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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 22 April 2009 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 113.

Irish sojourn

Last Thursday I lectured to the Dublin Group. Despite truly appallling weather, there was a super turn-out of over 80 from all-over, even the North. It was great to talk to such a keen, knowledgeable, attentive audience. As one comes to expect in Ireland, I enjoyed great hospitality. Marcella Campbell took me to Helen Dillon's, where Val Keegan picked me up, took me to lunch, and then to Billy Moore's, where, despite pouring rain, we visited a fascinating small nursery, before enjoying a meal before the lecture. Afterwards I was taken to south of Dun Laoghaire where I was very well looked after by Jamie Chambers and his charming family. Afterwards I had a great ride on the DART all the way round Dublin Bay to Howth where Declan Doogue and I went dandelioning again.

Helen Dillon is a legend in Irish gardening. With only about three million people, Ireland is a small country, but it is difficult to convey the extent to which her influence pervades Irish horticulture. She had a long-running television programme, has a regular newspaper column, regularly appears on the radio and is ever-present in Irish (and American) garden magazines. I have been to her garden on two previous occasions, and on this visit I was lucky to be able to spend three hours there.

There can be no doubt that Helen's garden deserves every accolade it receives. As in many great gardens, studied informality is set against rigid boundaries, to stunning effect. Helen has great colour sense, and every corner of the garden has been carefully thought out and meticulously planted and maintained. I suspect that one of her many secrets is her generosity. One soon learns not to admire any plant, for no sooner are the words out, than a generous wodge is swiftly extricated and wrapped in wet paper. At least this allows no one subject to dominate!

Another secret is to never to let well alone. Helen is always experimenting, changing plantings, and the garden always looks at its best, so there must be many seasonal replacements. A good current example are the silver dustbins which are set off so well by the slate surrounds to the central 'canal'. There must have been 30, planted with tulips. While we were there, another 20 were delivered!

Frequently, I have commented that the Alpine Garden Society is misnamed, if only that it is very much a plant society rather than a garden society. Very little is ever said about the garden, or design, in AGS fora. Helen is a member of the AGS, but she could teach us all a great deal on how to incorporate alpines into the milieu. She claims not to grow alpines, but this is far from true. She grows very many alpines, all wonderfully well, but rarely do you see them in context, but rather as part of a wider picture. For instance, in this picture of a brick-built raised bed, classic alpines are mixed in with succulents and small border perennials.

If you think the aloe in the background is an anomaly, look how they are incorporated here into a wider context. Apparently most are overwintered outside unprotected. Just one or two are taken inside for the winter and then sunk into the garden in pots.

It is the mark of a really good garden that every plant is beautifully grown, and immaculate. Just look at the celmisias in the last photo. Celmisias are a feature of the garden, if good foliage subjects, and Helen must have almost the last individual of 'David Shackleton' left in Ireland.

This next photo is of a signature plant, said to be a form of C. semicordata, but in my view more likely to represent a selection of C. monroi.

This form of Trillium chloropetalum is a good example of a Dillon plant, immaculately grown and ideally suited.

Scarcely an alpine, but I cannot resist finishing with her superb Kaka beak, Clianthus puniceus, growing on the house wall. They say Dublin can be cold, but I couldn't do this in Hexham!

Back to Blighty

Lots of things to report on my return. Lets start with the little garden of home-made tufa, now almost exactly a year old. Arnebia pulchra (syn echioides) was on its last legs before, but has perked up considerably since its living quarters have improved. The difference between the early flowers, touched with the Prophet's fingers, and the later ones, pristine yellow, add much to the charm of this attractive plant.

Back to Blighty

Just along from here is Primula auricula, grown from wild seed. This makes an interesting contrast with the southern P. balbisii, posted two logs ago. Note the funnel-shaped flowers lacking a ring of farina, and the longer, mealy leaves lacking marginal hair-glands.

At the base of the tufa mound is a colony of Tulipa urumiensis of many years standing. This is one of the most persistent tulip species outside.

Moving along the alpine terrace to the crevice bed, I have been pleased with a small colony of the American Draba condensata that has established here. Given good drainage, this seems perfectly happy outside without protection, which is more than can be said for most of the cushion-forming Turkish species.

Another plant that has succeeded here, again without cover, is Androsace mucronifolia from the western Himalaya.

Step inside
This brings us to a quick visit to the alpine house. Androsace mariae is flowering for the first time, collected on the Tibet-China border. Not surprisingly perhaps, this has developed much more leggily than plants I found on the Zhedou Pass in 2007, and which are figured second. It is easy to confuse this species, named for Maria (who?), with A. mairei, named for the French missionary Fr. Maire, which is also doing well, but I featured last year at this time of year.

Step inside

Another plant grown from seed last year is Primula reidii var. williamsii. I have several in pots, but this one is planted out in pure sand in the alpine house. The unslightly pipes are from the Gardena automatic watering system installed in that house 19 years ago and still going strong (there's an advert!). This plant is completely trouble free and gets nothing except an occasional feed with a weak Tomorite solution.

I have mentioned before that Fritillaria elwesii is one of the most successful species outside here. It is somebody's law that in my view this is about the least attractive of all frits, but one of the joy's of photography is that almost anything can look half decent in the right light. This is followed by what was claimed to be a form of F. acmopetala, but to my eyes seems just as close to F. pontica.

One final flourish in this lengthy epistle. Over the years I have introduced a few forms of British natives into cultivation, Anthriscus sylvestris 'Raven's wing' and Succisa pratensis 'Cassop' are two that have entered commerce. A few years ago, I spotted a pink form of the common Wood Sorrel, Oxalis acetosella, in a local wood, and introduced a few tubers from the patch, having asked the landlord who happens to be English Heritage. This has turned out to be a delightful little ground cover subject that I am now getting about, to the extent that I took a couple to Ireland. I have called it 'Aydon Castle' after the locality at which it was found.

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