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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 16 August 2009 by John Richards

Soldanella in the Dolomites. Entry 124.

Sticky problem

Around this time of year, the issue of hedge management looms ever larger. Virtually the whole garden is bordered by large, mature hedges, probably more than 250 m in total length. For those two hedges (beech) that skirt the lane and road, I am responsible for the cutting of both sides (and the top!). Until recently I have done this myself by hand, using shears (I am not strong enough to handle a petrol-driven machine, and it is too far for an electrical cable). Now I get the outside and top done professionally. However, despite these ministrations the hedges continue to increase in height and girth, and on two previous occasions I have paid a local farmer to bring  his tractor-mounted flail to reduce the size. This is a very messy procedure and the hedge looks dreadful afterwards, but it soon recovers its equinimity. Once again, the time has come for the flail to be used and I am eagerly awaiting Paul to finish his harvest so he can find time.

I still have to cut the inside of that hedge and the others, and the top of the other two hedges. The mixed hedge (far too much holly and hawthorn!) that separates me from a neighbour has become too high for either of us to cut, and we are awaiting a friend of my neighbour with special equipment (chain saws!) to bring it down to size.

All this not only promises considerable financial outlay and physical effort, but also means that I needed to clear out access to the inside of the hedge, a filthy annual chore. The problem lies chiefly in our huge lime trees. As is the wont of these horrible trees, at this time of year they rain aphids which themselves produce gallons of sweetly sticky frass ('honeydew' sounds far too nice!) as well as clouds of black powdery mould which grows on the honeydew. The suckering and stem growth doesn't help, and neither do the millions of dry flowers that rain on the garden. Here is a photo of part of the lawn yesterday to illustrate quite how acute that problem is.

Sticky problem

The bed on the right of the picture above is presently planted with mostly young plants of seven species of meconopsis, 13 species of asiatic primula and much else, all currently smothered with lime fruits and sticky sugar secretions. Ugh! The plants do benefit from the afternoon shade and humidity the trees provide, and the problem is relatively short-lived (six weeks or so every year) but I would wish that these 130 year old specimens were any other species of tree. In the next photo, you can see how I have taken off the suckers and lower growth to bare the ivy-covered trunk and provide access to the the hedge (the woodpile is a  supposedly wildlife-friendly feature, and indeed we do have squadrons of slug-eating carabid beetles here). It is a great help that the local council now take prunings, but the bin, collected only once every two weeks, soon fills up!

This exercise has also meant that many shrubs have had to be severely pruned. It is amazing how much annual growth in these sheltered conditions and heavy fertile soil plants such as Lonicera involucrata, Ulmus 'Jacqueline Hillier', Photinia davidii, Oleraia macrodonta, Rosa alba and R. glauca can make. In fact I have removed the last-named completely. It is usually better as a young plant and was showing its age. I am never short of this species as it sows around. As a benefit, the lovely Eucryphia 'Nymansay' that was becoming rather crowded out has undoubtedly benefitted, and will flower next week. Elsewhere in the garden, Hoheria lyallii and Paeonia lutea are other class plants that have gained from the August cutback.

Most of the plant associations here that give me pleasure have arisen by happy accident. They are particular to this garden, but one particular pairing was planned and has been so successful that I shall take the unusual step of recommending it, or something very similar, for other gardens.

One of the few plants we inherited from our predecessors was a Salix helvetica. This is now a considerable age, I should say not less than 35 years old, and has to be cut back to keep it within bounds. It gives pleasure for much of the year, especially in March when covered with silky, slightly pinky, catkins, and it is now, as summer wanes, that it starts to look slightly scruffy. To bolster its late appeal, we planted a Clematis 'Hendryetta' under it, chosen for its relatively dwarf habit, late flowering and the tone of its dusky pink flowers. The effect is magical.

Reedy nice

One of the few areas producing much interest in this spring-orientated garden is the water garden, comprised of a few small water-filled shapes set off by paving. We have introduced a number of pot-grown subjects into the water, and at this time of the year they dominate to the extent that the water can hardly be seen (but the dragonflies, newts and frogs know its there! we were able to show a grandson his first newt last week!).

Here is Schoenoplectus lacustris 'Zebrinus' followed by Typha minima, both appropriate in scale for this minature setting.

Reedy nice

There being little of interest in this garden at the moment, I shall move swiftly on to our Dolomites trip last June and early July. This time I thought I would feature Soldanella. This is a genus with which I am completely unsuccessful in the present garden, although I used to grow S. carpatica and S. alpina competently enough in the last garden, nearly three decades ago. There are many things I can't succeed with here in this tree-girt Hexham plot. This has become apparently as I devote increasingly more of my horticultural efforts to our Newcastle University Botanic Garden, Moorbank, where I have now built a large raised bed which is growing many subjects far better than I could ever manage here. Perhaps I shall feature that in my next epistle.

In the meantime, here, firstly, is the most widespread of the alpine soldanellas, S. alpina, seemingly indifferent as to soil, but typical of late snow-lie where it avoids the worst of competition.

There are three more soldanellas growing in the Selva Dolomites. One of these, S. montana I have never seen in flower. Its hairy leaves can be found at woodland edges at no great altitudes, for instance by paths below Selva and in the lower reaches of the Vallelunga, but it flowers early, probably in early May, and is never seen at alpine levels.

The other two species are real alpines however, rarely dropping below 2350 m, and are accordingly less dependent on late snow-lie than is S. alpina. They are sharply differentiated as to substrate. S. minima, with glandular stems and whitish flowers, is never found away from the Dolomite limestone, as thus tends to be the commoner of the two around Selva.

Above the Sella Pass, close to the androsace boulders on the flanks of the Sassolungo that I featured in an earlier entry, we were delighted to find what was very evidently the hybrid between S. alpina and S. minima, growing with both parents. I think this must be an unusual discovery as I never heard of this cross, and it seems not to be referenced in the alpine literature. The parents belong to different sections of the genus. As usual, I should be interested to hear otherwise, in the Discussion section.

Finally, here is the acid-loving S. pusilla with pinkish flowers and glabrous scapes. This is usually present in the few non-Dolomitic areas around Selva, for instance above the Pordoi Pass, and on the flanks of the Rodella. When we strayed onto acidic ground to the west of the Adigo, towards the Austrian frontier, it become frequent.

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