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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 12 December 2016 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 329.

The ivy tree

Appropriately enough, Mary Stewart's neo-gothic novel of this name was set just to the north of here in south Northumberland. Although Forrest Hall and most other locations are mythical, Crag Lough and the Roman Wall where the story starts most certainly are not. The eponymous Ivy Tree marks a trysting spot where the recalcitrant Annabel is re-encountered. But, does the ivy, Hedera helix, one of our few native lianes, ever form a tree? The answer is, on its own, no, but when it has colonised and often killed an ageing host, it will form a tree-like structure around the corpse of its former support, and, in essence, become self-supporting. At times the structure can rise to 10 m or more, and the stems can assume the thickness of a man's thigh.

This is what had happened to one of our former apple trees. Originally there were four of these, planted down the lane hedge early in the history of the big house in whose grounds our garden was carved out. Thus, they are probably more than 120 years old. The Bramley Seedling still thrives, providing far more fruit than we can use. Over the last month we have put a box of apples by the front gate with some poly bags and the injunction for our neighbours to help themselves. I am happy to report that they have done so. The second tree, an unidentified cooker/eater is less productive, perhaps as it is host to a vast Rosa 'Wedding Day'. The other two trees are long dead; one during our tenure, but the other, host to 'the ivy tree', predeceased our arrival.


For many years, the ivy grew and grew, flowering profusely in the early winter, and making, I have to say, a handsome sight, as well as providing food for moths and other winter insects (and indeed Blue Tits which are apt to sip the abundent nectar). In spring, the great tangle was an inviting target for nesting birds, which have usually included one pair of blackbirds, and, on occasion, bullfinches. While it was considered not to interfere greatly with other shrubs, it was tolerated (it had largely commandeered the personal space of a flowering currant, Ribes sanguineum, but this we thought we could spare. Finally however it has begun to tower over our notable Rhododendron pseudochrysanthum, and this, being garden royalty, had to be protected. The ivy tree had to go! This presented a rather daunting task for a crisp winters day.

You will see that in order to gain access to the trunk of the long-dead apple tree, it was necessary to chop away many of the lower ivy branches which are already missing in the above photograph. This was the hardest job initially. The tree itself was so rotten that it only took a few minutes to saw through the ivy stems and trunk to a point when the whole edifice crashed to the ground. It was then that the real job started, chopping away the thick ivy branches, then chopping them up and stowing them in bags. Before bagging, the ivy branches covered most of the back lawn.

We stow all the non-compostable rubbish in dumpy bags in which sand or gravel has previously been delivered. These bags are so valuable, it is almost worth the aggregate delivery to gain custody of the bags!

Here is the stump of the felled tree revealing the space created; quite of bit of ivy remains on the felled top, needing to be chopped off.

And here is Sheila, chopping!

I finally took no less than eight dumpy bags full to the tip (four car journeys). Luckily the tip for green waste is only about a mile away, which enourages me to use it instead of buying a shredder. I make quite enough compst and leaf mould anyway.

Over the last few weeks, most of the autumn leaves have fallen and have been removed to the leaf-pile, but there are always the laggers, and leaves blown onto previously cleared areas. Once the ivy had all been bagged, the lawn was also covered with the inevitable debris of small twigs etc. This caused me to get the lawn-mower (battery driven rotary) out of winter hibernation for a quick once-over. The effect was magical, and the garden suddenly looks clean, virginal and ready for spring.

There is extremely little else to report from the garden. Mahonia 'Winter Sun' is magnificent as always, but everything else seems to be awaiting the lengthening days, not long away now.

Mahonia 'Winter Sun'

However, there has been rather more interest ornithologically. This is, famously, a 'Waxwing winter', and although I had heard of birds elsewhere in the town, I had seen none until last Thursday when a group of 25 descended on the garden and stripped the berries of Sorbus glabriuscula. Interestingly they left those of the neighbouring S. cashmirana severely alone.

I can also report that last week I paid a short visit to Gosforth Park, a semi-urban Nature Reserve not far to the north of central Newcastle which is the property of the Natural History Society of Northumbria of which I have the honour to be a Trustee. No sooner had I settled in one of the hides that the following ensued:

I was going to say, 'once bittern....', but there were in fact two and a frightful squabble ensued. Which is probably more than enough, not least of my bird snaps on a plant blog, although I know many alpine nuts are birders too.

Seasons greetings!

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