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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 10 April 2016 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 314.

An (almost!) Centenarian's garden.

They say that gardening tends to be an inherited passion. In my case, I was lucky enough to be raised in a large Reading garden, nearly an acre in extent, not far from the University campus. Both my parents were keen gardeners, but although my father died young, my mother continued to garden, despite failing eyesight, much encouraged by the garden group of the Reading University wives club. When in her early seventies, this garden finally proved too much for her to cope with alone, and she downsized to another house close nearby. However, far from abandoning the pursuit of gardening, the 'new' garden, although a good deal smaller, was also a substantial size and furthermore was full of good mature plants having been designed and laid out by Richard Bisgrove, late of the Department of Horticulture at the University of Reading.

Remarkably, my mother, now well into her hundreth year, still lives in that house, although her garden days are now past and she is effectively blind. It is to the credit of the strong garden design, and my brother's hard work (occasionally abetted by my wife and I) that this garden continues to remain manageable, and to give pleasure. It is a spring garden, essentially, and I thought I would celebrate it, and my mother, with a few pictures taken during a visit last week. First a general view, dominated by a large Magnolia x soulangeana.

An (almost!) Centenarian's garden.

A path, bordered by hellebore seedlings (my own favourite black seedling was dug from here).

A variety of shrubs by the front gate, including Photinia 'Red Robin' and a variegated Pittosporum tenuifolium (one of several).

Primroses are naturalised by the hundred all over the garden in a variety of colours. The wonderful pink P. vulgaris ssp. sibthorpii which I have exhibited for years and have distributed to friends was selected from here too. I cannot find its equal in the garden today.

Camellias are a feature of the garden, although they are mostly in too much shade to flower well. This one is growing with a surviving Euphorbia characias.

It is but a short walk through Whiteknights Park to the Harris Botanic Garden of the University of Reading. This enlightened University, in its delightful setting, has robustly supported its Botanic Garden, which is now reaching an elegant maturity. This contrasts vividly with my own pusillanimous erstwhile employer who preemptorily closed its own excellent Botanic Garden a couple of years ago, as I recorded in these pages at that time. Neither its University or its football club is doing much for the City of Newcastle at present!

Strolling through the Harris Garden last week, I encountered this memorial plaque. I remember Dan Lewis well. He was one of a cohort of Welsh plant geneticists spawned by the University College and Plant Breeding Station at Aberyswyth at least two of whom (unrelated) were called Lewis so that, in the Welsh fashion, they were known by their profession. Dan was 'Incompatibility Lewis', not for any personal characteristics. but because he was one of the founding fathers of the science of incompatability in plant breeding systems, a study which kept me out of mischief for several decades.

Some rhodos

Back home, it is proving a good year for rhodo flower. Although some nights have been perilously close, it is now a few weeks since our last proper frost, so we have yet to suffer the bugbear of damaged rhodo flower. Theres still plenty of time! Rh. barbatum has been magnificent for weeks, and has drawn comments from passers-by on the road who glimpse the vivid flowers through the hedge. They tend to be startled when, weeding unseen on the other side, I answer back! Equally scarlet, but as yet producing only a few clusters at its first flowering, is Rh. haematodes. This was bought as a young plant for the Newcastle Botanic Garden, and, on its closure, rescued and transferred here.

Rhododendron haematodes

Also usually scarlet, but here in its less usual pink form, is Rh. chamaethomsonii, probably as var. chamaethauma from Arunachal Pradesh. This plant originated from Kilbryde, Randle Cooke's garden, back in the 1970's as an unflowered seedling.

Rhododendron chamaethomsonii v. chamaethauma

Rh. pachysanthum is equally pink.

Rhododendron pachysanthum

Rhododendrons and primulas are often thought to go together, perhaps because both genera tend to thrive in our cool, moist, acidic conditions. Many Asiatic primulas are now coming to their best. Here are two I took to the excellent Chesterfield Show yesterday, firstly P. warshenewskiana in its taller variety rhodantha. This grows outside in a fishbox during the year, covered in winter with a cloche, but was lifted for the show. It has already been returned to its nest!

Primukla warschenewskiana v. rhodantha

In contrast, what we should now call Primula henrici subspecies dubernardiana, lives in a pot in the alpine house all year. Most of my seedlings collapsed after the winter, but this one mysteriously thrived. I have no idea what caused this one to live!

Primula henrici ssp. dubernardiana

I can take little credit for this flowering of Primula obtusifolia as I acquired the plant from Kevock Nursery only a few weeks ago.

Primula obtusifolia

Back in the garden, most Primula denticulata have scarcely broken the ground. However, this red plant, which may be Robinson's Red, named for a Carlisle Nursery, is always early. It is seen here with a seedling of P. elatior ssp. pallasii (which has probably crossed with a primrose), and a plain-leaved, white-flowered Erythronium seedling, which I think must be a first flowering for the rare (in cultivation) and difficult E. montanum. I have certainly grown this from seed in the past, and planted it out, but had thought it lost.

Primula denticulata 'Robinson's Red'

In the front garden, a planting of Primula marginata 'Shipton' and Primula 'Hyacintha' is at its peak.

Primula albenensis is a small and dainty relative of P. marginata from much further west in the Italian prealps where it was only discovered some 25 years ago. Grown in the Alpine House, I find it is a martyr to greenfly and botrytis, so that at the end of the winter it is a sad sight. However, if the old leaves are carefully removed without damaging buds, the new crop of leaves at flowering time restores its good looks. Later in the year, it is best placed in a shady place under glass.

Primula albenensis

Also grown in the alpine house, but with a sunnier disposition, is this excellent form of Primula villosa. Often victorious on the Show Bench, it was totally ignored yesterday. By way of compensation, further wayward judging resulted in red tickets for Caltha himalaica and Callianthemum anemonoides which triumphed unexpectedly against greatly superior opposition. You can never tell!

Primula villosa Caltha himalaica Callianthemum anemonoides

It was a pleasure a few weeks ago to reacquire Androsace delavayi from Aberconwy Nursery. Thinking hard about its destination, I eventually decided to plant it out into the plunge in the alpine house in a rather shady spot, planted in pure sand plunge. It is only watered by drip feeds to the plunge. So far it looks happy.

Androsace delavayi

To finish with, in celebration of one of the world's great high alpines, is a pink form of A. delavayi growing on the Hong Shan, western China, in 2011.

Androsace delavayi

I was about to sign off when our local blackbird reminded me to extol its musical virtues. Although it sometimes descends into a typical and rather unmusical blackbird babble, this bird more usually sings in pure arpeggios. He uses two themes, both distinctive and quite complex, and both, invariably, in E Major. He is more blessed with perfect pitch than I am, so that I have had to continue to whistle his tune while dashing indoors to check on the piano. E Major every time. I can whistle his tunes almost as effectively as he can, and he clearly enjoys this duet, continuing in musical partnership for a minute or more.

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