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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 19 August 2007 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 47.

Feeling cagey

At the end of June I discussed the whole matter of when to plant out young plants and the importance of listening to (and believing!) medium range weather forecasts. It is always best to plant out before a mild wet spell, so that seedlings are able to establish reasonable root systems before they are subject to hot dry air or a shortage of water. In particular, I find the local forecasts very reliable; listening to national summaries much less so. When national forecasters say 'England' they generally mean London, or on a good day, London, Birmingham and Manchester, but almost never do they mean Newcastle or the North-East, which tend to attract their own climate.

Planting out young plants usually means some ground preparation will be needed. Our blackbirds love fresh rich open ground to scratch in. Various devices can be used to deter them. My neighbour Alan Furness has taken to dangling old CD discs from supports. He claims that this is extremely successful in deterring birds, but the effect does resemble an expensively sponsored artistic installation.

Not that other solutions are any easier on the eye. In part I use old refrigerator baskets as 'cages'. These are also useful later on to support panes of glass to protect plants from excessive winter wet. This photo also monitors the progress of some of the young meconopsis and primulas planted out six weeks ago.

Feeling cagey

In the above photo the plants at the bottom right are Primula limbata; the characteristic white rim to the underside of the leaf can be seen in some. There are also two strong young P. obtusifolia from Scottish Rock Garden Club seed. The meconopsis are M. integrifolia and M. punicea.

I have raised a number of the smaller meconopsis and primulas this year too, and these have gone into fishboxes or, more frequently in this garden, the square boxes of expanded polystyrene used to carry flasks of acids in laboratories. These in particular have wonderful thermal inertia. I now have 16 'troughs' planted primarily with asiatic primulas and meconopsis and find this the best way to grow these demanding plants.

To pick out just a few of these young plants, the furthest plant in the nearest trough is Meconopsis henrici of which several are growing well so far. We saw a lot of this in Sichuan earlier in the year. Also in this trough is another plant we saw flowering in several sites in China, Primula nanobella. These were both grown from Josef Juraseks seed. In the container top-dressed with slate is Primula sonchifolia from my own seed (stored in the fridge and sown in January). The primula with the round leaves furthest to the right in the right-hand trough is P. malvacea grown from seed from Keith Lever's plants.

As usual, a few plants that are flowering just now are featured below. First are a couple more of the later alliums, such good August bulbs. One of the first 'plants of the month'  I featured on the AGS website perhaps three years ago was Allium flavum  in a Greek form. I make no excuse for featuring it again. It multiplies well, and I now use it to cheer up even more stony sunny sites, dividing the plant as it comes into growth in the spring.

And here is the Turkish A. tauricum, not dissimilar to the Greek autumn-flowering A. callimischon, but summer-flowering. Like the latter it seems a very plain flower unless viewed very closely. Even then it is an acquired taste; the Garden Director doesn't  like it at all!

Here is another plant for a hot dry place, not that we have such a site this damp summer. We bought this very recently, while we were attending the AGS summer show at Pershore in early July,  not at the Show, but at the plant sale facility run by the college elsewhere on the campus. This has a wide and eclectic range of interesting plants for sale, although not many alpines. An opportunity for our Society perhaps? However, one interesting dwarf woundwort caught the eye, labelled Stachys thunbergii and I am increasingly impressed with it. Only 10 cm high, it features in neither the AGS Encyclopedia or my edition of the Plant Finder, so it may well be a new introduction. I have no idea of its origins, but most plants named for the Swede Thunberg hail from northern China.

Second time round

As the days shorten perceptably for the first time this year, we are into the season of second flowerings, when spring flowering plants with spare energy are triggered by increasingly vernal photoperiods. Here is a favourite alpine of mine that I failed to record during the spring rush. A really good tempered cushion plant for a raised bed, Erysimum kotschyanum is perhaps the tightest growing of the wallflowers, and unlike many is a reliable long-lived perennial. It is easily propagated by division in early spring.

Second time round

I am always fascinated by examples of parallel evolution, such as the holly-like Desfontainea featured recently. Although greener in tone, the growth-habit of the Turkish erysimum shown above is surprisingly similar to many silver saxifrages. Now that we approaching the season when form and colour become so important in the alpine garden, I am including one of the many forms of the latter that I grow. This is one of several excellent forms of the French S. callosa that the National Collection holder Beryl Bland left during a visit a couple of years ago; a welcome gift indeed! Like Beryl, I am so fond of silver saxifrages that I may feature one or more each issue as a feature in forthcoming weeks.

I featured the Turkish Gentiana boissieri as it came into flower a few weeks ago. A second, later-flowering and much more vigorous individual had done so well more recently that I felt it deserved a second mention.

One more dwarf plant, although scarcely an alpine. I acquired this little South African bulb Anomotheca cruenta by accident as a 'weed' in another plant. It became a menace in the conservatory and was ruthlessly eliminated when the containers were replanted. However, it had already self-sown into pavement cracks outside the conservatory, and here it maintains itself without any intervention from us.

We bought a new computer this week; the one I had been using was nearly six years old; exceedingly old and slow by modern standards! One of many advantages is the new high resolution flat screen. I tested this out buy looking at some of my earlier diary entries and was appalled by many of the photographs, that had looked quite good on the old screen! It was like buying a new pair of glasses!  I vow to improve the standard of photography from now on! This is perhaps a good point to reiterate something I have not said for many months, that all the photos in this diary have been taken in our garden during the previous week (except for a few stated exceptions).

I am finishing with a 'big plant'. The last lily to flower here, I think is Lilium 'Cover Girl', but I bought the bulbs many years ago and have lost the details. Any better suggestion about this, or anything else, please visit the relevant comment area in the 'Members on-line discussion' section on this website.

For the last year I have been anonymous for no very good reason, although I am sure my identity has been known to many. In any case, this time I am signing off with my name.

John Richards

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