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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 26 August 2010 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 158.

Attritional gardening

 As our garden overmatures (together with its owners), the thugs take over and mould the garden to their satisfaction, rather than ours, as we struggle to maintain control. Increasingly we sigh 'well, if thats how you want the garden, so be it, it looks quite nice the way you (the plants) want it'. Indeed sometimes I feel more like a referee than a gardener. A major consequence is that it becomes increasingly difficult to find a suitable spot to site vulnerable young plants which tend to get swamped by the general exuberance.

Occasionally there are major opportunities, such as that offered by the felling of a big tree reported last week (development will be a winter job, if ever I saw one). More often it is a question of identifying a weedy corner where control has been totally ceded, taking a firm hand and starting again. I have done this three times this summer now, and so far am pleased with the results.

The policy is to completely empty the area of all surviving plants which are cleaned of weeds (look hard within the rootball which will probably have to be divided several times!) and put on one side in an old dumpy bag, and the site is then stripped of weeds. It is carefully forked over several times so that all traces of e.g. vetch (Vicia sepium), Cymbalaria hepaticifolia, creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens), Arisarum probiscoideum and other particularly pernicious weeds are banished. Several barrowfuls of well rotted garden compost are then dumped on top, and the site is planted, and well watered in. 

Here is the most recent project, in an area partially freed up by the savage pruning the crinodendron received a few months ago. This area had not be reworked in a major way since it was first planted some 17 years ago. Not surprisingly it has become a complete disaster in which Dicentra formosa, D. oregana (nicer but no less vigorous), Omphalodes cappadocica, Xanthorrhiza simplicissima and others fought to gain control. I have banished the dicentras completely. They are only suitable for the wilder parts of the garden here. I love the omphalodes which makes a huge pool of pure blue in the spring, but it has been limited to one end of the patch. Certain inhabitants have been rescued and split before replanting; Uvularia grandiflora, Anemone prattii, Roscoea 'Beesiana' and a small golden Hosta. Roscoea divisions have been brought in from elsewhere in the garden (best propagated in growth I find), and seedling meconopsis and primulas added. Here it is replanted.


Mention of roscoeas reminds me that R. purpurea is flowering elsewhere in the garden; a useful late August subject.

A similar exercise had been carried out on a corner of the main 'D' bed which had become infested with red fescue and Potentilla pedunculata. The latter Himalayan is an attractive foliage plant which has been saved, but it can become very invasive here. Also, lime tree roots had penetrated this corner which had become impoverished and dust-dry. As I knew the days of the lime tree were numbered, I took the opportunity to rework the area, and the new compost there now remains satisfactorily moist (we have not received the deluges suffered further south). The meconopsis and primula seedlings here have had rather more time to become established. Two Primula tangutica are conspicuous; most of the meconopsis are forms of M. quintuplinervia.

One major drawback of using the garden compost as a planting medium (and in many ways it is ideal, water-retentive, free-draining from the grit in old soil, and fertile) is that it is full of annual weed seeds as I seem never to get the heap hot enough in this shady garden to kill the seeds. These are easy to remove or hoe in dry weather, but care must be taken that they are not themslves allowed to seed!

Poodle cut

Two conifers dominate one end of the main rock garden terrace. One is a wonderful Abies koreana, featured here on several occasions, which I would never touch (never is a long time however!). The other, a bristlecone pine, Pinus aristata, I am more equivocal about. Of course it is great to grow such an iconic plant, which may include the planet's oldest living individuals, is a genuine high alpine, growing well above the tree-line, and has a wonderful, characterful, craggy air of mystery, even when young. Also it is a rare plant (obtained from Glendoick 15 years ago). But it is influencing a large area of otherwise promising limestone rock garden, and it is, lets face it, not pretty.

I had intended to take it out completely, but I decided to take the lower branches and think again. And thats where we are at present! We have decided to live with the resulting poodle's tail for a few weeks and then decide thumbs up or down. At least a lovely large Daphne retusa and other good plants now have much more light and air. Here are two pairs of 'before and after' shots, so you can make up your own minds!

Poodle cut


Back in the spring (March 29th), I reported that I was concerned about many of my bulbs in pots. Many were starting to die back very early, and in many cases flowers had aborted or appeared small and malformed. The reason, can I remind you, (and how soon we forget!) was the unprecedented frost which lasted unbroken here from mid-December to mid-February, so that crock pots of bulbs remained frozen into the plunge for eight weeks without a break (the sun does not reach the garden in mid-winter).

Since then the bulbs have been out of sight, out of mind, but over the last two weeks I have undertaken the annual repot, and the scale of the devastation has become apparent. To all intents and purposes I no longer grow bulbs in pots. A collection of 110 subjects has been reduced to 35, and most of these are now smaller and/or fewer in number than previously.

Regular readers will know that I do not class myself as a bulb fanatic, and do not grow most bulbs very well. However I have been particularly fond of autumn flowering crocus, particularly those from Greece. Effectively these have all gone. I have lost Show quality pans of C. goulimyi, Mani White and leucanthus, niveus, robertianus, hadiaticus (3), laevigatus and fontaneyi, tournefortii, boryi, paschei, nevadensis, medius, longiflorua, serotinus, oreocreticus, adanensis (2), speciosus xantholaimos, ochroleucus, melantherus and asumaniae. The only survivor was C. cancellatus which has done fairly well. I also accumulated a modest collection of the Narcissus romieuxii group which have all gone, as has the N. asturiensis I have grown for 40 years (there are a few in the garden however).

This is a common theme. All my reticulata irises in pots died, but 'Sheila Anne Germaney', 'Kathleen Hodgkin', 'George','Cantab' and others flowered well and stayed in leaf in the garden and are presumably OK. I lost all my South African bulbs in pots, including Hesperantha woodsii, but it is flourishing in the open ground and is in flower now, as are Anometheca cruenta, Gladiolus flanaganii and Rhodohypoxis, all of which died in pots. Presumably the bulb roots were able to penetrate to unfrozen levels in the open ground so that they did not die of physiological drought.. Luckily, virtually all my frits are now planted out, and they flowered quite well, long after the big freeze.

Not all bulbs in pots suffered equally. Central Asian frits like F. aurea and F. sewerzowii were OK, as were some Tulips (T. vvedenskyii) but not others ('Red Lilliput'). Most of the Hyacinthaceae were alright, but I have lost Scilla ingridae and S.lingulata, also Muscari chalusicum and Pseudomuscari azureum (which flourishes in the open ground). There were strange comparisons. I lost Corydalis darwasica, but not C. oppositifolia, and the only cyclamen I lost was, remarkably, C. alpinum. I no longer grow any sternbergias or calochortus.

There is some good news. I still grow a lot of bulbs, in the garden! Any pretence I had in growing bulbs to Show standard (the main reason for growing them in pots) has gone. It has freed up a lot of plunge space in the alpine house where I can concentrate on growing proper alpines, and now that I have a lot more of these in containers than previously, this is very welcome.

Also, I do have some nice pans of bulb seedlings, which, germinating after the frosts, have been able to grow on unchecked. The next generation perhaps!

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