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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 24 December 2006 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 16.

Seasons Greetings
Yes, I know its Christmas Eve, and the house is full of children and grandchildren,so I've escaped upstairs with a mince pie. -1C today with a freezing fog and visibility down to 100 m. Tomorrow, I'll grab a sherry before the Christmas lunch and walk round the garden with secateurs to make an arrangement for the table. Usually I can manage a dozen or more items, but there is unusually little in flower at the moment. Here are two three items that are showing at Christmas.

Gentians, if not Bavarian.
To paraphrase, if not parody  'Not every man has gentians in his house in cold December at dark sad Candlemass'. I wonder if Lawrence was really looking at Bavarian Gentians (presumably G. acaulis, flowering principally in spring) or what then would have been the Chinese novelty G. sino-ornata which does flower in September? In any case, I have been looking at a gentian in my garden for two years or more,wondering what it was and whether it would ever flower. I had wondered if it was a self-sown willow gentian, G. asclepidea. Unexpectedly, it finally came into flower last week and revealed itself as the Japanese G. scabra. Surprisingly, the flowers open even in the coldest and gloomiest weather. I had grown this from AGS seed about 20 years ago, but it had become buried by a burgeoning rhododendron. Thinking back, now that it has flowered, I have a faint recollection of rescuing it and placing it in its present position. A long-lived plant and a precious late flowerer, better than the tender blowsy forms that had appeared in supermarkets in recent years.

Gentians, if not Bavarian.

Primula nana

I finally got round to taking the covers off some of my primula fishboxes so I could take this photo of P. nana opening its first flowers for Christmas, not an uncommon event for this most precocious of species. As well as this pale blue individual, I have  pink one and a white form which are well budded but not quite open yet. Since last week, I have received a copy of the latest 'Alpine Gardener' in which Robert Rolfe writes what a bad summer 2006 had been for Asiatic primulas, especially petiolarids and soldanelloids. Well not here it hasn't; I scarcely lost one.

Before the rest of you sneer 'well, its all right for him, he lives in Northumberland', let me tell you about our summer. For six unbroken weeks, the daily shade temperature exceeded 25C and we had no rain at all (none of the thunderstorms that happened further south). I recorded shade temperatures exceeding 30C on 12 days, including eight days in a row. Well, I know it was 35C or more at times further south, but the weather we experienced was certainly hot and dry enough to be used as an excuse for dead primulas further south! As with all tricky plants, the secret is undivided attention. Plants are moved into the deepest shade, and are sprayed (but not overwatered as this can cause rotting) every night, and sometimes in the early morning. Yes I know, difficult if you have a hosepipe ban, but most of the UK didn't have a ban this summer. Its also important to have carefully made up composts (lots of bark and perlite) and strong, mostly seed-grown stock. Virused clones are much more likely to die of heatstroke.

For some reason, growers of dionysias or other tricky plants are 'skilled' but those who are successful with asiatic primulas are just considered lucky to live in the right place! There, I've had my grumble and rest my case. After all it is Christmas!

Primula nana

Cyclamen coum and foliage
Quite a short offering this time. Just time to post the first flowers of Cyclamen coum. Various forms of this sow freely all over the garden, even into troughs where I think ants must carry the seeds (the formic acid kills many seeds and seedlings, but not those of species such as cyclamen which have become adapted to be dispersed by ants). They start flowering now and continue well into March, combining beautifully with snowdrops. Something to look forward to! Also in this photo are the leaves of Ajuga reptans 'purpurea' and Sedum fosterianum.

Cyclamen coum and foliage
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