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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 07 August 2010 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 156.

August blues

Well into August now, the least appealing month on my alpine calendar. It has been warm and humid, overcast and close, for what seems weeks, but not much rain until today, so I have been taking a hose and sprinkler to my young plants on the majority of evenings. However it has rained properly today which has cleared the air and the plants have grown visibly in 24 hours. How much more they like nature's watering system rather than mine (and the product of our local water company!).

It seems to have rained in most places for once, certainly Edgbaston where Pakistan's cricketing humiliation has been put on temporary hold. (It seems remarkable that no commentator seems to have surmised that the minds of the Pakistan players might be more on their loved ones at home, suffering one of the great natural disasters of modern times; shouldn't they, like the Pakistan President, be allowed to go home?).

I guess it has rained well in south-east England too, so it may be starting to green up there and resemble a desert rather less. I feel for those trying to grow alpines 'down south'. This seems to be where we are today, either a famine or a feast, but rarely the middle way except here in boring old Geordie-land. We should be eternally grateful for our unexceptionable climate.

The other good news about the rain is that I am spared the hedge, at least for today. Now that it was hacked back mechanically in March it is of a dimension that I can handle and I have already cut all the lane by hand, but the road hedge needs topping. Here it is after cutting (with hand shears). Compare its appearence after its destruction in March! What a transformation! Beech does make a good hedge and only needs an annual cut.

This diary is fast aproaching its fourth birthday, a sobering thought. Having walked round the garden recording a few items of possible interest, I looked at the late July and early August entries for the previous three summers, and found that I had posted most of these items in previous years. At least it shows that some plants persist well!

There are a few corrections to make, I find. For instance, the very reliable but somewhat uncharismatic small onion Bob and Rannveig Wallis passed on to me some summers back (I think it is one of their introductions) came as A. tauricola, although in 2007 I mentioned it incorrectly as A. tauricum. However, according to Brian Mathew and Turhan Baytop's book 'Bulbous plants of Turkey'  A. 'tauricolum' (an incorrect form) is a synonym for A. chlorurum. Either way, it is clearly at the very least closely related to the more familiar A. callimischon (which I featured from Crete last autumn), but flowering in early August, not late October. It receives no special treatment here but flourishes in a very poor dry scree and is completely hardy.

Another reliable little onion for a very poor scree is the Chinese A. beesianum. This has also been featured before (2008), but goes from strength to strength. It is easily propagated before it flowers by division of the little grassy tufts.

Another, much larger summer bulb I am excessively fond of is Lilium chalcedonicum. I have featured this before, not once but twice, but it has produced two three-flowered stems yet again without any special treatment (and rather a lot of competing weeds!). Another meritorious feature is that, unlike some other lilies, it needs no staking. This was an introduction from the MESE expedition (1999) so it is entering its second decade. Once established and suited, lilies can be very long-lived. My memory is that the seed was actually collected from a plant in a garden in Monodendron village. As the slopes above have several wild populations of this lily, I am sure this originated there too.

I am sure it is a pure coincidence that my next subject is the same colour and height as the lily, and shares its specific epithet. Lychnis chalcedonicum has not appeared on these pages before, but I have grown it since 1974, when a friend gave it to me as L. x haageana. The latter is a hybrid of L. chalcedonicum but has fewer, larger flowers and is more often seen. I don't grow L. chalcedonicum very well as it needs more sun than I can provide it with, but it persists and self-sows a bit.

I grow the lychnis in a rather shady scree bed (once it was rather less shady!), and here thrives one of my favourite late summer plants. I have grown the first form of Francoa sonchifolia shown here since I admired it at Inverewe Gardens some 25 years ago and found they were selling seed of it at the gate. It is good tempered and long-lived here. The second form shown here comes from my friend Barry McWilliam. I found it in his garden and it is so unlike my plant that I begged a bit about three years ago. Apart from anything else, it is clearly much shorter than my plant as I grow the two side by side.

I am hopping about like a flea today. I should have included the next subject after the MESE lily, as it was introduced by the MESE expedition from the same site, the Vikos gorge area above Monodendron in north-western Greece. We brought back the seed of  three foxgloves from here, but by far the most common is Digitalis ferruginea. This is of course a fairly common garden plant, but we think this form is superior (well, we would!). It is usually biennial, but if you chop the spike off after flowering (and so lose the chance of seed), it usually perennates.

Another Greek subjects that flourishes here, makes excellent ground-cover on the terrace amongst pebbles, and flowers in August, a real bonus in this garden, is Satureja montana, the winter savoury. Again this is a long-lived perennial and self-sows in a modest way, excellent credentials! Also, on a warm day, it smells wonderful, especially if you walk on it, and some is in the path. Instant transport to Greece!

Two more of my introductions, from opposite ends of the earth. First is Diascia cordata, rather rarely seen in cultivation, grown from wild seed collected near the Sani Pass hotel, Drakensberg. I gave my main plant to Christine Boulby who specialises in these things, but rather to my surprise I find that I left a piece behind and that it survived the last freezing winter. Serendipity! I like plants that want to live that much!

Also leggy, pink, and even less charismatic, but smelling wonderful is Dianthus hispanicus, grown from seed collected on cliffs above Grazelema in Andalucia. I reviewed my picture shown here in 2007 and found it was even worse than the one that appears below. This is an arcane choice for a shady scree, and probably unobtainable anyway (although I have sent seed into the AGS list before now).

The last choice today is an out-of-season flower. However, I am so pleased that I have finally established Anemone obtusiloba (albeit in a yellow form) after several tries that this is my modest celebration. Incidentally, is this yellow plant REALLY A. obtusiloba? I think the leaves look different? A distinct subspecies perhaps?

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