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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 12 April 2012 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 211.

A chance to catch up with whats been happening in the garden over the last 10 days. After a warm and dry March, April has been consistently rather cold, windy and wet; also mostly sunless. This has held up matters considerably. It is Chesterfield Show in two days time and I hope to take several plants which first appeared at the Hexham Show and then again at Cleveland, having stayed in good condition for over two weeks. Such a contrast from the rapid withering of March blooms!

One example of a long-laster has been the primula I raised about eight years ago from open-pollinated seed taken from Primula 'Philip', a marginata cross with very intensely coloured flowers. The other parent was probably a wild form of P. auricula. Originally I named this 'Sheila' for my wife, but I understand there is already a yellow Auricula named 'Sheila', so I am calling it (at least informally to myself) 'Amethyst' as it is that rather unusual colour.

A sister seedling is also a rather unusual colour. It seems unable to clump up into a big plant like 'Amethyst', but is easily propagated by dibbing cutings into the sand plunge. I call it 'Ruby Tuesday' after the Stones' song, and it has had a limited circulation.

Staying with my own primula crosses, I raised some seedlings this year from another favourite plant with intensely blue flowers, 'Waverley', originally raised by Harold McBride in Northern Ireland and named after his road. I have provisionally named this seedling 'Auld Reekie', through a tenuous link to Scotland's Capital City, and the imagined colour of the night sky there.

One feature of this years flowering seem to be plants that have flowered poorly, or one-sidedly, even though they have been turned regularly. I guess the reason has often been the failure to pot on a plant, even though it was regularly given liquid feeds during the past summer. A good example has been P. pedemontana (and also its white form) both of which have given a pale shadow of their performance last year. I did feature the white form then, so here is the pink plant, performing less well this year.

Another 'show banker' which will grace no benches this year is my Lewisia tweedyi 'Rosea', again flowering one-sidedly des[ite regular turning.

I have been disappointed by Andromeda polifolia 'Microphylla' too. This was lifted from the garden several weeks ago (I can't grow it well in a pot), which might explain the one-sided flowering although it has been rotated regularly since. This is one of the snags of lifting plants; they spend most of their lives with light coming from one quarter. It looks OK from this side, but you should see the other!

On plant that has been interesting me is Ophrys ferrum-equinum. I grow very few orchids, and this has been with me for many years, usually in a state of disrepair. The newish bulb plunge seems finally to have suited it and it is flowering for the first time for many years.

Staying inside for a little, I thought I would emphasise my (for me vital) procedure with germinating seed-pans. At this time of year I try to look at the seed-pans, stood outside in all weathers, every day. As soon as there is any sign of germination, the pot is brought into the alpine house (the cooler, shadier one) where it is stood on the edges of the plunge until the seedlings are big enough to prick out (I have already done this for six pans; only about another 64 to go, so far this year!). I have found that if the seedlings are left out, they are prey to slugs, snails and woodlice, not to mention birds and the weather, especially late frosts. I lose most that way, whereas survival inside is very good. They are warmer and grow faster, I can keep a careful eye on them, and every time they are watered they are given a dilute feed of 'Tomorite'.

Once seeds are pricked out, some are definitely happier in the coolth outside. This is certainly true for all meconopsis. Presently I am celebrating the resurgence of my own seedlings of M. rudis from last years sowing which have survived in the plunge outside (covered with a frame light) and look set to flower in a month or so.

Primula edelbergii is approaching its best now. Of all the Sphondylia, or so-called 'desert primulas', (a bit of a misnomer as they tend to occur below north-facing calcareous cliff springs, albeit in very dry areas) this Afghani, which has probably only been seen twice in the wild, at least by a botanical traveller, seems to be the hardiest of its section. It survived the last two horrendous winters reasonably well, although protected under (more or less) unheated glass.

Here is another probably rather tender primula which is very unusual in cultivation. Ignore the fact that it is a primrose! This is the very distinct Mallorcan subspecies of the primrose, P. vulgaris subsp. balearica. The seed of this was a gift from John Bailey of the University of Leicester who has an interest in Balearic endemics. It is a mountain plant from damp north-facing slopes on the highest mountains, for instance Puig Major, and can be found in the vicinity of the road tunnel that runs to the north of that highest eminence. Nevertheless, it is rather tender, and has a reputation for being much more difficult in cultivation than most primroses. This seedling overwintered this last mild winter outside under a frame light, but it is clearly not vigorous.

Two nice little androsaces in the alpine house next. I think the mostly French A. pubescens is one of the rarest of the aretian species in cultivation, which is odd as it seems to be nothing like as difficult as, for instance, A. helvetica. Anyway, this is where I have got to so far with a seed-raised plant.

A. muscoidea hails from much further distant, a native of the western Himalaya, and to judge by the magnificent monster which won a Farrer medal for Don Peace last weekend, is not always that testing a plant. I am new to its culture, for all that I presently grow four individuals from three different accessions, two from seed. Here is one of the seedlings, now in its second year.

Out in the garden, nothing is giving me more pleasure than Stachyrus chinensis. This is another plant I raised from seed, this time shortly after coming here, so I suppose that this plant is now about 18 years old. It is not as showy as its western cousin S. praecox, and is much less well known, but I love it in spring when the low evening light shines through the tiny bells. I find it relishes shelter and hunidity, both in abundant supply in this garden. It is a rather femmer thing which we prop with a forked stick to keep the branches suberect.

I love frits, but to my sorrow, this is not a frit garden on the whole; it is too cool and humid and acid. An exception is the Turkish F. elwesii which even self-sows, a real expression of satisfaction.

Two rhodos to finish with; R. racemosum (another plant not flowering freely this year), and the hybrid 'Dora Amateis'. The latter is one of several rhodos here which caught 'the lurgy', which I think is the cinnabarinum rust, and having nearly died, recovered from a moribund stump to make a thriving plant again. It seems that one cure can be to trim back (and burn) all the affected growth, mulch well, and cross your fingers!

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