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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 03 December 2014 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 287.


No entry at all for November I see. Definitely slacking! The only real excuse I can muster is that I could think of little new to say. November was...well leaves of course. The leaves are now all on the leaf-heap, ready to make lots of lovely new leaf mould for the coming year (well, the year after anyway; the pile for the coming year is alongside). Compost has been spread, the compost bins mended (they are 20 years old and showing signs of wear), beds raked and tidied, there has been a fair amount of pruning, and a certain amount of edging, and November has...gone. Good riddance I say.

November may well have been ridiculously mild (and dim, soggy, mucky), and followed on the warmest year (probably) and the dryest September (definitely) on record, but here we are in December and winter is at last upon us. Last night Jack Frost struck, and, early afternoon his icy fingers still grip the garden. Nearing the solstice, this garden receives no direct sunlight at all, so that frost tends to linger even on what has turned into a golden winters day.

It may be cold, but it is not hard to welcome the frost. Pests and weeds are killed, plants die back to their winter rest, and the garden is transformed from soggy decay to pristine slumber at a stroke, overnight.

Frost outlines shapes and emboldens outlines so that the bones of the garden are revealed. Suddenly, walking round the garden is a joy, not a burden and the plants present themselves to be enjoyed in their dormant states, redolent with promise and potential. We have progressed from the end of the year to the start of the next one.

Here are views of the troughs and containers on the terrace, of the raised bed, of the lawn, the conservatory area and the front garden, sealed in frost.

A few points to be added here. In the fourth photo you will see that the Liriodendron has been stooled back to a stump, as we tend to do every three or four years. We love the foliage but don't have enough room for the tree. Also, several of the tree planting circles have been enlarged and compost added. Most of these have been planted with new tulips and/or narcissi; they make a great opportunity to add bulbs. Also, I see the Korean Fir appears in all the first four photos. I don't think I was aware the extent to which it has become a link between different sections of the garden.

In the first photo, two of the fish-boxes have been covered with glass. This is to protect Pulsatilla vernalis in particular which I find tends to flower more reliably if covered for the winter. As with most of my covers these days, they are supported on old ''fridge' baskets and held in place with roof-rack ties on tent pegs or skewers.

In the more shaded side garden, fishboxes with primulas, meconopsis and corydalis are covered with larger transparent covers, originally meant for lightweight frames, and thoughtfully left in my daughter's garden by a former occupant. They too are held by roof-rack ties.

Certain structural plants look great in frost. Here is Picea 'Little Gem', followed by Rhododendron roxieanum and Cotoneaster horizontalis.

Insider dealing

Its an ill wind etc, and one of the unexpected by-blows of the tragic closure of Moorbank Botanic Garden last year was the dispersal of many tropical and subtropical subjects. Although we boast a so-called conservatory, it is not much more than a garden room really, and it gets too cool in winer to suit truly tropical subjects. Thus, it was with much trepidation that we took on an epiphytic gesneriad which was one of the features of the Moorbank tropical house, flowering throughout the year from suspended containers. We did not expect to have much success with this, but it was repotted, stood outside in the warmer months and not allowed to dry out, and I was delighted to see last month that it was setting bud. I have since read that these south-east Asian Aeschyanthus (for that is what it is, Ae. speciosus to be exact) are stimulated to flower by a lowering of the temperature, so I have done something right! Having seen several species in the wild in Malaysian and Bornean pygmy forest, I now know these are mountain plants and although they will never experience frost, they are used to being quite cool (we were frozen in the Cameron Highland in an unheated hotel room!). What is vital is high humidity, and it is this we will find the hardest to provide in the future.

Insider dealing

Great photo of red spider mite in the last photo! If you didn't know what it looked like before, you do now!

Several other plants are flowering in the conservatory now, including Jasminum polyanthum with its wonderful scent, and a begonia. This begonia is a treasure, flowering right through the winter and never semingly needing a repot. Does anyone know its name?

In the back porch a couple of petrocosmeas keep company with pelargoniums at this time of year. They keep cool and in reasonable light here, but free of frost. Sadly, they seem to flower too late for the autumn shows! I am particularly fond of P. cryptica.

I see I featured the first flower on Petrocosmea minor back on September 23rd. To its credit, it is still in full flower.

Finally, a pleasant surprise in the alpine house in November was this spectacular flower-head on one of this year's seedlings of Primula elatior ssp. meyeri. This appears to be a fantasic form, so I hope the others are as good and that it hasn't shot its bolt for the spring.

Autumn colour

I should perhaps have said at the start that the real reason  that there were no diary entries in November was that I spent a good deal of time setting up the autumn colour website, as promised in the last entry. This is now finished, as I have used up the number of pictures allotted by the website provider, which turned out to be almost exactly the number I wanted to use, more by serendipity than planning. I am quite pleased with the site, but whether I continue to post it depends on how much it is used. If it turns out to be popular (so far it is on about 1000 hits) I shall continue with it and modify it after future autumns. If not, I shall scrap it, and perhaps try something else. Wait and see! At the moment it does not google well (although some of the subjects are a way in) and it is best reached by googling

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