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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 05 August 2013 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 251.

Its raining, its pouring....

Less said about the old man the better! After several more warm humid, even sunny days in this definitely a-good-deal-better-than-average summer, I looked at the forecast for today and sorted out more than 50 of this years seedlings to plant out yesterday. They have since had a really good water in; the same weather system that will probably cost Australia the Ashes. Hurrah!

This garden is rather like the Mad Hatter's Tea Party, in that weeds, compaction and exhaustion of soil, invasion by successful plantings and so on mean that only areas that have been recently built or reworked are really suitable for new plantings. So one works round the garden from one table setting to the next!. On what may be, if I'm lucky, a ten to fifteen year cycle, when an area becomes completely unworkable, out everything goes, perennial weeds and all, and I start again with new compost and leaf-mould (or sand/gravel if its an alpine area). This year there is last years new sand-bed, still only about half planted, and about 8 m of a s-facing 'woodsy' area, cleared out early in the spring, ready for planting. Naturally, some suitable subjects are potted and go into the alpine house (or a cool spot outside while the weather stays warm), and others may find a home in a trough/fishbox.

I am starting to contemplate which areas will be suitable for renewal this back end, and have earmarked an old raised bed which had become infested with Bishop's Weed (Ground Elder further south, or Aegopodium podagraria to botanists and foreigners), but which has now completely succumbed to two years treatment with systemic weedkillers. Also, a gravel bed in front of the glasshouses has little of value and is a target for annual weeds (and Hesperantha coccinea, such an invasive beauty here).

Quite when these jobs will be accomplished is another matter. A bulb repot is an early priority, and then the hedges to cut, and more seedlings to prick out, not to mention day to day maintenance. It has been particularly good weed-growing weather recently.......

Anyway, its some time since we looked atsome plants in the garden. Not the best time of year here. I spent much of my very first diary entry bemoaning the poverty of this garden in August. Things are a little better now, for we use much more containerised colour, but certainly most things are through and the garden is looking distinctly tired. There are still some good things though. This splendid Thalictrum was grown from seed in a local group sale, labelled T. diffusiflorum. Certainly it seems to match that species, although according to the Flora of China key, it should be hairy, and it is completely glabrous. It is grown in a raised, sheltered, mostly shaded area in rotted leaf-mould, and is about 1 m high.


Its raining, its pouring....

Another striking novelty was bought from Edrom Nurseries, always a sure bet for a worthwhile, unusual plant, last year. Lychnis cognata has large orange flowers, not easy to place, but it goes well with this rather invasive unnamed Himalayan Persicaria, collected by the late Viscount Ridley

Another plant which can be hard to place is this splendid Hosta, 'Gold Standard'. I divided this when we bought it from the 'Bide-a-wee garden' further north in our county (a splendid quarry garden despite its potentially emetic name), and it is now in several places. Unlike the H. sieboldii types which get rather slugged, despite our huge frog population, 'Gold Standard' seems to remain largely untouched, possibly a legacy of H. venusta parentage. Incidentally, folk usually grow hostas for their leaves, but they can have splendid flowers too.

I seem to feature Dicentra 'King of Hearts' most years, but it is such a magnificent subject, which flowers over such a long period, that I cannot praise it too highly. How extraordinary that a scion of the beautiful but very touchy D. peregrina should be so vigorous! What an advert for hybrid vigour! I am told that some people cannot grow 'King of Hearts', and possibly our cool humid climate suits it particularly well. It is on a north slope here, rooted under a railay sleeper in a woodsy soil. Possibly people treat it too hard, thinking of its D.peregrina parentage?

Campanula punctata grows well in similar conditions and we have had it for years. It creeps about, and tends to invade precious neighbours (its in with primulas and meconopsis), but like the dicentra it is valuable for its long season, and for making a show now.

We grew the South-African Galtonia candicans for many years, in our last garden I think, and it succumbed to a hard winter, probably 1981-2. Since then we have admired it in the Drakenberg where it grows in very wet places, often streamsides, where it can be accompanied by Hesperantha coccinea, Phygelius capensis and Agapanthus. One of our local nurseries was selling it in our local market last week so I bought a potful and planted it in the new 'woodsy' bed (despite its appearence, this is a plant which should never dry out).

Here is Galtonia growing in masses in a swamp, photographed on our trip in 2008.

A staple of this garden which I have not mentioned for many years is the so-called 'Himalayan Cowslip', Primula florindae, named for Frank Kingdon Ward's first wife. This can be a huge plant, the biggest primula. Remarkably in this hot summer it has grown bigger than usual, suggesting that heat as well as water is necessary if it is to fill its full potential. This is odd, bearing in mind that its natural habitat is a few high remote valleys in south-east Tibet. In the early years here I let it self-seed, and regretted the consequences for years. Nowadays I am very careful to dead-head it meticulously when it finishes flowering.

The last photo shows the 'sumps' in the terrace. A notable acquisition to the troughs there, and also the sands-bed above has been Onosma nana, grown from AGS seed last year. It has also been grown in pots in the alpine house, but this Turkish subject seems perfectly happy unprotected outside, and now I have cut it back, I hope it will prove to be soundly perennial as this is another subject with a very long flowering season.

Lewisia longipetala is another of last year's seed-grown acquisitions. I rather went a bundle on lewisias from seed last year, and enjoyed lovely plants of L. rediviva, L.r.minor, L. nevadensis and L. brachypetala flowering this summer. For all these I had enough to try them in the sand-bed outside as well as in the alpine house. They flowered well in all positions, but time will tell if L. rediviva will survive outside without protection, even in a sandbed. As always, seedlings seemed to overcome difficult conditions (i.e. last years summer wet) better than mature plants. L. longipetala has been the last to flower, inside and out, this summer. Here is a plant in the alpine house.

Other of last years seedlings included several Saxifraga mutata, grown from my own seed, the parent of which originated from seed collected from the Nota Pass above Lake Garda. I have discussed this odd saxifrage before. Frequently and understandably classified as a 'silver' saxifrage, it is in fact the only close relative of S. aizoides, a familar plant of British mountain flushes and lake shores. No great beauty, it is oddly appealing, and I hope once again to collect seed so that I can keep this monocarpic subject going.

Another firm favourite of late summer in this garden is Teucrium pyrenaicum which I have grown in an old Belfast sink covered with hypertufa for many years now. It is very reliable, always covering itself with its bicolored flowered in late July.

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