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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 30 August 2014 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 282.

Down South

We have just completed a rather tortuous visit south, in which we visited Birmingham BG (where I gave a talk), Ashwood Nurseries, my mother in Reading and my daughter in west London. In the course of this progress we visited three public gardens, and I intend to comment briefly on each.

Birmingham Botanic Garden

I am indebted to our hosts, Diane Clement, and Vic and Jan Aspland for their tour of Birmingham Botanic Garden. This is a splendid outfit boasting a cafe, large lecture theatres and meeting rooms, William IV glasshouses, a capacious car-park and much else, as befits our second city. I must confess to thinking how our modest Botanic garden at Newcastle, Moorbank, could have grown into all this, had we the support of our landlords there, the Freemen of the City. Instead, they have proved curmudgeonly and dog in a manger, and have  thrown away a golden opportunity which would have benefitted the City of Newcastle greatly.

It is impressive that the Birmingham garden is self-supporting. Apparently there are three main sources of income of about equal input: entrance fees, sales and food; and corporate hospitality (including weddings, and, when we were there, a wake). It goes to show that when a City decides to support its garden, it can do so, and flourish. There are only four gardeners there (although a fifth will join shortly), and at times this shows a bit, as it is a large garden, but it is full of mature and interesting plants.

Lilium catesbyi is a tender rarity from the bogs of the SE USA, and is difficult to flower, so this is something of a triumph.


Birmingham Botanic Garden

I have long extolled the virtues of Francoa sonchifolia, but did not know F. appendiculata. It takes up a lot of room, but appears to flourish in 'dry shade'.

The scrambling aconite Aconitum piepunense was another plant I had not encountered  before.

I am familiar with the merits of Ephedra foemina (E. campylopoda as was) as seen on cliffs and walls in the Mediterranean, but have rarely seen it as a garden plant and was not aware that it could fruit so well. Recourse to Flora Europaea reveals that although the other three European species are dioecious, and hence will only fruit when males (of no garden merit) and females are grown together, E. foemina is gynodioecious, so that if you acquire a hermaphrodite (male and female flowers are borne separately, the males terminally), it should fruit as well as this. Something to look out for?

The Botanic Garden houses a National Collection of bonsaied trees. Specimens this old are extremely valuable, which might explain why some of the best specimens are displayed behind bars!

Ashwood Nurseries

Ashwood, near Kingswinford in the West Midlands, is a Mecca to many alpine enthusiasts. It is a long way from here, and in a part of the country we never frequent, but its reputation had gone before, and when it was suggested that we might visit there the next morning, I jumped at the chance.

Let me say right at the outset that this wonderful place exceeded even my highest expectations. Basically this is a high-class Garden Centre with an excellent restaurant and quality goods shop. It was built up from a small family business by the proprietor, John Massey, and is an amazing testament to his acumen, energy and persistence. From the Plantsman's point of view though, what makes Ashwood really special are the huge and expert breeding programmes through which John has revolutionised the horticultural potential of a number of genera, starting with Helleborus, Cyclamen and Lewisia, and progressing though to Hepatica (the current big push), Roscoea and other genera apparently in the pipeline.

John is fortunate to have trained up expert assistants who maintain these programmes, but he is also very 'hands-on' and each of the programmes has his stamp of meticulous accuracy, enormous volume, and ruthless efficiency. The scale of the operations if gigantic, and is perhaps best illustrated by a series of 'behind the scenes' shots where we were privileged to visit. Here, first, is the Primula (Auricula) house.

Ashwood Nurseries

And Lewisias......

Cyclamens, with some gigantic stock plants.....

Cyclamen 'Stargazer' is a funny geezer with upward-facing flowers. Will it catch on? It comes true from seed apparently.

And, finally, the Hepaticas, currently John's pride and joy.

I was even more privileged to be given a conducted tour of John's superb garden. I have no hesitation in saying that this is by far the finest private garden I know. It not only pays testament to John's meticulous control, everything is exactly the right size, and not a leaf out of place (and certainly NO weeds!!), but John has an amazing eye and a wonderful ability to put plants together to the greatest effect. Consider for instance the 'hot' planting, and the pondside garden.

The garden runs alongside a canal, which must be a wonderful surprise for folk on a narrowboat holiday! Here chionochloas and echinaceas combine along the canal edge.

I think one has to be VERY careful about garden statuary. As always, John  has an accurate eye. I loved these swans in a 'fountain'.

As in all the very best gardens, there are ground-breaking, original ideas. We all loved these carefully tended Rhododendron yakusimanum underplanted with autumn gentians.

Part of the front garden is dominated by southern hemisphere subjects, with agapanthus and eucomis in a starring role.

There are also some very well designed gravel gardens around the house.

Surrounded by such magnificance, it seems de trop to pick out individual plants. However, one rarely sees interesting celmisias these days. I think this is C. x linearis, the cross between C. spectabilis and C. lyallii which I have not seen for a number of years.

In conclusion, I mentioned that a new enthusiasm is Roscoea, and in particular the stunning late-flowering selections of R. purpurea involving crosses with 'Red Gurkha' which were originally raised by Robin White and known as the 'Royal Purple' group. I was fortunate to be given a few of these to try at home, but, as always, John is experimenting in bulk!

It is important to emphasise that although the Garden Centre is of course public domain, John's garden and the experimental greenhouses are private property. The garden is open to the public for charitable causes on a number of days in the year, and I strongly recommend a visit.

Waterperry Gardens

The final garden we visited was Waterperry, east of Oxford. My mother is now confined to a wheelchair, and this garden is ideal for her purposes, not least because she can see the great blocks of colour in the herbaceous borders with her failing sight.

Waterperry Gardens

Waterperry houses the National Collection of Porophyllum saxifrages of course, maintained by Adrian Young and others, and this is always a magnet for me when I visit. I had heard that Beryl Bland had donated her National Collection of Silver Saxifrages as well, and was pleased to see some of them in situ, planted out in an excellent new tufa bed.

Some new tufa areas were yet to be planted up, suggesting that all the collection may not have been incorporated yet.

Two Waterperry plants that took my notice to finish with. Firstly, the magnificent Crinum powellii which seems to flourish there without protection or even a wall.

Finally, a delightful dwarf clematis, less than a metre high and forming mounded growth. It seems to be a C. viticella cross and is called 'Arabella'.

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