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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 19 December 2015 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 308

Happy Winterval

Sorry about that, touch of Corbynitis coming on!, no, he said write about anything except religion and politics, but that won't stop me saying a Merry Christmas to all our readers! And a healthy and happy New Year, full of alpines!

In fact it really was quite seasonal last weekend. I took the following photographs rather early, on December 11th, while it was still snowing. Later we had 5 cm cover which froze nicely (the first proper frost of the year) and stayed around for two days.

Happy Winterval

And floods

In fact, you will not be surprised to hear that we have been on a real climatic roller-coaster this month. The previous weekend, 4th-5th, we received 10 cm of rain, more than enough, but only 10% of what parts of Cumbria received during that deluge, flooding so much of Carlisle, Keswick, Cockermouth etc. The Tyne did go over the defences here. The haughlands of Corbridge suffered worst, with about 70 homes flooded. A number of our businesses, the boathouse, Mart, and ironically even the fire station were flooded in Hexham (also 'Down to Earth', the Garden business many of you visit when you come to the Hexham Show), but only a very few residential properties were affected. Sheila and I walked down to the river the next morning, when the waters had retreated somewhat and here are a few snaps.

And floods

This final shot shows the Mart meadow, under water.

A couple of days ago I went up the South Tyne to see what effect the floods had had on some of our 'Calaminarian grasslands', metal-affected gravels by the river which harbour and interesting flora of rare plants, including several alpines. At the lower sites, for instance near Bardon Mill, the results were spectacular, with over a metre of new fines having been deposited. Here is my walking stick, buried to the hilt in new fines!

The key question will be whether the newly deposited fines are toxic with lead and zinc, so that this once in a half-Century event will restart various seral processes, favouring the rare alpines, or whether they are off the fields, full of N and P. We will see and tests are being planned. However, the current result is interesting. See how this grassland, from which gorse has been recently removed, has now been opened right up by the new fines deposits.

Back home

Enough already! Now as I write six days before Christmas, it is quite ridiculously, even harmfully, mild, 15C today and it has been this warm for several days now. I really dislike it, not least because it has brought several subjects on for which I had hopes for the early Shows, for instance Primula megaseifolia.

Back home

More seasonal has been Crocus laevigatus 'Fontaneyi'. I grew this for many years, and it invariably flowered at Christmas. It was one of very many mature pans of bulbs I lost during the great early freeze of late autumn 2009, a  disaster from which I am still recovering, garden-wise. I was delighted to see Robert Potterton offering fine bulbs of this and several other winter crocuses (C. ancyrensis, C. ochroleucus) at very reasonable rates at the autumn Shows, and all are performing well (the ancyrensis not yet in flower). Fontaneyi is a very odd C. laevigatus in my view. The shell-like corm tunics are typical, but the flowers look more like C. corsicus, or, perhaps more to the point, some forms of C. tournefortii. I now grow two other Greek forms of C. laevigatus (from wild seed), and they flower earlier, in November, and have typically small white flowers with just a faint stripe up each segment, much as most wild forms with which I am familiar. C.l. 'Fontaneyi' is by far the better plant.

Crocus laevigatus 'Fontaneyi'

Another plant I expect to perform now (and am sometimes disappointed) is that early plicate snowdrop Galanthus 'Three Ships'. I have featured it before (not much to write about at this time of year!), relating how it was a gift from the late Frank Tindall, and has nearly expired until I moved it to a sunnier place two years ago, since when it has not looked back. I apologise for the photo, taken in very poor light.

Yet another stalwart which I can usually rely on for a few flowers before Christmas is this particular seedling of Cyclamen coum. I have many dozens if not hundreds of plants of coum, but this one is always the first and most don't flower until February.

This clone of Primula vulgaris ssp. sibthorpii is another Christmas standby.

As is Jasminum nudiflorum of course, well-mannered and not rampageous here.

Seed

The AGS seed came today. Well done Diane and her faithful team, so prompt, efficient, well-oiled (well they deserve to be now anyway!) and such good seed! I have put them straight into the fridge to be sown in the New Year. Ordering by the efficient on-line system on the afternoon it went live, I got all my first choices except one (Meconopsis henrici, since you ask, I think I am the only person ever to exhibit it!). Its replacement, Aquilegia longissima is a plant I used to grow and love, so am delighted to get it back.

One comment, not a criticism, as will become apparent. I realise the Seed Director and her packeters, are faced with difficult dilemmas when it comes to scarce, sought-after seed. They can adopt one of two strategies, either produce a reasonable number of packets containing very few seeds, or fewer packets containing more seeds. In doing so, they may be attempting to predict (on past evidence) what the likely demand for a particular item might be. On this occasion I received two packets with three seeds, two with four seeds, and about 15 with  seven or fewer seeds. My spin on this (and I am not saying that many people would agree with me, I may well be in a minority) is I would rather have more seeds in a packet, and, inevitably, fewer first choice packets. There are so many mouth-watering items I am usually just as happy to receive second choice as first choice items.

Having said this, I do wonder also if policy differs between packeters. All the desirable and unusual meconopsis and primula packets I received were well filled. But then again, perhaps only I am mad enough to request them!

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