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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 22 August 2012 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 222.

Green gardening.

We are lucky enough to have about half an acre to play with here (0.15 ha), and a site which is roughly square in shape, about 90 x 60 x 50 x 35 m. Although we live towards the edge of a small town, it is unusual for a town garden not to be long and thin, and for this we are grateful. We have an understandable tendency to garden from the centre outwards which means that the peripheries, the five or so metres inside the hedge, tend to become rather wild and woolly, particularly in summer. There are several ground-cover items here, Geranium x oxonianum, Lamiastrum galeobdolon subsp. argentatum, Tropaeolum speciosum and Polygonatum multiflorum which go absolutely wild if left unconfined, strangling great swathes of ground.

These subjects, and a longer, lesser cast, are defensibly 'garden plants', but in the wooliest sections they are joined by outright weeds, nettles. docks, and my wife's particular bete noir, hogweed, Heracleum sphondylium amongst others. The hogweed flourishes in what I grandly term the 'meadow'. This rather shady section measures all of 10 m x 8, and is lovely in spring with snowdrops, narcissus and tulips. These have long died down before the hogweed reaches a stately 1.5 m. Secretly I rather admire it, and I particularly appreciate how popular it is with insects, and especially, hoverflies.

And here we come to the crux of the argument. All summer the garden is full of hoverflies, small birds (tits, warblers), blackbirds (but sadly not Song Thrushes this summer), and frogs, even hedgehogs at times. And these are all avid consumers of garden pests. As a consequence we suffer little from greenfly (except in the alpine house!) or slugs (but in the absence of thrushes the snail problem has reemerged). There is no doubt that these dense leafy refuges of uncontrolled vegetation at the margins of the garden help to keep it in some sort of ecological balance (or so I tell myself as I attempt to stop the jungle swamping another treasured shrub!).

I chop the hogweed down as soon as it finishes flowering, mid July, and this area then receives a high rotary cut which suffices in most years. This years lush climate (wet, and for the last few weeks warm too) has caused alarming secondary growth, and I see that I shall have to contemplate a second mow before the week is out.

There have been interesting consequencies of the wet season and cool first half of the summer. Unusually, we have no wasps this year at all (most years we are plagued by several nests), and numbers of butterflies are extremely low. Buddleias are in full bloom, and normally we would have dozens of Peacocks, Small Tortoiseshells, Red Admirals and Commas. Nothing at all so far.

So, 'an ecologically balanced garden'. (?). So do we use any garden chemicals?  We have not used insecticides in the garden for many years now, and I think the garden is better for it. I do use 'Provado' against vine-weevil and aphids in the alpine house occasionally; once or twice a year (probably not sufficiently to be entirely effective). I also use slug pellets in the alpine house, but try not to use them in the garden. Occasionally I lose patience however. Two weeks ago I took advantage of a wet spell to divide some rather overgrown Meconopsis and plant the divisions in three new areas. In two of these they have taken well. In the third, three good divisions  disappeared almost overnight due to the depredations of an army of snails. Out with the pellets, and considerable slaughter ensued the following night!. There is no evidence that local birds or hedgehogs are effected by this occasional use, but I am careful to shelter the pellets. However, I think the main threat results from the later consumption of molluscan corpses.

I use supplementary feed (usually watering with 'Tomorite') very little, mostly in troughs, although I do sometimes water young meconopsis and primulas with dilute liquid feed in an attempt to bulk them up before they go dormant for the winter. Mostly I rely on the nutritional value of garden compost which forms the basis of many of the garden beds and mulches.



Quite a bit of colour at present results from climbers are ranblers in trees and hedges at the periphery of the garden. The tallest of all is a Chinese honeysuckle, Lonicera similis v. delavayi which must have climbed 30 feet up a neighbours Irish yew, although it is rooted on our side.


We also have native honeysuckles, Lonicera periclymenum on walls and in hedges in several areas. The flowers are very popular with moths, even Poplar Hawks, smell wonderful, and provide good shelter for birds.

One of the more unusual shrubs in one of the wildest parts of the garden, where it comfortably holds its own and needs to be hacked back with shears every year, is Lonicera involucrata. This has small orange flowers, but develops showy red fruits later on.

Continuing with the theme of climbers, several clematis are thriving at present, and the plant that gives my the most pleasure now is a C. viticella hybrid by the name C. 'Hendryetta' which has colonised our Salix helvetica.

For some reason the later roscoeas seem to do better here than the early summer species, particularly the vigorous hybrid R. 'Bulleyana'. This divides well, and patches are flowering in several parts of the garden.

Less vigorous, and possibly planted in too much shade, R. purpurea tends to be too leggy to be exciting.

In a trough, seedlings of Potentilla caulescens have flowered for the first time. This will be welcome it if continues to perform in the doldrum days of late August, and it is a gentle reminder of Dolomite classics that it tends to accompany, Physoplexis comosa, Primula spectabilis and Daphne petraea.amongst others, but in truth it is a rather dowdy plant even though it inhabits exciting chasmophytic crevices,

It is the time of the glorious scarlet Greek lily Lilium chalcedonicum. I seem to feature this most years (not in 2011 though!), but I love it, so here it is again, followed by another shot of the L. nepalense I pictured in the last entry

Asiatic primula seedlings

As I commented last year, I am finding the best position for seedlings of asiatic primulas once they have been potted on   is on a slightly raised area on the north side of the house where they only receive early morning sunshine, and they are surrounded by the evil-smelling Geranium macrorrhizum which may deter pests (companion planting!). Here are some of this year's raisings grouped together.

Asiatic primula seedlings

From the left, P. obtusifolia, P. tanneri subsp. nepalensis and P. malvacea.

Primula cernua (wild seed) and P. reticulata.

Primula maximowiczii has grown amazingly, leaves 30 cm long from this years raising!

Elsewhere, Primula pulchella has flowered a second time.

Saxy plunge

At this time of year, porophyllum saxifrages in the cool plunge never look better. Here they get sun for the first half of the day but shade from then on. The problem is what to do with them after early October. Pleave them in the plunge, they rot. Bring them into the alpine house (as I do), the air tends to be too dry, and buds abort or flowers are misshapen. Here are some S. x poluanglica hybrids.

Saxy plunge

And some Himalayans, S. andersonii, S. 'clivorum' and S. lowndesii.

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