A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: 31 December 2007 by John Richards
Northumberland Diary. Entry 60.
There may be trouble ahead....
Back in the north after a southern Christmas. Kew two days before Christmas was so foggy that we walked to the west of the main lake without glimpsing the Palm House, 30 metres away! The skating rink by the Temperate House was fun, if a little cramped (the Hampton Court one seems much bigger!), but the alpine house was shut, apparently because panes of glass in the roof were loose. Kew's alpine houses seem cursed! Peeking in, there were some lovely clumps of Primula verticillata, a plant for which Kew has been famous for 100 years. However, the planting and exhibition areas seem very limited; I have more in my own modest houses! (although I realise that what is on show is the very tip of the iceberg compared with the alpine house collection 'behind scenes').
Back home the cold snap lasted 17 days; frosts every night with the lowest point -9C; during the day it rarely rose more than a degree above zero, so the garden remained frozen during that period, as did plants in the unheated alpine house. There seem to have been very few casualties. Weldenia candida in the unheated house is completely dead, at least above ground, growing next to the Australian Kangaroo Paw Anigozanthus humilis which seems to be untouched. More of a problem was incipient dessication for a few plants near the heater in the thermostat-controlled house (which nevertheless never rose above 5C). A quick round with the watering can just averted disaster. It is much milder now, but we are promised another very cold spell after the New Year; even -17C has been suggested by one forecast. We will see!
As always I have prepared for the New Year by sowing seed, working for most of the last two days. I gave the details of what I do in the entry on this date last year. The only changes have been that this year I have used JI2 compost, mixed with a sieved general purpose compost and heavily diluted (about 1:1) with coarse sand and vermiculite. I reckon that by diluting the compost that much you get about the nutrient content of a seed compost, but a much better, more open and air-filled texture. Here are some of the 150 pots sown, now out in bakers trays in all weathers until they germinate.
We derive great pleasure from our bird feeders at this time of year. They hang just outside the kitchen window, ideally placed for viewing while one does the washing up! We have about a dozen species that visit us regularly, including Nuthatch, Long-tailed Tit and, some winters, Bramblings, but the star bird at this time of year is the Siskin. They are very numerous this year, often with 7-8 together on the feeders. Here is a male, together with a Blue Tit, followed by a female.
Last year our Garrya elliptica took a year off, so this is the first time I have featured it. We planted it more than 15 years ago, on the corner of the garage, but it was cut to the ground in the very severe frost of January 2001 and has only just grown back to its full size again. We find it somewhat biennial here, performing well only every other year. Another famous Californian, Wayne Roderick, once told me that he could never understand why it was so popular in Britain, as in California it was a lowland plant that never encountered a frost in the wild. He expected Fremontodendron californicum to be much more hardy. Perhaps it is! Nevertheless, when it flowers the garrya is a great Christmas treat.
Very few alpines habitually flower at Christmas, which makes those that do all the more precious. I am finishing with three. I was surprised to see that the little form of Crocus laevigatus, called var. fontenayi was not featured last year, but it may have been at its best when we were away in early December. This year it is later and is only now just coming into flower. I find the mid-winter Narcissus much later this year as well; most are still in early bud. The crocus is much darker than the Peloponnesian forms I am accustomed to in the wild, but according to 'the Bible', Brian Mathew's 'The Crocus', fontenayi is typical of forms from some central Cycladian islands, where it may flower as late as March.
I featured Primula nana a week earlier last year, but it is such an exceptionally lovely Christmas flower that it deserves another outing. The first flowers opened during the week.
Finally, Petrocosmea rosettifolia again. This is the second year it has been at its best at Christmas, so perhaps this really is its season. An excuse for its less than excellent condition is a discussion about the hardiness of these Chinese petrocosmeas. Under glass and fairly dry (at this time of year), all have survived -6C this winter and were frozen solid, albeit rather briefly. Most have responded by losing their outer leaves. The central rosette leaves seem fine. Ironically, the species that has been damaged most is P. kerrii, that has been in continuous cultivation for more than 60 years. The others seem fine, with P. grandiflora perhaps showing the least damage to outer leaves.