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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 17 August 2008 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 87.

Ants in my sax

I do not claim to be an organic alpine gardener. In fact, I wonder how many serious growers of alpines can manage to grow to high standards without some chemical aids? This is not to say that I don't try to garden in what I hope is a fairly balanced and ecologically influenced way. The ponds are a wonderful source of frogs, and consequently mollusc problems (or at least slugs) are minimised. I maintain wild areas at the ends of the garden, in which I allow nettles, hogweed etc to grow until the late summer. The aim is to keep populations of hoverflies high. Not only are they good pollinators and food for birds, but their larvae are ferocious predators of aphids, and I have few if any greenfly attacks outside. We feed birds in winter and provide lots of food (berries, insects) at other times of year, while our large hedges and shrubs provide ideal nest sites. As a result the garden is full of birds, eating our pests as fast as they can.

Not surprisingly, most of my pest problems now occur under glass, and here there are fewer 'green' options. Also, the chances of harming the environment with pesticides is reduced. I rarely use slug pellets in the open ground, where they might be eaten by birds and hedgehogs, but am happy to scatter a few on the plunge. I am also prepared to use 'provado' on pot plants; not that I have a problem with vine weevil; (yet, touch wood!), but to deal with aphids which can do untold damage, particularly in soft cushions of androsaces, drabas and their ilk.

However I have had to deal with a new problem this week. One of the troughs suffered an 'ant attack', in that a nest appeared right next to a cushion of Saxifraga cochlearis 'minor'. Giving the nest a poke caused the ants to bring their 'eggs' (pupae) to the surface as in this photo.

Ants in my sax

This caused me to rummage in the cupboard and come up with 'Bio Wasp Nest Destroyer', relic of a previous drier, warmer and waspier summer. As it was just within its sell-by, and claimed to be equally efficacious against ants, I gave the nest a squirt. This completely covered nest, saxifrage and all with a dense white foam. I left it as it was, and two days later, after a great deal of heavy rain, the problem seemed to have been solved and the saxifrage wore a thankful expression on its cushion.

As inferred, it has continued to be very wet here, not quite the flood proportions that our friends in Northern Ireland have suffered, but enough for me to look hard at young plants in the outside plunge. I have decided that most of the Chinese androsaces have had enough and have brought them into the alpine house. Not so A. bisulca which is glowing with health and seems to relish the rain. Primula nanobella and P. walshii are other tricky subjects seemingly loving the monsoon, and the young Paraquilegia seedlings are growing apace. This flies in the face of the detailed advice given by the donor of the seed, who grows paraquilegia to a hitherto unknown level of excellence, but of course it does come from wet, monsoon-ridden localities. As I have said before, the trick will be to know when to bring it inside.

Only one plant from my garden, and assuredly not an alpine, although a subject from the Chinese mountain riversides. We have grown Ligularia dentata for years, and year after year it has been knocked back by late frosts and has failed to flower. Finally it has built up a reasonable clump and is putting on a brave display.

Howick

Although it is nearly 50 miles from where we live, we count ourselves lucky to have Howick Hall Gardens in our county. Close to a lovely piece of coastline, this was once the home of Lord Grey, the great reformer and his descendant Lord Grey of Falloden. The family married into the Barings who took the title Howick. The late Lady Mary was a great gardener, very hands on and usually found weeding even into a considerable dotage. Her son Charles is one of the most notable collectors of the modern era, and the extensive grounds which run two miles to the sea are planted up with tens of thousands of young trees and shrubs, the seed of most of which was collected by Lord Howick.

There are also fine gardens, water gardens, herbaceous, and a wood, full of primulas, meconopsis and unusual woodland plants. On a visit yesterday I noted how influential the fruits of some spring-flowering woodland subjects can be in the late summer garden. Here are a couple, firstly a Podophyllum, possibly P. peltatum, and then an arisaema, probably A. candidissimum (it should be said that the exemplary labelling of the woody subjects is not repeated for herbaceous plants!).

Howick

Here is Roscoea purpurea (I should imagine) and Lobelia cardinalis.

Query

While we were at Howick, we found a considerable woodland planting of this attractive little plant. I have not the faintest idea what it is. It seems to have a cone of tiny flowers; the white petal-like objects at the base of the cone seem to be four bracts. I am not even sure whether it is a monocot or dicot, let alone what family it belongs to. Any ideas? Please post to the Diary part of the on-line discussion. Thanks.

Query

I do love to be by the seaside...
Earlier the same day we had joined a BSBI outing to Northumberland's famous tidal island, Lindisfarne. Because of the tide we had to leave the island by 1.40, hence the afternoon at Howick. Here are a couple of the showier dune plants at this time of year, Parnassia palustris and Centaurium litorale. The third subject is a bindweed, but what a lovely one, the Sea Bindweed Calystegia soldanella. Perhaps the specific name hints at a touch of class! This was photographed at Warkworth dunes earlier in the week.

Hints of autumn

Finally a visit to the University Botanic Garden that we manage, soggy after all the recent water. Gardening there today, we were both cheered to see a couple of autumnal subjects well advanced, and rather depressed that the season is moving on so fast. Here is Acis (Leucojum) autumnalis, and Cyclamen hederifolium, both photographed this afternoon. I was also pleased to see that Gentiana paradoxa persists there after some years, as we lost its sibling at home.

John Richards

Hints of autumn
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