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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 24 December 2014 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Christmas Edition, number 288.

Happy Christmas everyone!

Well here we are, yet another Christmas again! For once, we are at home and will stay here, by ourselves, very cosy! If I hear you say, 'ah', well it probably won't happen again and, secretly, we are rather looking forward to being a bit Scroogish, with the odd 'Bah Humbug!' thrown in.

Its been mild and very wet for the last week. The jet stream has targetted Carlisle and the Tyne Gap and it has rained solidly for four days, with gale-force winds. I have completely filled the garden recycling bin with twigs and debris (no collections until late March; its now we need them!!). We haven't had the feet of rain that fell on Cumbria; the Pennines take the brute force, but when we drove over the hill to Allendale (of saxifrage fame) for a festive toddle this afternoon, we saw a lot of standing water.

Unfestive weather, you may think, but suddenly its much colder and we are promised a white Christmas. Not your actual snow you understand, but a heavy white frost, which might be just as nice. Whether there will be anything fit to pick when I undertake my customary Christmas morning turn round the garden tomorrow to pick a seasonal posy remains to be seen, so I took my camera round the garden this morning as well. I need hardly say that what transpired were bits and bobs. Its not a great time of year in the garden, but we should be grateful for small mercies.

Lets start with a traditional Christmas tree, the hermaphrodite (so it will berry by itself) Ilex x altaclarensis 'Golden King'. The story that this 'King' is in fact a female is thus only partially true. Nevertheless, many different plants seem to pass under this name. All they have in common is golden variegation and the ability to berry. Some have round entire leaves (like  mine) and others are prickly. Incidentally, mine seems to ripen late so the birds have not yet taken it. They have stripped all the other hollies in the garden already. Never mind, it does mean I had something for the wreath on the front door!


Ilex x altaclarensis 'Golden King'

I am a great believer in berrying plants for the winter garden, and here are a few more. Firstly Skimmia x reevsiana. This is another hermaphrodite in a largely dioecious genus, so that it is unnecessary to plant both genders if berries are wanted. Having said this we did plant a new male next to the (inherited) old plant, because I like the effect of the winter flower buds. Perhaps because it does not have the energetic strain of berrying every year, the male outgrew the hermaphrodite to the extent that the latter stopped berrying. Only some timely pruning and a good mulch saved the S. x reevsiana, and this is the first time it has borne a good crop for a few years.

Skimmia x reevsiana

Cotoneaster serotinus is perhaps the best of the berrying species because the berries are a good colour and size, and they seem not to be taken by the birds. Unlike many, it is soundly evergreen and the leaves have attractive whitish woolly backs.

Cotoneaster serotinus

Lastly, a species not really planted for its berries, or even the sight of the rather scrawny white flowers (just opening now), but for their sensational scent which almost knocks you over on a warm still winters day, Sarcococca confusa is an evergreen which here hides away under a Salix lanata in summer, but emerges after leaf fall for a brief spell of midwinter glory.

Sarcococca confusa

When we arrived here quarter of a century ago, we inherited an extremely ugly concrete rendered garage which we hastened to hide with classy evergreenery. What is now a huge Arbutus unedo (despite catastrophic damage in 2010) and a Garrya elliptica have served their purpose nobly, never mind the mediterranean climate origin of both. The garrya signals its tender ancestry by grumbling after hard winters, and then tends not to flower well during the succeeding winter. Last winter was exceptionally mild of course, so it is no surprise that it is performing well, just coming to its best now.

Garrya elliptica

One last shrub, and if Desfontainea spinosa has a Christmassy look from the holly-mimicking leaves and scarlet flowers, this is deceptive, for this Chilean shrub starts flowering in early July, and continues in fits and starts for nearly six months. I propoagated it and now grow it successfully as a dwarfish free-standing shrub as well as against a north wall.This is one of a number of South American shrubs that thrived at Randle Cooke's garden, 'Kilbryde' (three miles distant) when I first helped to manage it after his death in the early 1970's and which I was determined to grow once I had enough garden room. Now I am lucky enough to enjoy Crinodendron hookerianum, Eucryphia 'Nymansay' and Philesia magellanica as well as the Desfontainea. Only Embothrium coccineum eludes me; I think the summers here are too harsh, despite the climate change which has favoured the others.

Desfontainea spinosa

This is certainly proving to be an earlier winter than some, and Cyclamen coum is coming into flower in several parts of the garden. It usually waits until late Junuary here.

Cyclamen coum

Snowdrops are above the ground everywhere. One main bed where I tend to keep a collection of different ones was in need of a good topdress, so I took the opportunity to add5 cm of rotted leaf mould a couple of days ago. This will keep the weeds down, and may also delay the snowdrops, no bad thing at this stage. Hopefully it will feed them too of course.

Only one snowdrop is actually in flower yet, perhaps because most of the very early ones are G. elwesii clones, a species which does not like me very much. G. plicatus is another matter, and the late Frank Tindall gave me 'Three Ships' a decade ago. This was very severely damaged by the December freeze in 2010 and I thought I had lost it (most snowdrops were not in growth then and so were unaffected). However, a year later a few small leaves appeared in its place, and, finally, the fragments have grown enough to produce two flowers. One was promptly eaten by a mouse!

By far the most reliable Christmas flower here is Helleborus 'Early Purple Group', and I have a horrid feeling I must have featured it most years. Here it is again!

Helleborus 'Early Purple Group'

Another Christmas standby in this garden is the excellent form of Primula vulgaris ssp. sibthorpii which I found in my mother's garden and have since distributed.

Into the alpine house for the final Christmas subjects. Thanks to generous donations of seed from Terry Mitchell (and recently, some of my own), I now have Primula megaseifolia both in pots inside, and in two places in the garden. Hopefully it will survive there if this winter remains mild enough. It is an early species which has flowered in February before now, but December is definitely a first!

Another out-of-season primula is P. coelata, the introduction from Lugu lake, Yunnan, which seems to be a completely distinct entity in the formerly named Primula bracteata/forrestii group in which so many names have been now been lost (otherwise only P. bullata and P. henrici remain as valid names).

Primula coelata

And, finally, Dionysia aretioides, planted out in the alpine house. It never stops flowering!

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