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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 25 April 2011 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 181.

Racing through

  Just occasionally I look through the entries for past years and think 'Oh dear, thats the fourth year in succession I have pictured that', or, 'Good Heavens, thats flowering a month earlier than last year'. It is definitely the second sentiment that is predominating at present. The hard spell in 2009-10 occurred mostly after Christmas and continued well into February, followed by a cool spring with late frosts. Despite the desperate weather before Christmas this year, 2011 has been largely open, and in the case of March and April, extremely dry, and latterly, sunny and warm. Looking at the entries for May 16th and May 21st 2010, it is clear that flowering during last spring was a full month later than this one. 

However, should we surmise that we now have 'May in April', and I did say that in the Cleveland Show report which I wrote and sent off yesterday, checking back further to 2009 and especially 2008 reveals that the present spell and state of flower is in fact not untypical for the late 'noughties'. Rather it was last year that was so exceptional. 

Finally, today, it is cooler after the best part of two weeks of exceptionally warm weather, but it is still bright and sunny. The garden has got to the stage that I have used the 'up and over' watering system several times, and I am spraying plunge plants, seedlings and alpine house plants every other evening, something I usually reserve for a warm July. Although one of my alpine houses (the one that keeps its plants during the summer) has automatic watering from drip feeds, still many plants benefit from an overhead soak after a hot dry day, if only to cool the leaf temperatures, so critical with many Himalayan and Chinese subjects in particular. I have a spray attachment on the hose, but I have also found that if instead of spraying the plants themselves, I direct the high-pressure spray to the walls and roof of the alpine house, a gentle fine rain falls on the plants themselves which they greatly prefer to the direct spray. Everything gets sprayed, Primula allionii, P. bracteata, aretian androsaces, the lot. Probably this explains why I rarely get any of these subjects to any real size, but most other subjects love this treatment in hot weather, and other plants tend to have a higher priority here.


 John Innes Composts

 No doubt my friends and family think of me as a 'grumpy old man', and I recognise that I occasionally fail to suffer fools as much as I should, but nevertheless I try to look on the positive side of things, and I try never to complain, at least in public. 

I do have a real target this week however, and the subject is purchased John Innes Compost  ('JI3') (in bags from the local Garden Centre). To start with I was expecting to blame the J Arthur Bowers company (William Sinclair Ltd) who are the main suppliers there, but to  be fair I have since tried so-called 'John Innes Compost' from two other well-known suppliers recently, and they seemed no better. 

Until recently, I used commercially purchased JI3 as the basis of most of my potting composts, to which I added coarse sand, perlite, and often sieved garden leaf-mould in various concentrations, but the JI rarely made up more than one-third of the final product, so I would add pelleted slow-release fertiliser as well. But I based the composts on John Innes Compost as I felt that the loam component gave the mix a stability, weight, and slow nutrient release; a 'maturity', if you like. 

The original John Innes formulation (worked out in the 1930's at the John Innes Horticultural Institute, then at Merton where my mother was raised) was based on good quality loam with a substantial clay fraction which originated from Northamptonshire or Bedfordshire To this was added coarse sand, for improved drainage, sphagnum peat for water retention and air-spaces, with added lime to stabilise the pH at about 7, NPK nutrients (7:7:7) and micronutrients. The differences between JI1, 2 and 3 merely reflected how much nutrient has been added; JI 3 has the most, but I used this in my composts as I diluted it so much with nutrient-free components. 

I have looked at William Sinclairs website to check the formulation they use today. This does apparently include all the 'classic' ingredients, but with the addition, and this was never part of the original formulation, of  'composted green waste'. The website does not give the relative proportions of the main components, but a careful examination of my recent purchases strongly suggests that there is a great deal of  hard lumpy 'green waste', and not all that thoroughly composted either, and very little if any loam, and certainly nothing which bears any resemblance to Kettering loam. In fact the structural make-up and texture of the so-called 'John Innes' is so far from what I am looking for as a basis to my potting composts, that I have stopped using it and have replaced it with 'multi-purpose', peat-based composts. No not very 'Green', but we will have a debate about the use of peat in horticulture on another occasion, if you wish.


