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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 26 August 2013 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 252.

Smells of autumn

A lovely Bank Holiday Monday morning. However kind the weather, one of the benefits of being retired is that we feel no need to leave the house today, to visit crowded beaches or overvisited Stately Homes via traffic jams, but are perfectly content to garden at home, to venture forth on quieter days. As I sit at the computer, my garden view is dominated by the great pillar of foam that is Eucryphia 'Nymansay', enjoying its second prolific year in a row. I shall have to revisit my truism that this plant is generally biennial in its benison.

Smells of autumn

Despite a forecast for a mild night, it felt distinctly nippy this morning with a heavy dew, and as August draws to a close there is a autumnal feel to the garden. Parrotia and Acer crataegifolium are starting to colour, and the first cyclamen flowers are appearing in the garden. C. hederifolium 'Silver Cloud', grown in a plastic pot in the alpine house as a foliage subject for shows, has however been in flower for weeks, bucking the trend for the flowering of autumnal subjects to be triggered by cold temperatures. Although on the glasshouse floor, it has been cooked, compared to the plants in the open garden, but has still flowered much earlier. Perhaps it is an early strain? I have had it since 2005, purchasing it from Long Acre Plants, and find it an easy and undemanding form of this familiar plant.

One possible outcome of this strange summer has been the fruiting of our Wisteria sinensis. As featured back in June, this flowered abundantly this year, and the flowering was immediately followed by three weeks of hot drought. Possibly this has stimulated the production of an abundance of rather attractive fruits which I have never seen before, certainly in this garden.

Next to the Wisteria, and treated here more as a climber than its more accumstomed role as a herbaceous perennial is the South African Phygelius capensis. Unlike many of its countrymen, this is fully hardy here, having survived 20 years of hard winters in the same place. Rooted under a huge pyracantha, the corner in which it grows is relatively dry in winter, which may account for its hardiness, as the Drakensberg winters are cold but dry.

The latest to flower of the meconopsis grown here is the lovely M.  wallichii, and as I am flowering three this year (with another large rosette as yet unflowered), I am hoping for buckets of fertile seed before the frosts come, as this is an unfailingly monocarpic species. Originally bracketed with M. napaulensis, a red flowered species which is rarely seen in a pure form in this country. M. wallichii, named for the Austrian superintendent of the Calcutta Botanic Gardens in the early nineteenth century, is in truth very distinct, and its pale china-blue flowers are very beautiful. It is a huge plant, standing two metres tall.

Also grown from Meconopsis Group seed last year, but much slower to bulk up, and not flowering this year are the beautiful rosettes of M. superba, arguably my favourite species of all, with its white kid petals surrounding the black-tipped stigma. This has the reputation of being a tricky subject, and I lost batches in two previous summers. It is difficult to know what I have done differently this time, but the rosettes definitely need to be cloched in winter, and it has grown sensationally suring the hot spell, so possibly the recent summers have been too miserable to suit it. The rosettes are now flowering size, but will have to go back under cloches if they are to flower next year. In the past I have found large rosettes have rotted as they come into growth in the spring, and I shall have to watch for this.

Nearby the huge Lilium 'henryi' are flowering. These came from seed as L. henryi, but a recent visitor wondered if they were L. lancifolium (the 'Tiger Lily' of Lewis Carroll), and looking at pictures on the web I think he may be right. Can anyone tell me the definitive difference between them?

Another reliable subject at this  difficult time of year (in this garden anyway) is Hydrangea paniculata. Most of the other species will not grow here, certainly the hortensis mop-heads and lacecaps, and I think this garden is too cold and acidic for them.

Once the summer cooled down in late July, and rain became a regular feature, I started to plant out seedlings, particularly of the more tricky asiatic primulas. I think it is vital that seedlings get several months growth before they become dormant, so that they have the strength to build up resilient resting buds. So far, P. szechuanica, P. longipetiolata (as P. longipes, a quite different nivalid!), P. melanops, P. ioessa and others seem to be doing well, encouraged by occasional liquid feeds of 'Tomorite'. I find that at this early stage in the garden, they are best protected from blackbirds, which have a distressing tendency to scratch out young plants. This is best done with the baskets from old fridges or washing machines. In this photo, it is P. szechuanica which is being protected. Later, the baskets become a framework to support panes of glass to act as cloches to keep out excess winter wet.

