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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 16 December 2007 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 59.

In the deep mid-winter
For more than a week now we have been visited by a deep and penetrating frost that has covered everything with white hoar, almost as pretty as snow.  We have yet to experience extreme cold (the lowest reading to date is only -7C), but the frost has not lifted during the day. This is a common experience on this north slope, for on these solstitian days the sun never really rises above the hill, topped as it is with larch forest. Nevertheless, with no let-up in sight this is fast becoming one of the colder events in recent years, the kind of episode that monitors plant hardiness. When the interior of my 'less hardy' alpine house stabilised at -5C, I took pity on some of the more questionable elements therein (Chinese gesneriads, Sphondylia primulas etc) and have reluctantly turned on the thermostat-controlled heater element in the fan so that the contents should not now drop below about -2C. This prevents the roots from freezing solid, which is lethal for many of this type of subject.

In the deep mid-winter

The photo above shows the alpine houses before the heater was turned on!

This type of weather seems to have become commoner before Christmas in recent years, and typically is succeeded by a mild January and February (but often with a sting in the tail in March). We will see!

Any garden activities have been curtailed perforce. I have plans for a tufa outcrop, made from home-made tufa, and the 'tufa factory' had rumbled into production, but is now put on hold. I shall talk more about this again when the freeze relents.

This has given me a chance to sit and stare at the garden, reduced to its bare bones by the ravages of winter, and outlined by rime.

Keep taking your evergreens

Delighting in the way that the leaves of evergreens are edged with silver frost, I am aware how important evergreens are to the winter garden. Not just conifers and rhododendrons here, but pieris, drimys, eucryphia, desfontainea, crinodendron, garrya, azara, camellia, choisya, arbutus, laurus, stransvesia, mahonia, ceanothus, pittosporum, sarcococca, skimmia, daphne, eleagnus, euonymus, hebe and many others, not  to forget of course good old ilex! Holly does exceptionally well here, the local woods are full of it, and it is fruiting abundantly this year. Some years ago we decided to light up a difficult gloomy corner with Silver Queen (male) and Golden King (female!). They have grown well, but flowered little in the dry shade until this summer, so finally the King has borne fruit!

Keep taking your evergreens

A more reliable Christmas berry here is a skimmia, probably S. x reevesiana. This is one of the few plants we inherited from our predecessors, who thoughtfully planted a male and female side by side. They are very vigorous, especially the female, which after a heavy prune is now only a quarter of the size it was 15 years ago, but the remnants are an important structure plant in that part of the garden.

Another plant that like the holly is fruiting for the first time is our large strawberry tree, Arbutus unedo, a gift from the late Helen Tomlinson (as a small seedling). This has grown into a huge plant which flowers freely, but we had not seen the inedible fruits before in this cool garden ('unedo'  means 'only eat one'!).

Frosted leaves
These are so pretty that I can't avoid posting a selection, first Drimys lanceolata, followed by Pittosporum 'Tom Thumb', and Daphne cneorum 'Eximia'.

Frosted leaves

Sightlines and pillars

This is turning into something of a bumper Christmas edition, not least because no further contribution is expected until after the New Year, and possibly not until February.

I am a great believer in sightlines in the garden, and there are no better 'targets' than the narrowly fastigiate ('columnar') junipers. Perhaps the best of all for the larger garden is J. sabina 'Skyrocket'. We inherited this 18 years ago, planted next to the front door, when it was already 5 m high and too big to move. It is now a stately 7.5 m, and only 2 m wide. It has needed some internal wiring as lower branches droop after storms.

Sightlines and pillars

Much more recently, only four years ago, we acquired a plant under the name of J. 'Pfizeriana', which it clearly isn't as that plant is bushy. I think it must be J. communis 'Sentinel'. Whatever its name it is an excellent plant that has thrived in a rather unpromising place. It is now about 2 m high.

The final 'target' is more of a ball than a pillar, the excellent Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Aurea Nana'. This is one of the first plants I ever bought, and I have now owned it nearly 40 years and have transported it between three gardens. It has never been less than immaculate. After all this time it is still only 1.2 m high.

A happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year to all our readers!

John Richards

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