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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 17 August 2014 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 281.

Seedy success

Back in July (entry 277) I noted that I was starting to find a home for this year's seedlings. Of about 100 batches of seed sown, I had pricked out rather more than 50 (another 15 or so were bulbs, of which more in a minute). More than a month later, I have now positioned all the seedlings I need, so yesterday afternoon I undertook something of a rationalisation, grouping the survivors, and binning the casualties. I find these statistics fascinating, useful and a little sobering, and I remind myself that many of the subjects are not easy habituated garden subjects, but mountain waifs and strays, far from home and a long way out of their comfort zones.

The empty pots numbered about 70. This caused me to walk round the garden to count how many seedlings had found a place in the garden, planted out, or in pots in the alpine house. This came to 180, of 48 species. The final statistic was those plants which have not been used but which remain in good condition. These will hopefully disappear before the winter, as sale subjects and gifts. There are a few more than 100 of these, so that the number originally pricked out seems to have been about 350 (I know I had passed 300 and then stopped counting!).

I am pleased that so many seedlings have found a home so early in the year, as I have found that I am very bad at getting seedlings in small pots through the winter. I do not really have suitable covered frames here, which I am sure is the main reason. Young plants are much happier when planted out, particularly if they have a few months to become established before winter sets in.

It is interesting to note what the casualties were. Although most batches lost one or two,  disproportionately, a few candidates made up most of the corpses. All 15 Meconopsis rudis died rapidly, although M. simplicifolia, M. prattii alba and the supposedly difficult M. delavayi alongside showed high survivorships (later, slugs targetted the M. simplicifolia though).. A gifted packet of supposed Primula sikkimensis mostly died and the few survivors have scarcely grown; clearly they are not that but something much more interesting! Most of a batch of Calceolaria uniflora died, although a few survivors have grown quite well. Other supposedly tricky customers have survived well, including Pulsatilla vernalis, Daphne domini and Petrocallis pyrenaica.

So, to sum up, so far the casualty rate amongst pricked out seedlings has been about 20%. Put this way, the sight of 70 empty pots does not seem too bad, particularly when one has amassed a further 50-odd species for very little outlay.

Bulb massacre

If the above sounds complacent, I have just finished my bulb repot, and I am not a happy bunny. I have never been very successful with bulbs in pots here, and once again I find that numbers and sizes have tended to dwindle. Some genera do reasonably well, particularly Crocus, also TulipaHyacinthella, Corydalis and Scilla. However, I really struggle with frits, iris (especially the Reticulatas) and narcissi. Although I have taken to watering the plunge regularly when the pots are dormant, I do wonder if the area they grow is just too hot and dry in much the hotter of the two alpine houses. Certainly, they do not get a 'cool rest'. This is ironic in this cool garden, but this alpine house is in the sunniest spot, and I do not shade that house. Probably I should, and intend to next summer.

I am not much more successful with bulb seeds. When these germinate I bring them into the cooler house and try to remember to keep them watered. However, when I came to look yesterday, most were dust-dry and I could only find the tiny bulblets in about half, not a great translation rate. Really, I suspect my heart is not in it. When I get great results in a year from most of my favourite subjects, six or eight years seems a long time to wait for a bulb to mature; a young man's game!


Most of the flower has now gone from my alpine areas, and we await autumn (although Cyclamen hederifolium has started already). At this time I derive much pleasure from the vegetative colour and form of alpines. One of the great joys of alpines is that the alpine garden functions for 12 months of the year. Many alpines form cushions or 'buns', and the shape of these is an essential component of the alpine garden. So I am not here concerned with those miffy cushions, dionysias, androsaces, drabas, which only flourish in the alpine house. Rather, I hope to celebrate those which are reliable, long-lived performers without protection in well-drained open sites (often raised sand-beds) in this garden.

My favourite cushion does not flower here at all. Bolax gummifera is an umbellifer from Patagonia, which has a reputation for difficulty, but here it is faultless. According to the 'Encyclopedia of Alpines', it can reach 135 cm in diameter in the wild, but rarely reaches a quarter of this size in cutlivation. Well, my larger plant is now 85 cm in diameter, so it well on the way to beating the wild record! This photo is of a smaller plant, grown from an offset, which is a more regular shape.



Erysimum kotschyanum is another star performer here, covering itself with yellow flowers in May, although I think I prefer it later in the year when it forms a remarkably regular cushion.

Several dianthus form excellent cushions. I grow D. plumarius in several areas, not for the rather sparsely produced flowers, but for the regular shape of the lovely blue-grey foliage.

Of the smaller dianthus, D. similis, D. microlepis and D. arvernensis have all formed good cushions here. However I am figuring D. 'Eileen Lever', a really excellent rock garden plant just as lovely out of flower as in it.

I find that saxifrages provide many of the best cushions for the garden. Here is S. 'Gregor Mendel'.

Saxifraga ferdinandi-coburgii is another Porophyllum sax which does well outside and forms attractive cushions.

Several of the silver saxs form lovely cushions, notably S. cochlearis 'Minor'. Here for a change is S. x 'Burnatii'

Of course, the 'Mossies' also make good cushion plants. My favourite is S. cervicornis (often treated as a subspecies of S. pedemontana) as it colours nicely in autumn.

By way of contrast, this is also said to be S. pedemontana, this time collected from western Turkey. It may prove to be a new species.

Not all cushion drabas require the protection of the alpine-house, and this is certainly true of the form of Draba rigida known as bryoides (acquired many years ago as 'imbricata'. The Encyclopedia of Alpines says this is best in the alpine house, but I have grown it outside for 40 years, and if it is a little moth-eaten, well, so am I.

Less spectacular perhaps, is a quietly interesting American draba, D. smithii.

Otherwise, much of the interest is from big plants. I have discovered that if I brush past the Abies koreana cones with my hands, it takes ages to get the sticky resin off. My wife solved this problem with alcohol-based antiseptic wipes.

There is a danger that I might figure Eucryphia 'Nymansay' every year. Now nearly 25 feet high, when it flowers it is so much the most spectacular plant in the garden that it is just irresistable.

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