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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 31 December 2006 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 17.

Darkest before dawn

We have just passed through the darkest three weeks of the year, thank goodness, and its downhill all the way. Am I alone in desiring the arrival of spring so devoutly that I count back wards, e.,g. today is December 31st, which is equivalent to December 11th? This starts to have a real resonance once we reach the start of February (equivalent to November 10th!).

In the last entry I mentioned that I always pick a small flower arrangement on Christmas morning, and I thought it might be interesting to list what was in it. Not a classic year, but the effect was very pretty.

Cyclamen pseudibericum, Desfontainea spinosa, Gentiana scabra, Helleborus 'Early Purple Group', Ilex 'Silver Queen', Jasminum nudiflorum, Narcissus cantabricus, N. romieuxii 'Joy Bishop', Nemesia rupicola, Skimmia x reevesiana (flowers and berries), Symphoricarpos rivularis (berries), Viburnum x bodnantense.

Some of these have featured in recent diary entries, and others are not appropriate to these pages, but a couple of participants deserve further mention. Narcissus romieuxii 'Joy Bishop' is always the earliest of the romieuxiis here, and, just opening now, is not particularly forward this year. It is a strong grower and reliable flowerer here, unlike 'Julia Jane' which is better endowed but more miffy. Incidentally, growing a range of so-called romieuxii, cantabricus and albidus here, all the clones differ, but are there really three or more species in this group? They all seem very closely related.

Darkest before dawn

Early hellebores
Helleborus ?Early Purple Group? also deserves further mention. I acquired this at a local AGS sale back in 1994 as H. atrorubens, since when it has proved reliable, vigorous, and very early flowering (some years in late November). Later, I was informed by the vendor that it was usually known then as ?H. atrorubens of gardens?, and by others that it had also been called ?H. purpurascens of gardens?. It  is quite clearly neither of these species, being larger, with relatively undivided, non-circular leaves which are not hairy beneath and is presumably an H. x hybridus or H. orientalis cross which has now settled to the designation ?Early Purple Group?. Because it flowers so early, I like to think it may be an H. purpurascens cross, as that species is also very early. Probably, only an examination of its DNA will reveal its true identity, but H. 'Early Purple Group'  is that rarest of beasts, a true mid-winter flower.

Early hellebores

Will the real Helleborus purpurascens please stand
I grow two other plants as H. purpurascens, and they are both clearly the same thing and correctly named, being very dwarf, very early flowering, and with leaves which disappear early in the autumn and are hairy beneath. One, grown by Terry Teal from wild seed flowers a little later. The other was obtained from Edrom nurseries and gained a PC from the RHS last February. It is written up (but without a picture) in the current issue of the 'Alpine Gardener'. There are several points that might be added to that account, for instance that this is easily the dwarfest of species (H. thibetanus is a competitor), and of all the hellebores it lays best claim to being a real mountain plant. Most of its sites are not forests but alpine meadows in the Carpathians, which may explain both its diminutive size and very early flowering (when the snow melts).

Will the real Helleborus purpurascens please stand

Its a seedy time of year...

I have always tried to sow my seed between Christmas and the New Year, relic of the days when this provided me with a few precious days of holiday when the weather was unsuitable for ?proper? gardening. First job is washing about 150 square plastic pots in very warm water, in the scullery sink. This takes all of a rather tedious afternoon, listening to the radio. I am not quite sure why I do it. If the rationale is that traces of old compost clinging to the dry pots harbour ?damping off?? diseases harmful to young seedlings (spores of  Pythium, Fusarium, Phytophthora etc, and the sclerotia of Rhizoctonia), then I should really sterilise the pots properly. However, it is more pleasant to handle clean (-ish) pots subsequently. One year I should conduct a controlled experiment and sow duplicate batches of the same seed in washed and unwashed pots. At least they won?t carry as many diseases as the old crock pots used to.

Once the pots are dry, I make up a bucket of two parts John Innes seed compost to one part sharp sand, fill the pots, level the surface, remove the seed from the fridge where it has been since it was received or collected, sow it evenly as possible, top with about one cm of granite grit, label (pencil on white plastic) and place outside in bakers trays. The seed pots remain outside unprotected in all weather until germination occurs. Incidentally, it is worth checking last years sowings now if any ungerminated bulbs are involved, I found new seedlings of three crocuses yesterday.

Here are some of the new seed pans. I have sown 70 so far, but have some to go, and have not yet received either AGS or SRGC seed. I hasten to add that this is completely my fault for going away during the season when the seed lists arrive, so my requests were sent in VERY  late!

Its a seedy time of year...

Peat blocks

A 'watch this space' to conclude. When I first started alpine gardening in the late 1960's, peat gardens and peat walls were all the rage, fostered if not invented by the late Alf Evans. These constructions looked fine for the first year or so, but the peat blocks tended to become infested with Polytrichum moss, and had a tendency to disintegrate after hard frosts. As summers became hotter and drier (and, lest we forget, we had some humdingers in the UK in the mid-70's), the peat tended to dry out and , once dry, was almost impossible to rewet. Even the type of plant grown in the beds (Ericaceous shrubs, primulas, meconopsis, shortias, nomocharis, celmisias and so on) went out of fashion as summers became hotter and drier. Celebrities such as David Bellamy and Geoff Hamilton conducted vigorous and poorly informed campaigns against the use of peat in gardens, and peat gardens almost disappeared.

Recently, the introduction of much larger blocks of sedge peat from Sweden has caused a renewed interest in peat gardening and ambitious new gardens have been built by Ron McBeath, Alan Furness and Julia Corden (the Explorers Garden at Pitlochry) amongst others. We are told that this is the only sure way to grow, for instance, shortias and pyrolas, straight into the block itself, often by sowing seed in situ.

Some of these new gardens involve hundreds of massive peat blocks. So far,I have only acquired three! I am finishing with a picture of the site where I intend to build a very modest peat wall. The blocks will need to be cut up and shaped. Some of you will remember the hilarious correspondence in the 'Panel of Experts' section of the AGS Bulletin nearly 40 years ago, during the first enthusiasm for peat gardening. Someone had written to ask how to cut up peat blocks, and had queried the experts reply that this was best done using a 'wood saw', asking where such an unlikely item of equipment could be acquired. Roy Elliott replied bruskely 'in any good hardware shop' (!).

Peat blocks
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