Alpine Garden Society

01386 554790
Back to List of Entries for A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

Go to bottom

You can add your comments on the content of this diary entry in the ongoing discussion but you need to login first

A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 11 August 2015 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 303.


I have been wondering of late what my gardening philosophy is. This is easier to contemplate after 45 years of growing plants, as an arriere pensee. I admire those who set out on their garden adventure with clearly defined, set, objectives, but this has never been my way. Whatever goals and targets I set myself today have evolved slowly and organically over many years, so that although I have a fairly clear idea of what I am trying to achieve today, this has changed and crystallised over the decades.

Above all, I am a plantsman who tries to grow as large number of different subjects as space allows, bearing in mind that some are bigger, and longer-lived than others (we have about 100 small trees in our half-acre). Also, I tend to like some plants better than others. I grow no grasses (lawns excepted!) and 'herbaceous perennials' (e.g. late-flowering prairie plants) are Sheila's province. I grow few annuals (again Sheila does), although we do have some bedding plants in tubs. And I tend to collect. It is almost invidious to list particular favourites, but I am a particular sucker for Meconopsis, Primula species, Rhodendron species, Sorbus, Gentians, Crocus, Celmisia, Soldanella, blue Corydalis, Roscoea, Salix, Saxifrages......and so the list goes on!

What I am not is a person who plans plant associations. The ideas spawned by Gertrude Jekyll, for instance, or Christopher Lloyd, of matching great swathes of colour, are anathema to me, for several different reasons. Firstly, I tend to grow most plants singly, or at best in threes.  That way I can grow more different things! Not for me mass plantings of the same variety. Second, such planned associations tend to peak for a month or two at best, and that part of the garden is then unattractive for the rest of the year. That is fine for those who have space to 'write off' much of the garden for many months, or who plan garden visits for certain seasons (the summer holidays for instance). However, in my limited space I expect all the garden to be attractive for all of the year. This requires a sure and certain framework of evergreen shrubs, trees with interesting bark, berries and autumn colour, and varied and attractive groundcover. In a way, I suppose these are also 'plant associations', but not of flowers. Indeed, it was Gertrude Jekyll who is also supposed to have said 'green is also a colour', to which I would add, blue, and purple, and silver, and yellow...(foliage). This is the backdrop to my 'plantmanship', in which I cram hundreds of plants into special habitats; troughs, fishboxes, raised beds, sandbeds, woodland beds, high humus beds, free-standing containers and the rest. This is my philosophy. I love plants, interesting plants, my sort of plants, in diversity, and I am forever raising new ones from seed. And I don't give a jot what grows next to whom, except for the permanent planting.

'Hot' area

Having said which, we seem to have acquired an area of late-season 'hot' planting, almost by accident. We grow a couple of fuchsias as long-lived shrubs in tubs, These spend the winter protected from frost in the conservatory. This year, Sheila put them out for the summer next to a rodgersia, and given a few bedding mimulus, Bowles golden sedge, Carex elata 'Aurea', some sedums etc, suddenly we seem to have a minature 'hot garden'!

'Hot' area

A Study in Scarlet

This is indeed the time of the red flower, little bursts of scarlet appearing all over the garden. The following sequence highlights Zauschneria angustifolia, Desfontainea spinosa, Ourisia coccinea, Tropaeolum speciosum and an unnamed hybrid red lily.

Zauschneria angustifolia Desfontainea spinosa Ourisia coccinea Tropaeolum speciosum

The tropaeolum is climbing (self-sown!) amongst Rhododendron pseudochrysanthum by the way, such a handsome pedestal!

The lily, which has proved permanent in this raised, sheltered, semi-shaded position (which is more than you can say for many) provides a convenient segue to one of my favourites at present, the magnificent L. nepalense. I can take little credit for this, as I bought the bulbs early in the spring from Harperly Hall, three flowering size bulbs for the very reasonable outlay of £5. Planted in a deep plastic container I kept them under glass until all danger of frost was past, and they have now been flowering for nearly a month. The flowers are huge, 20 cm in diameter, so it needs staking. The last time I acquired this species I planted the bulbs out in a sheltered corner and once the bulbs had died down I covered the site with a cloche. Nothing emerged next spring. This time I am tempted to lift the bulbs and store them cool but not frozen, and on the dry side.

Lilium nepalense

Another supposedly difficult subject had proved more permanent here. Thalictrum diffusiflorum was grown originally from unnamed seed as an unprompted gift. It was planted under a dwarf acer where it thrived for a few years, but then became swamped by a clematis and weedy buttercups. This May I moved a very etiolated shoot to a newly prepared bed of compost and leaf-mould, supported by string and a frame, and it has prospered. It has now been flowering for a month and becomes more beautiful by the day. Supposedly tricky according to most websites, it obviously likes it here! It is growing through Lilium langkongense, in bud.

Thalictrum diffusiflorum

Another favourite late-flowering 'blue' grown from seed is Campanula versicolor. This is a most variable plant in the wild and many are not worth growing. This good form was collected as seed from a low limestone cliff on Geek Parnassos, and has thrived on the raised sand-bed.

Campanula versicolor

As intimated earlier, I am growing a number of blue corydalis in fishboxes. I find that if they are chopped after spring flowering, many have a second bite at the cherry. Here is C. pachycentra, followed by (rather etiolated at this time of year) C. 'Kingfisher'.

Corydalis pachycentra

Mouse alert!

The other day I was looking out of the window with my granddaughter when a movement on the rock wall caught our eyes. I grabbed a nearby camera and the following photo ensued. Ignore the Primula marginata, Saxifraga burserana and Sedum spurium and concentrate on the lower left-hand corner!

Mouse alert!

Finally, I know I said that I don't do plant associations, but this mix of roscoeas, convallaria and uvularia has given me some pleasure.

Go to top
Back to List of Entries for A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

You can add your comments on the content of this diary entry in the ongoing discussion but you need to login first