A North Wales Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: March 2014 - Entry 16
Spring comes slowly but surely to North wales
It has not been a particularly cold March, but neither has it been warm for most of the time, so spring has begun to unfold slowly, which is nice because it gives one the opportunity to enjoy particular plants for a longish season. If they can be seen, that is, because the persistent blustery winds, often reaching gale force in the earlier months of the year, deposited an unusually large load of twigs, larger branches, leaves and an exceptionally heavy fall of conifer needles on all the beds. But of course they are particulalrly noticeable and tedious to remove when covering alpines and other small plants. So a lot (I would almost say most) of my time in the garden has been spent removing them to the compost heap, and the job is not completed yet!
Anyway, let's look at a few plants that seem to have been worth photographing recently, starting with saxifrages, many of which have still to reach their best, some of which seem to have suffered in terms of flower power as a result of the constant soaking they have received for the past six months. Pride of place must go to the stunning cushion of Sax. oppositifolia 'Splendens' that sits in the corner of a trough and just gets better year on year, making it by far the best of it's many varieties in my garden. Of a similar colour but not yet quite as fully covered with flowers is S. 'Allendale Elf', one of the best of Ray Fairbairn's red selections. Another of my favourites is S. 'Cumulus', raised and named by my good friend Ron Beeston in the early 1990s. Both of these are often successful on the showbench where 'Cumulus' is usually snow white, whereas in my garden the flowers take on a tinge of pink as soon as they start to age.
Only now really at its best is Sax. sempervivum, which is one of those plants that needs to be observed really closely to be fully appreciated, and this applies to the hard silver leaf rosettes as well as the red-hairy flower stalks, the flowers themselves being insignificant. The first picture here is of the plant growing wild on the marble slopes of the Trigrad Gorge in the Rhodopi Mts. of Bulgaria, which I photograhed while on a Naturetrek tour in 2009, the second taken a few days ago in my garden where it is growing in a sunny raised bed.
In nearby crevices some of the best hybrid primulas thrive, including the swan white P. Aire Mist', which lasts pure and unaffected by wind or rain for a good two weeks, and the equally desirable old pink hybrid, P. 'Clarence Elliott'. Their reliability is perhaps all the more surprising when it is realised that both have P. allionii as one of their parents (the other being P. 'Blairside Yellow' in the case of 'Aire Mist' and 'White Linda Pope' in that of 'Clarence Elliott), but hybrid vigour is the reason, and I for one am all for taking advantage of that. A snobbish disregard for hybrids as necessarily being 'blowsy', 'out of character' and so forth, leaves me cold, although that is not to say that I do not value most highly the fact that so many of the plants we grow, unlike those in almost all other branches of horticulture, are wild species. It is just that, in the garden, as far as I am concerned, any good plant is worth its place regardless of parentage or provenance.
Another excellent primula for the garden is P. marginata 'Napoleon', collected by Henry and Margaret Taylor from the emplacements occupied by Napoleon's army in the Maritime Alps. The plant shown is about 8 years old and ready to be broken up and propagated, but it makes such a good show that I am reluctant to grasp the nettle; I have kept it going this long by working good gritty compost in amongst the ever-extending trunks each year after flowering, which stimulates the production of adventitious roots that then keep the whole plant 'together' for another year.
One or two early rhododendrons have been particularly good this year because we have had little or no frost. R. leucaspis is a very hardy plant but the flowers are browned off by even a fairly moderate frost, but when seen at its best it is a lovely plant. R. x cilpinense (R. ciliatum x moupinense) is a little more frost hardy but it is not often that it is seen as good here as in the accompanying photograph.
Some pulsatillas are almost over already, including P. slavica which I originally grew in the 1980s from seed collected in the Carpathians and sent to me by Jaroslav Kazbal - I have kept it ever since. But P. 'Budapest Blue Seedling' is only now beginning to open, while forms of P. vulgaris offer only the promise of their furry flower buds - you willl have to wait until next month's edition of this diary to enjoy them!
A few extras
Do you like forsythias but feel that they grow too big for your garden and are ugly plants when not in flower? If so you may be surprised to learn that there is a very free-flowering dwarf cultivar called 'Maree d'Or ('Courtasol'), which will spread quite widely and maybe sucker, but will not exceed a metre in height. It adds a really bright splash of colour in an alpine bed at this time of year; propagation is easy as with all these plants from cuttings of half-ripe wood, or if you forget to take them at that stage, hardwood cuttings in autumn/winter will do.
Keeping to the yellow theme, a dwarf sub-shrub not often seen in cultivation, and very rare in its natural habitat in Croatia, is Fibigia triquetra. I grew this member of the Brassicaceae from seed kindly sent to me by Joy Bishop, after I had admired her plant on the show bench. For some time I grew it planted out in a tufa bed in my alpine house, but having raised quite a few plants I tried some outside and, as you see, it thrives in our wet climate and is a thoroughly good plant, flowering early over quite intensely silver foliage.
And finally, in one of my raised beds growing in partial shade is one of my favourite trilliums, T rivale. I have three forms, the almost pure white one shown here, a lovely pale pink form given to me by Frank and Gladys Stallard many years ago, and a seedling from 'Purple Heart', which has heavy maroon spotting rather than the solid maroon blotch of its parent. If only T. nivale was as easy to grow in my garden; I have it, but only just; any advice out there?