More mecs

 I seem to have figured a number of different species Meconopsis at about this time of year, a rather changing cast-list as many are monocarpic, and even if I am successful in saving seed, there tends to be a blank year as what are essentially biennials build up to flowering size. Last week I pictured M. henrici, and the famous 'scarlet flag', M. punicea from north-west China. More have since come into flower, four at the present count, and I have already made a number of crosses. In this warm dry weather it seems to be maturing pollen more quickly than usual.

Since then, its frequent co-habitee from China, M. quintuplinervia, Farrer's 'Harebell Poppy' has come into flower, both in pots and in the garden, just too late for the Cleveland Show. These were grown from seed last year, mostly from Meconopsis Group seed, and these too have now been crossed.

More mecs

 Another meconopsis, which I have never flowered successfully before is M. simplicifolia. This mostly Nepalese species is not often grown nowadays, perhaps because it is considered to be an inferior close relative of the magnificent M. grandis and its hybrids, being invariably monocarpic, smaller and (like many M. grandis) with flowers of a rather impure colour (although there are some good sky-blue strains). Certainly, it tends to merge into M. grandis in the wild, and the two species are not always clearly demarcated, although they are distinct enough in the garden. I have a number of M. simplicifolia flowering at the moment, and I took a couple along to Cleveland, where they were ignored, possibly rightly so.

 I showed it a month later last year (indeed I can't remember ever seeing a 'big blue mec' in flower in April before), but M. grandis 'Early Sikkim' has already opened its first, huge, flower.

 Another plant I liked, but the Judges ignored at Cleveland, was good old Rhododendron keiskei 'Yaku Fairy'. Certainly, it has never been so good here before.

 Another 'first' for April is a Saluenense rhodo, any Saluenense rhodo, in flower. Yet Rh. calostrotum is already in full flower, here with Rh. impeditum.

 A lot of plants that are at their best now, Paeonia caucasica (I was glad to learn from Vojtech Holubec at the International that this is being regarded as a good species again), Fritillaria pallidiflora, Cytisus purpureus, Dicentra 'King of Hearts', Dianthus brevicaulis all have featured in recent years and do not yet bear repetition. Instead, here is Ramonda nathaliae, because I have learnt a lesson here. I have grown this, the earliest and my favourite ramonda, since 1991 when I purchased a plant from John Lawson (Jack Drakes Nursery, near Aviemore). This is not the fabled JJA introduction, with its notably large flowers, and for years I have grown it on the north side of a limestone boulder where it has grown well, formed a colony, and flowered profusely, with nicely coloured but not especially large flowers.

From time to time I have been able to winkle out side rosettes to put elsewhere in the garden, and one of these was placed between limestone rocks in a fishbox trough, more or less on the flat. And this year it has flowered with huge flowers, at least the equal of the JJA plant. Perhaps flower size in this species is a symptom of  aspect rather than genes?

 The European gesneriads, with the noted exception of Jancaea heldreichii (still in good heart here but not apparently destined to flower this year) are good garden plants, and nothing like so choosy as to garden position as many think (and I thought for many years), certainly in a humid cool garden such as this. We have all three of the ramondas, and both 'normal' and white flowered Haberleas. The latter, H. rhodopensis 'Virginalis' originated from Randle Cooke's garden , 'Kilbryde' near Corbridge, where there were big clumps in the wall above the lawn. I suppose I have grown it for 36 years and the original plant has grown very large. Here is a colony of 'babies', also established from side rosettes, and also flourishing'on the flat'.

 Another plant from the Rhodope, on the Greek-Bulgarian border, and further west, for instance on Kajmaktcalan on the Makedonian border where we collected seed on the MESE expedition, is Geum coccineum. Nothing like so showy as some of its garden hybrids, it is nevertheless the most vibrant scarlet, and we are happy to maintain a small colony and send in seed some years.

 Finally, two 'blossom' trees from the front gate. We inherited both of these, and they do not perform well every year, but this has been a superb year for rosaceous spring blossom'. The dark red is I think Malus 'Profusion' and the Prunus 'Amanogawa'. Both were probably planted in 1977 when the house was built. I wouldn't have chosen either, but there is no substitute for maturity.

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