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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 04 August 2012 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 221.

Midsummer madness

As intimated last week, the combination of a wet summer, and warmth in recent weeks has caused the garden to erupt in an unprecedented manner. In fact, the problems have been even worse in the Newcastle Botanic Garden where I have been pulling swathes of nettles (heavy gauntlets!) and goosegrass (which we call a much ruder name, not to be repeated here!) to stop precious shrubs, even large rhodos, from suffering terminal swamping.

Here it has been more a matter of pruning, chopping and cutting to keep paths open and to stop shrubs encroaching on one another, and on perennials below them. To take one example, our Stachyrus chinensis had grown to such an extent that a large Sorbus cashmiriana had become invisible and was suffering badly. I filled a whole corporation garden rubbish bin with the prunings, and most of the stachyrus seems unchanged!

Really, we are starting to suffer from vaunting ambition and overmaturity in a garden which we have developed over nearly quarter of a century. In particular, we love interesting shrubs and small trees, and grow far to many for all to be comfortably housed in a half-acre garden, particularl;y one which is north-facing and it already bordered on most sides by large trees.

The next picture gives some idea of the flavour of the garden at this time of year. Lost in a jungle!

Midsummer madness

Parts of the garden have enjoyed the excess. Sheilas perennials continue to offer swags of colour and wonderful combinations. Here is a delphinium with Anthemis tinctoria in a good yellow form, one of her favourite flowers.

The subtropical humidity and lushness has also favoured some of my favourite South American shrubs which I had thought lost when they were so badly affected  and cut to the ground by two hard winters in succession. Desfontainea spinosa, the 'scarlet holly' is now almost fully restored to its former glory and well into the first of its two annual flowering periods.

Another favourite genus from the southern hemisphere here which had suffered sorely in 2010-11 is Dierama. Although we lost a couple of D. pulcherrimum varieties including 'Blackbird' and 'Merlin', the original D. pendulum has recovered sufficiently from virtual extinction to produce three of its graceful 2.5 m high wands.

Last weekend we visited the Gateshead Flower Show, really with an eye to buying border perennials for Moorbank and seeking cheap bulb deals. While we were there we found a stall run by one of our favourite North-eastern Nurseries, Harperley Hall, who were offering flowering plants of the sumptuous Lilium nepalense at a very reasonable price. Apparently they had grown a large clump from seed, and this had been lifted, divided and potted on the previous autumn. I have a number of three-year old plants in pots yet to flower, but I could not resist the temptation of these super lilies, and a bought a couple. Here is one in the garden today.

Pink poppies

The lily is growing through Digitalis davisiana which matches well and helps to prop it up!

One of the curious features of this curious summer  have been early summer flowers flowering or continuing to flower, well into late summer, and this has been true of several meconopsis. First is a pink hybrid of M. paniculata. M. paniculata has yellow flowers, but similar plants with red or pink flowers are common in cultivation and probably arose through hybridisation with M. 'napaulensis' (probably M. staintonii in fact).

Pink poppies

I have grown successions of Meconopsis aculeata from seed in various parts of the garden for years. The main population is blue flowered, but a group in fishboxes has flowered a dusky pink for the last two years. I rather like this colour break.

Finally, the wonderful Meconopsis x cookei 'Old Rose'. I feature this super plant far too often, but it is worth pointing out that after my big plant flowered (and was lifted for a show) that I split it into about six, and all the pieces took (yes it was a wet summer) and are flowering again now. Surely a candidate for Award of Garden Merit!

Another favourite late summer plant that was badly hit by cold winters was Francoa sonchifolia.This has now formed a good colony again. One of its real qualities is a prolonged flowering season, but it has a cool elegance that delights me.

Next to the francoa is a plant of Eryngium alpinum. This is the sort of plant typical of this garden. I do nothing, but it crops up in various places from time to time, usually in the middle of a bush where it seems perfectly happy! Unfortunately, many other plants that do this sort of thing, do it too often! Many of my worst weeds may once have been 'plants'. At least they are pretty weeds!

I should point out that the rather nice leaves in the above photo are Bergenia purpurascens, not yet colouring.

We grow a fair number of astilbes, a good late summer standby here, but we inherited many of inferior quality, so are trying to beef up some better colours. Here is a good one we found at a local nursery, Halls of Ovington.

Two alpines to finish with. First Androsace pubescens, which is proving a good deal more permanent with me that most aretian androsaces. It is flowering for about the third time this year (I have featured it before) but only after I took this photo did I realise quite how pubescent it is! Incidentally it says a lot about the sexual preferences of the ancient Greeks that I am told that the adjective 'pubescens' originally referred to the hairs on the cheek of a young boy'(!). I pass this on merely so that the adjective is fully understood.

Purely of botanical interest, I am finishing with photos of Primula nutans, that astonishingly widespread plant which grows from Arctic Norway and Greenland to Kashmir and north--west China. This material originated from seed collected in northern Sichuan. Note the baggy bracts, rotate flower, and long-stalked, rounded-bladed leaves.

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