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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 03 December 2013 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 259.

Turning over an old leaf

Number one task here in the second half of November is gathering the autumn leaves. As I have written before, this is a necessity, for the huge leaf-fall here buries many small plants with terminal results if the leaves are not removed (and what passes for a lawn suffers badly too). It is also an aesthetic desirability, because the garden looks seriously untidy until the leaves are removed. On the positive side, the great volumes of leaf-mould I make every year is in constant demand for top-dressing, composts and the construction of new beds.

With the anticipated loss of the University Botanic Garden at Moorbank now a reality (as a Botanic Garden gardened by our volunteers anyway), we have 'borrowed' a few portable rhodos and magnolias which we were particularly fond of (they were acquired through our good offices in any case). Our Landlords, the Freemen of the City of Newcastle, encouraged us to remove rare plants which they might not be able to keep alive, and so it is that a few found their way to us. Finding such treasures a temporary home while a permanent domicile is engineered has involved copious amounts of last years leaf-mould, now in excellent condition after the warm summer.

This photo of the back raised shrubbery, featuring Mahonia 'Winter Sun', gives some idea of the amount of leaf fall involved. And although I have now been round the garden once (two days hard labour, and a  sore back), some subjects are still to fall, not least the large Magnolia x soulangeana.

Turning over an old leaf

Here is the mahonia, such a joy in this dead month.

As might have been anticipated after such a late spring, it has also been a late autumn, certainly with regards to leaf fall. Here are two views taken from within the kitchen, only yesterday (December). In the first, Salix lanata is perhaps showing better colour than ever before and shows no sign of losing its leaves for some time. Out of the other window, Corylopsis spicata is a really vivid yellow, and again is holding well (C. pauciflora, just out of shot, lost its leaves weeks ago). There is also a particularly good autumn show from Viburnum x bodnantense, which is usually better during its second flowering period in March/April (its parent V. farreri, usually a dead loss here, is also good this year, which has just about saved its bacon, as I was eying its space with a predatory gaze).

A more reliable autumn subject, which often continues to produce red and orange shades well into the New Year in its sheltered corner, is Xanthorrhiza simpiliuscula. This, by the way, is a real thug, covering huge amounts of ground and as difficult to uproot as it is easy to cut back (take care, for the bright yellow sap is toxic). However, for difficult corners, particularly shady areas under trees, it has real merit in the winter if you have enough space (it does little enough at other times of year; the small flowers are black).

Xanthorrhiza is a relative of Actaea, the baneberries, and I dare say it would fruit if I had more than one clone.

Certainly, it has been an outstanding year for sorbus. Most of the red, orange and yellow-fruited species have now been taken by birds (some blackbirds did arrive eventually), but the white species have hardly been touched. I had already featured S. glabrescens with its leaves on (number 255), but now the leaves are off it is sensational.

Little S. reducta with its day-glo fruits has been equally unpopular, although most have now fallen, to remain uneaten, foreign to the blackbirds' search image. I imagine this is  tuned into our local rowans, S. aucuparia.

Gravellama

The other main excerise over the last two weeks has involved the shifting of yet another dumpy bag of gravel. This was primarily needed to top dress the various sand-beds that were completed in early September, but I wanted to wait until the leaves were raked up before starting. Finally, after nearly 25 years, the various exercises in specialist alpine conditions which have been constructed along the terrace, have now been linked into a single 25 m long continuity. This links the first sand bed to the tufa mound, then to the most recent sand bed (see below), then to the limestone rock wall, and finally to the third sand bed. At present, it all looks very well. First, the view from above.

Gravellama

Here is the view from the other end, from below.

In the foreground of the last shot is the limestone rock wall, from which masses of parahebe and azorella had been removed (issue 255).The old gravelly soil was top-dressed with two barrow-loads of sieved leaf-mould, and then about 12 cm depth of sand, before it was planted and top-dressed with gravel. The first photo shows the stripped area, and the second its final condition.

At the very far end, almost under the Korean Fir, is a Daphne retusa, grown from seed almost 20 years ago, which has finally formed a fine, aged, symmetrical features. This, too, has now been top-dressed with gravel, and a good deal of planting space remains around it. Although the old sticky soil was large removed and replaced with sand, I dare not touch the daphne itself, and I hope that not too many pernicious weeds (mostly Potentilla cuneata, here) have survived.

Little remains in flower under glass, with one notable exception. I grew Onosma frutescens from seed gathered from Monemvasia walls two autumns ago. I had little expectation that it would prove hardy outside, and so it proved, but a pot-grown plant in the alpine house grew rapidly far too large and rooted through the pot well into the plunge. As it was sprawling over everything else, I tugged it out, and threw most of the herbage away, saving a little rooted sprig to stuff into a corner of the plunge. This was probably in May, and it has grown away again in pure sand, to hang over the abyss, just as it does in the wild, and flower in December, dito ditto for all I know. It is really very handsome.

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