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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 05 August 2007 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 45.

Hedging best

Two major tasks loom in the late summer;  hedges and bulbs. We are surrounded by 250 m of mixed deciduous hedging, and are responsible cutting the top and both sides of the lane and road hedges (150 m), but only the top and one side of the hedges we share with two (very cooperative) neighbours. The lane and road hedges are beech and approximately 3 m high; more in places. Over the last two summers I have decided that any fitness benefits accrued from the exercise are increasingly outweighed by potential or actual physical damage thus suffered by my ageing body. In other words I now hire a fit young man with modern equipment who cuts the road and lane hedges and removes the cuttings, all in a morning. Thus far, this is the only help we get in the garden. The insides of the hedges remain to be cut; I prefer to do this as access is not easy in some areas and can involve damage to plants, so I hope to lose a couple of kilos in the next month.

The hedges are only cut once a year. I find that if they are cut after about July 20th there is no subsequent growth that season and they remain in good condition until the beginning of June the following year. Gardenwise, the straight clean lines of a managed hedge form an excellent backdrop to informal plantings, and form a solid, impenetrable boundary.

Changing bulbs

Over the last ten days I have been repotting most of my modest collection of bulbs (about 130 pots) that live in crock pots plunged in sand in the hotter and sunnier of the two alpine houses. These have been dried out since growth ceased towards the end of May. Pots are put into a bakers tray and wheeled to the garage which serves me as a potting shed. This is by far the most hazardous part of the whole operation. I am sufficiently clumsy that there is a strong chance that a pot, or indeed on one occasion this year a whole barrowfull, will tip over with subsequent chaos, and the likelihood that precious bulbs are lost. As you may imagine, the language at that point was choice!

All the bulbs are repotted at this time of year apart from the few pans I have of Tulips and Calochortus; these are moved in late November.

In the garage I have mixed with a spade in the other barrow a 25 litre sack of Commercial John Innes no. 2 compost, 12 litres of coarse sand, 5 litres of composted bark, 3 litres of perlite, about 100 g of trench fertiliser and, if I have enough, about 8 litres of coarse grit.

Taking a dry pot, I cream off the old top-dressing. This is put in a bucket, and as potting proceeds, it is added to the new compost which becomes progressively grittier. Not ideal I know, but I tend to leave the subjects I think need the grittier composts to later. The pot is then inverted and the label, crocking and bulbs put together on one side. I find it very easy to lose the label for some reason! If the label (soft pencil on white plastic) has become faint or broken, I write another one, and I also note the number of flowering size bulbs (in my opinion).

The pot  then has the crocks replaced, is filled to about 35% with new compost, and flowering size bulbs are put back (right way up! not always easy to tell). If  large bulbs are abundant, I may move them to a larger pot, and sometimes I plant in two layers. Non-flowering size bulbs are put into a glassine packet, labelled, and later will be divided up amongst more packets for sale or gifts. I was pleased to packet 'spares' of more than 45 varieties this year. If a pan has gone backwards from the previous season, I may abandon it. I no longer have space for mimps!.

The pot is now filled to about 1 cm from the top with more fresh compost, and then top-dressed with coarse grit; the grit available here is granite.

Bulbs are now shipped back to the alpine house. In the meantime the plunge has been levelled and thoroughly watered, and using a trowel, I reinsert the pots. At this point, both the plunge and compost is damp. From now on the plunge is kept moist, but further main watering (with dilute fertiliser) will be withheld until growth is well under way in the mid to late autumn.

Another job is to dispose of the old compost. This is tipped into a large pile in a 'work area' and is used during the winter in new constructions, or as a filling for the bottom of troughs.

I have only talked about mature bulbs, and may address the question of seedling bulb pans next week.

This contribution looks a bit indigestible so it is time to talk about what is in flower now. First, a bulb grown from seed, but  in the open garden. The wonderful scarlet lily from Greece, Lilium chalcedonicum, was grown from MESE expedition seed, collected in 1999. It has only flowered for the last two years; like L. martagon it resented being grown in a pot while young. It is flowering late in this cool summer, but presently, it is the best plant in the garden.

There are not many late summer bulbs, but they include some wonderful Himalayan and Chinese alliums. Here is the reliable blue A. beesianum that has grown undisturbed in this cool gritty spot for about 14 years.

Last week I said I would post the beautiful dark variety of Dierama pendulum, 'Merlin'. Like the wild form, also featured last week, it is at its best now and thrives in humus-rich soil (made from garden compost) beside the pond

Contra Jour

We have actually had some sunshine this week. It seems to have been much hotter and drier further south in England, but I would rather have our moderate conditions. Nevertheless, the sun has allowed some flowers to be photographed against the low evening light. This 'contra jour' technique can be very effective. Use a lens hood, or if you are lazy like me, shade the top of the lens with your hand, making sure you do not get into the picture!

First is the ligularia featured last week in a poor photo; I shall remove that one! Growing nearby in the perennial border is the rampant Alstroemeria aurantiaca, difficult to place, but very attractive in the setting sun!

Contra Jour

Holly mimic
I featured Desfontainea spinosa nearly a year ago, but it is so beautiful, and is flowering so well in this wet season that I can't resist showing its bird-pollinated flowers again. It is astonishing how like holly Ilex aquifolium the leaves are. As the two plants are not in any sense related, this is a remarkable example of parallel evolution. It is strange that this fabulous plant is not grown more. It is trouble-free here, but it must have shelter and humidity. It is said to be tender, but although it suffers a little damage every winter, it has experienced 20 degrees of centigrade frost without dying.

Holly mimic

Campanula relatives
Two blue flowers to finish. Platycodon grandiflorus is a reliable hardy Japanese for late summer and I love its 'balloon' buds. There is dwarf fom 'Apomaya' that I also grow and which flowers a litle later here; this is the type variety, one metre tall.

Campanula relatives

Finally, a plant from the alpine house that is probably not very hardy, but is certainly a 'rock plant' if not an alpine. Trachelium caeruleum is common on damp shady walls and cliffs in Andalucia, southern Spain where I collected seed of it one spring about eight years ago. I have managed to maintain it ever since. It flowers a little earlier than its Greek relative T.jacquinii which I grow outside and usually flowers at the end of August.

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