March - Rhododendron 'Christmas Cheer'. I. always have a truss or two of flowers in the posy on the dining table for Christmas lunch, alonf with the aforementioned daphnes and viburnum to give some scent!