A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: 15 February 2009 by John Richards
Northumberland Diary. Entry 104.
As I write, a proper thaw finally seems to be setting in. Although we have not been at home all the time, it sounds as if last night may have been the first frost-free night here for six weeks. Apart from couple of short mild spells at Christmas and early in January, this is the first time the winter has relented since late November, nearly three months ago. As yet it is by no means warm; 6C in mid morning, so the frozen snow is proving stubborn and quite a bit still lies on the lawn.
As always, the earliest 'bulbs' are quick to respond. Amazingly 'Galanthus 'Three Ships' is still in flower, but the mid-season snowdrops are starting to flower, as are winter aconites (Eranthis), Crocus tommasinianus, and C. sieberi. Even so, there is as yet no sign of reticulata irises such as 'Katharine Hodgkin', Iris unguicularis, and even Leucojum vernum and Narcissus 'February Gold' are not yet in flower.
Early days, but it is remarkable how little damage seems to have resulted from the freeze. Even Garrya elliptica, which has been cut to the ground on two previous occasions seems unmoved, and is still in full glorious catkin. Other supposedly tender evergreen subjects such as Crinodendron, Desfontainea, Azara petiolaris, Daphne odora and Rhododendron x fragrantissimum seem quite undamaged. I guess the secret has been the absence of destructive warm interludes; everything has remained soundly dormant for months. Latterly, a persistent snow cover will have helped too.
Under glass too, there seem to have been few problems. Most of the destruction has centred around the Chinese Petrocosmeas which really are, I guess, not very hardy. Interestingly, P. kerrii, which has been in cultivation for a century, seems to have been the toughest. I have been quite impressed by the hardiness of Sphondylia primulas. P. floribunda is definitely the softy of the bunch and I have lost it yet again. But P. verticillata, P.simensis, P. boveana and P. edelbergii seem to have survived quite well in a glasshouse the interior of which has frequently dropped to -4C while it was -11C or worse outside. I am not sureof the fate of some South Africans. Wahlenbergia cuspidata, for instance, was in the unheated greenhouse and must have been subjected to -8-9C for considerable periods. It may have survived; time will tell.
Moorbank in winter
Perhaps there will be enough to talk about at home by next week. In the meantime, we visited the University of Newcastle Botanic Garden, Moorbank, (Claremont Road)on Friday, just to catch up, as we had only visited once since Christmas. It has not been possible for the volunteers that we organise to do a lot there while the ground has been frozen and under snow. Nevertheless, we have managed to have a series of monster bonfires and have started to develop a new series of woodland beds.
Not surprisingly, there was not a great deal to see outside as yet. Hopefully, when we open to the public under the NGS scheme in three weeks time (March 8th) (2-5 pm) there will be a riot of spring bulbs and early flowering shrubs. Nevertheless, the garden looked great under its carpet of snow.
As Diane pointed out in her diary, it has been a great winter for Hamamelis. In soggy weather, the flowers lose their colouyr rapidly, but in the crisp weather this year the flowers still look pristine after two months, completely untouched by the deep frosts. The damp summers suited them too! Here is H. x intermedia 'Pallida' followed by form of H. mollis, both at Moorbank.
As I have said before, the persian ironwood, Parrotia persica is one of my favourite small trees. With its naturally semi-weeping habit and slow growth it is ideal for the medium-sized garden. The craggy winter form and wonderful autumn colour of parrot-like reds, yellows and greens which lasts for several months comfortably allow it to earn its keep. Less well-known perhaps are the red winter flowers. These immediately betray its relationship with witch-hazels; it is a member of the family Hamamelidaceae. Although not large, the flowers are a piercing colour, set against the blue winter sky.
Foliage can make an important contribution to the garden at this time of year, and there is no more important group of winter foliage subjects than the great tribe of rhododendrons. One of the best is that wonderful Taliensia species Rh. bureavii.
Staying with the family Ericaceae, heathers have become deeply unfashionable. We planted a new heather bed at Moorbank only two years ago, and it has given us all enormous pleasure this year as it matures. Callunas in particular develop such fantastic winter colours. Here is Calluna 'Sunrise'. The summer foliage is a rather washy pale yellowish green, but at this time of year it excels.
This is a Northumbrian garden, and there is, I suppose, nothing more iconically Northumbrian to specialist gardeners than the sight of a Northumberland yellow snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis 'Sandersii Group' melting its way through the snow. We established a number of interesting snowdrops at Moorbnk last spring, and they seem to have settled in well. We are going on a snowdrop walk at Howick Garden this afternoon. One of the yellow clones has been called 'Howick Yellow', although it is said to have been introduced by the late Lady Mary Howick, and may not be native there.
Next Friday I am talking at the Edinburgh Botanics on the subject of yellow snowdrops as part of the Snowdrop day organised there. I slotted this picture into the talk at the last moment!
Art and flowers
A few months ago, Paul gave us a taste of a sculpture exibition at Wisley. In our own small way we can compete with that . In our absence, and as part of the Garden's 'outreach' philosophy, some of the work created by an art summer school held last year at Hartlepool had been displayed in the greenhouses. We were stunned by both the quality of the work (mostly by teenagers) and the way it had been displayed, offsetting and enhancing theplantings. We loved the way the ceramics related to the newly replanted succulent house.
The artwork had been hung in the tropical collections.
We loved the way that natural forms such as pollen grains and lichen were set amongst collections of weird dryland plants.
Roll on the spring!