I thought it was time to revisit the sandbed on what is approaching its first birthday. To recap, this bed is 6 m (20 ft) long and about 1-2 m wide, raised, particularly on its north side, and is composed of about 30 cm depth of pure coarse sand, topped with grit and pieces of shale, lying over the original scree mix. Very occasionally (about twice) I have watered it with cans of dilute tomorite, and young plants go in with their composted rootballs, but otherwise the only nutrients are in the sand already, or come with the rain (and I have discussed in another forum here how much nitrogen in particular may arrive in this manner).

The results have, I suppose, been unsurprising. Nearly everything planted (and there are in excess of 100 plants now) has survived, without winter cover. This has included subjects as supposedly tricky as Meconopsis delavayi, Primula yuparensis, Callianthemum anemonoides, Draba densifolia, Saxifraga dinnikii and Gentiana szechenyi. At the same time, many plants have not grown fast and have remained notably small and compact, although few show signs of nutrient depletion. It has been striking that a few large cushions which were transplanted from the original planting have become much tighter and more compact, notably Erysimum kotschyanum and a MESE Minuartia, probably M. attica. There are quite a lot of silver saxifrages which look alright, but will be treated as 'fillers' and will be taken out as the need for more room dictates. On the whole European primula species and hybrids have survived but have not grown much and look rather starved, and this is probably not the best place for them. Dianthus species look great, as do various moltkias and lewisias, the latter flowering well in their first full summer. It has been good to have a home for many of this year's seedlings of small rock plants (about 20 species), and so far all have survived. Here are a couple of views of the bed.

Now that the days are getting shorter, the nights cooler, and the rain reliable, so that the soil profile is fully soaked through, my thoughts have turned to the renewal of more beds. I have focused on three. First, that part of the raised terrace bed next to the Korean Fir. This had become completely overgrown with Potentilla cuneata, a lovely but invasive Himalayan weed, and to a lesser extent Acaena fissistipula, Euphorbia cyparissias, wild strawberries and Dierama seedlings.  Amongst all this were two treasures, a starved Sciadopitys, and a large Callianthemum (parent of the aforementioned seedlings) which is annually lifted for the purposes of exhibition.




The Sciadopitys has been moved to fresh soil and more room, but I felt that the callianthemum has been uprooted often enough, so it has been weeded round. Other subjects, such as Allium flavum and A. narcissiflorum, have been temporarily moved into pots and put in a cool place. In the next week or two I plan to acquire a dumpy bag of coarse sand which will be dug into the scree mix that remains (see below) in this and the greenhouse bed (also q.v.), before they are replanted.


The bed the sciadopitys and dierama seedlings have been moved to was originally overrun with ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria) and vetch (Vicia sepium). These pestilential weeds are susceptible to glyphosate and the bed has been slowly cleared chemically over the last two years (after the spring as it is full of bulbs). There is a large hellebore and a huge Paeonia broteroi which I dare not move, and which are still infested, but I hope to deal with the weeds in these when the foliage dies down. (A short intermission while I report that my wife has been reading this downstairs as I have been writing it upstairs, such is the immediacy of the posting on the AGS site. I shall have to be careful what I say!!).

So, three barrowloads of compost forked in, and in went the Sciadopitys and Dieramas with a good watering in. The bed had become rather shaded so we cut off a number of lower branches off the Magnolia x soulangeana, and a silver birch, which has opened up the area considerably.

Finally, the greenhouse bed had become completely overrun with vetch again, Hesperantha coccinea ('schizostylis'), prunella and many other low weeds, completely intertwined with Geranium subcaulescens of MESE lineage, a large Gentiana acaulis 'Coelestina', Potentilla neumanniana and Zauschneria angustifolia. Once again, these have been consigned to pots while the area is completely cleared (and will also be subjected to the sand-bed treatment). This task is only partially finished and I shall continue with it after lunch, but the last two pictures give a 'before and after', so far.

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