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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 01 December 2017 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 351.

Winter's here

The first day of 'official' winter, 3.30 pm, pink clouds above a late dusk, and I am looking over a snowy landscape. It has blown from the north for several days, so we have enjoyed glowing fires, recycling various episodes of timberwork in the garden. Wintery showers, at first mostly coastal, have crept ever further inland.They reached us with a vengeance last night, depositing five cm which shows little inclination to depart in a hurry. Signs of a proper winter, and certainly most things have settled into a determined dormancy. Only two snowdrops have broken the trend, a single flower from a good clump of 'Three Ships' (the remainder hopefully biding their time), and a flower on a solitary Galanthus cilicius. The last is a recent gift from Ian Christie. I knew nothing of it, but it seems that November blooming is not unusual. Reading it up, I discovered that it is reputed to be tender, so I hastily snatched its plastic pot from under the snowy wastes to shelter it under glass. This was too late to save it from the depredations of a mouse, or perhaps a blue tit, which had ingested part of the solitary flower.

Here is the scene an hour ago, featuring the terrace with its 40 odd troughs and containers.

Winter's here

The last of the seasonal chores has been completed with the removal of most of the last leaves. A few still have to fall from Magnolia x soulangeana, the coppiced Liriodendron and (latest of all) Salix lanata, but essentially the job is done. Since we acquired a battery-powered rotary mower, I have taken to using it to clear the last of the leaves from the lawn, not the main fall (I could scarcely go 10 metres without emptying the box), but the later messy scatter of blowings and late fallers. I did this yesterday, before the snow but over the remains of a heavy frost, scarcely ideal, but the joy of this mower is that it is light as a feather so that little if any damage will ensue. The soggier fragments remain, but the general effect is much tidier and the leaf-pile has benefitted from the finely chopped remains.

Meanwhile, I have made good progress with the first of two major projects planned for this winter. I mentioned a couple of months back that Sheila had been let loose on our veteran Rosa 'Nevada', and I had managed to remove the root stump (mostly rotten). This revealed an old plunge bed which I used extensively for our first decade here, but which had fallen into dereliction. This still contained a modicum of sand and four sleepers (railroad ties), one sawn in half (thus five in all). The plan is to turn this sheltered, south-facing area (albeit partly shaded by the house in winter) into quite a large new border. It has mature shrubs (cotoneasters, rubus, 'scotch' roses, clematis, tree peonies) on the north side, and there are also well-shaped bushes of Euonymus fortunei and Syringa 'Palabin', to which several other dwarf shrubs which are currently in too much shade will be added.

So far the sleepers have been retrieved and set in their new places to edge the bed, the (de-)turfing is complete, and half the existing soil has been deep-dug. When the digging is complete, I plan to add an old turf pile (once the creeping buttercup is emoved from the top!), a compost heap and all last years leaf-pile (now mould). Hopefully I shall then have room for most if not all of next season's less alpine acquisitions! 

There is very little report on the flowering front. Of late I have noticed the appearence of occasional white-flowered Haemanthus at the autumn shows. I am not really sure whether or not I like them but, willy-nilly, I seem to have acquired a collection from an orchid-growing friend in our little town who had grown tired of them. I have now had them for a little over a year. When I acquired them I repotted them, deliberately underpotted, into a well-drained rather thin compost in plastic pots. Once the frosts were past they spent the summer outside in partial shade, and have now been in the conservatory or alpine house for a couple of months. Here at least they seem to be genuinely winter-flowering and almost all are now in bud or early flower. I seem to have three species, the well-known H. albiflos, H. deformis, and H. paucilifolius. H. deformis seems to be the earliest to flower and is now in full bloom. Early days perhaps, but under glass they seem reasonably hardy having already experienced -5C without any damage.

Haemanthus deformis

Earlier in the year I reported the 'dexanthorrhizing' of a large area, now planted with meconopsis. Nevertheless, a good area of the yellowroot remains, and currently combined well with the old fruiting stalks of cardiocrinums.

It is many years since I planted a minature garden, suitable for exhibition. Another of my activities earlier in the year was to make a fair-sized batch of articial tufa. This caused me to so overfill one fishbox that there was too little space left for planting. Last month I removed a large 'tufa' lump and replanted the box. This lump became the focus of the new garden. It had matured sufficiently to allow the drilling of about 12 holes (using a brace and bit), into which seeedlings, rooted cuttings or even 'Irishman's cuttings' were inserted, mostly saxifrages, but also primulas, draba etc. These were backfilled with compost and topped with tufa fragments. More plants were dibbed in round the edge of the tufa block, into the gritty, lime-rich compost which underlies the tufa.

The expectation/hope is that these will form the perennial framework to the garden, to which shorter-lived items can be added. I have no doubt that it will take at least a couple of years to mature, during which time the plants should have grown, the tufa matured, and the pot become so heavy that I won't be able to carry it!

Mention of artificial tufa prompts me to finish with a couple of examples of more mature plantings in the garden. Here first is an area where a plant of Ozothamnus intermedius was planted against a tufa lump in a north-facing situation on the down-side of a raised sand-bed.  Here it has grown slowly but steadily over some three years in a very infertile situation, and seems very compact and healthy. Of some interest perhaps is the tufa lump itself, where (to the bottom left) a seedling of Saxifraga dinnikii was planted, also about three years ago. This looks as it it will have about 12 flowers next spring, and should be quite a picture. Even now, it is scarcely two cm across!

Ozothamnus intermedius

Finally, and maintaining the Antipodean theme, a nearby area of the sand-bed which was replanted in the summer. This area is also surrounded by lumps of artificial tufa, most of which are largely hidden, and under which most of these plants are rooted. At present there are four celmisias here, a C. verbascifolia (grown from wild seed), C. spedenii, C. angustifolia in its silver form which I believe to be a C. hectori cross, and two quite large plants of the true C. angustifolia, a very different plant. The combination of perfect drainage, infertile conditions and the cool root-run provided by the tufa blocks seem to suit the celmisias. More to the point, the golden grit used for top-dressing has matured to such an attractive colour that I plan to re-dress the whole raised bed with this grit, the second major task planned for this winter,

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