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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 28 April 2016 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 316.

Busy bee

I was proud to have known the late Matthew, Lord Ridley, and he gave me a number of good plants. Most of these grew vigorously, not surprising when you consider he had some 50 acres to cultivate at Blagdon, north of Newcastle. Some were a little too enthusiatic for a garden one hundreth of the size, including a persicaria, which I never knew the name of but now find is Persicaria microcephalum 'Red Dragon'. This is still under ground as I write, but later forms a mass of prettily variegated foliage which turns a brilliant red in autumn. It is valued ground cover in the wilder parts of the garden, but it came to completely dominate one fairly small bed, raised by means of one tier of railway sleepers ('ties').

As I was in danger of losing several valued plants, I spent this morning excavating this bed, and the accompanying photo shows a barrow overflowing with its rhizomes. This was in fact the first of two such barrowfuls, intertwined with other noisesome weeds such as Vicia sepium (vetch) and Veronica chamaedrys (germander speedwell).

Busy bee

Here is the bed, emptied of weeds, persicaria and plants. I had to carefully excavate a self-sown Daphne mezereum (a plant which always dies when I plant it, successfully choosing its sites autonomously), but managed to get the enormous root system out undamaged, so have hopes for its survival. A Rhododendron x fragrantissimum (starved by the persicaria) and several large alliums were also saved, together with abundant snowdrops and muscaris.

When I was quite sure the bed was free of weeds, I barrowed in five loads of well-rotted compost which went on top of the remaining spent soil. The reserved plants went straight back in, a good mornings work, just before the freezing rain (and we have had some dreadful weather) started for the afternoon. The bed is still mostly empty, despite the rescue of two francoas, some verbascum, and a scabious, and will provide homes when some of this years seedlings are ready in a couple of months or so. 

Yesterday I took pity on a small raised bed, not much bigger in size than a large trough, which had been largely occupied by two large creeping penstemons. After several successful years the latter had almost disappeared, so cuttings were taken of the remnants, and the skeletons excavated, together with a Daphne blagayana, equally moribund, and some saxifrages and sempervivums in better condition. The gravel top-dressing was reserved into two buckets and the remaining compost dumped in a wild part of the garden. 

This gave me a chance to use the remains of the rotted leaf-mould, now 18 months old and in very good condition. It was mixed with one bucket of gravel, and some lime and slow-release fertiliser added. I know the leaf-mould I make is very acid, so the lime will help to counteract this, particularly as most of the plants in the bed are lime-lovers.

The area was then replanted, including a few early 'rescues' from the persicaria bed (Primula marginata, P. spectabilis and Pseudomuscri azureum amongst them). It is shown here before the bucket of reserved gravel was put back as top-dressing.


I write this upstairs, looking over the garden, and in particular I can see what is now a substantial crinodendron in which our musical blackbird (see last week) and his missus have built their nest. They have spent the last couple of hours mobbing a magpie and I have been up and down the stairs in a vain attempt to chase the magpie away. In fact the blackbirds, working in tandem, had not been doing a bad job themselves (a magpie is not that much bigger than a blackbird). However, unbeknown to any of us, a crow had been observing the whole charade with considerable interest, and while all three were occupied, crashed into the bush, emerging with a blue egg, to be chased by the frustrated magpie! I need hardly say, the blackbirds are completely beside themselves in fury and despair.

Jack frost

Despite an unseasonably cold spell, and some light grass frosts, we had escaped the effect of severe frosts until last night. When I awoke this morning, even the roofs of the glasshouses were frosted, and it was clear that we had suffered a substantial air frost. The effects of this on tender flowers has been very varied. Our Magnolia x soulageana, still only emerging into flower, has escaped largely unscathed, and the big Camellia 'Donation' in the shelter of the house is completely untouched. Even more remarkably, the large Rhododendron pseudochrysanthum, which is covered with brilliant pink buds, seems quite unharmed.

Jack frost

Rhododendron 'Dora Amateis' is also untouched. I have noted in the past how this excellent hybrid seems able to withstand a light frost when in flower. However, all the open flowers on a huge Rhododendron 'Carmen' have been frosted, as has Rh. cephalanthum and the remaining flowers on Rh. Ptarmigan and at least some of the flowers on Rh. Snow Lady'.

Rhododendron 'Dora Amateis'

A rolling stone.......

...tends to gather far too much moss in this north-facing, cool, humid garden. I have a real problem with cushions and mats which get invaded with moss (usually Calliergonella cuspidata for the cognoscenti, who will also have noticed that I am using its brand-new generic name, courtesy of a few bryological days out during the winter).

The only solution I am aware of is to painstakingly pick out the moss, which seems best done at this time of year in dryish weather. Here first is Silene acaulis 'Frances' (which never flowers by the way), which I have already picked over, not entirely sucessfully. However the moss takes a back seat in the drier summer air, and the cushion may then seem effectively moss-free..

A rolling stone.......

A far worse case is this Draba bryoides, one of two, which have virtually stopped flowering now because of moss. I have grown this plant a long time. In a pan, it helped me win the 'big six' at Harrogate in 1988. It all seems a long time ago.....

Its not all bad. Porophyllum saxifrages seem untroubled by moss, and  these Saxifraga scardica look very lovely now.

Saxifraga scardica

Here is Saxifraga 'Mollie Bloom', who I seem to recall was a naughty Dublin girl, but who has been remembered in this offspring of S. cinerea, even lovelier perhaps.

Saxifraga 'Mollie Bloom'

Near the above sax in the same sand-bed is this Androsace pyrenaica x carnea hybrid.

Androsace pyrenaica x carnea

However, undoubtedly what is my favourite cushion plant of the moment is the first flowering of my Benthamiella patagonica. Classified in Solanaceae, this must be the most condensed potato of all!

Aciphyllas seem to be right out of fashion and are rarely encountered either in the garden or the show-bench these days. This is a shame as they are at worst quirky, and some are lovely foliage plants. Given a cool place with good drainage some are not difficult in the open garden. This A. monroi has grown here for about seven years.

Aciphylla monroi

Although I have raised quite a few primula hybrids, up to now I had only named two ('Sheila' and 'Ruby Tuesday') which have received a limited circulation. However this new hybrid is I think the best so far. It is an offspring of 'Waverley' and I have called it 'The Flying Scotsman'. Now, I think this is really witty, but you have to be a railway buff to understand why.

Primula 'The Flying Scotsman'


As the blessed Vic, may her soul rest easy, wrote:

'...and for you in the North, I really am terribly sorry, it must be awful for you'

Living in the far north (of England anyway) I just find this hilariously funny, not least because Miss Wood herself, a northern girl through and through (if Greater Manchester counts, which at times I wonder about), the funniest woman, nay person, ever, undoubtedly knew that we have the best scenery, roads (no cars!!), villages, people, and above all, affordable accomodation. I couldn't afford a small flat in most of London today, let alone half an acre of ground. Why doesn't everyone live here? Well jobs, but if I was a major employer, I would up sticks to the North immediately so that everyone could share in the bounty. Amazingly, such moves seem to be unpopular. Someone needs to sell the north.

At times over the last week as we shivered in northerly gales at 3 C, lashed with sleet and hail, I could see where folk were coming from. And then the wind shifted, the sun came out, and everything in the garden was lovely. And in any case, it were horrid everywhere, weren't it?

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