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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 22 February 2009 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 105.

Something fishy....

Its been a busy garden week, such a relief after the frost and snow. It seems extraordinary that the thaw took place not much more than a week ago. We are already well embedded into early spring as the first subjects rush to catch up and flower at the usual time.

Quite a lot of activity has been involved in clearing up; leaves that have been scratched out of beds by the blackbirds, moss that has fallen off the house roof, twigs from the lawn, dry stalks from last year on the perennials. Also, I finally got the chance to paint a fishbox that I begged off our fish supplier, Caroline Ridley, when we bought some pheasant from her over Christmas. I had run out of paint, so I had a new supply of outside-duty paint mixed to my concept of sandstone colour some weeks ago, but it has been too cold until now to actually do the painting.

Here is the box newly painted and with coarse sand thrown onto the wet paint, ready to dry on the potting shed (old garage) floor. The newpaper is mandatory! So are boots, rubber gloves and an old apron when the painting is done.

It looks much better when the surplus sand has been knocked off and the paint has weathered a bit. These troughs, shown below, were prepared in the same way and planted three springs ago, and have not really been touched since.

While we are revisiting old artefacts, I thought it might be interesting to have a quick glimpse of part of the bank/wall of home-made tufa, a year after it was constructed. Amongst the plants that can be seen are Saxifraga cervicornis, S. vayredana, Primula balbisii, P. hirsuta, Gentiana clusii and Androsace cantabrica. Most were inserted as seedlings or cuttings during last year and are still more or less dormant.

Cambo snowdrops

A year ago, were I a betting man which I am not, I would have put a tidy sum against the likelihood that I would ever be asked to lecture on snowdrops. The number of varieties grown here has still to top 30, so there is no way that I could be counted amongst the great firmament of galanthophiles. However, regular readers will know that I have taken an interest in the 'Northumberland yellows' (G. nivalis 'Sandersii Group'), including some experimental botanical investigations, so it was with both surprise and trepidation that I found myself addressing more than 150 delegates of a 'Snowdrop Conference' at the Edinburgh Botanics last Friday. In fact it was a most successful and enjoyable day, largely due to the enthusiasm and organisational ability of one of our hosts, Lady Catherine Erskine. Afterwards I was privileged to visit the garden she runs with her husband Sir Peter at Cambo on the Fife coast.

This is a very beautiful estate, particularly at this time of year, when woods full of snowdrops run down to the sea. The Erskines open the garden, sell a huge variety of snowdrops, and offer accommodation including self-catering and B & B in this lovely place. I am determined to go back, perhaps when bird migration peaks!

Cambo snowdrops

The sales department is run by volunteers, young people from round the world on short breaks, who live with the family in the big house. It is situated within the old courtyard.

I could show dozens of wonderful snowdrops at Cambo, but will limit myself to only one of many I had not met previously, a gorgeous apparent cross between elwesii and plicatus named 'Natalie Barton'.

Iris histrioides has been difficult to source since 'Major' caught ink disease and disappeared some 20 years ago. However 'Lady Beatrix Stanley' seems to be becoming more frequent and seems free of disease so far. It is a good blue, and is planted out at Cambo. The previous day, I had met the grand-daughter of the real Lady Beatrix at Edinburgh. Of course, she gave her name to a snowdrop as well.

What price wagneri?
The spring snowflake, Leucojum vernum, also features widely at Cambo, and there are some mass plantings.

What price wagneri?

I discussed with my host the validity of the name 'wagneri' which related to vigorous snowflakes with green-tipped flowers that normally bear twin flowers on a scape. In my own garden, plants will do this if settled, happy and well-fed, and I am inclined to think personally that 'wagneri' is merely an artefact of good cultivation. Thus, I was very unhappy when a fine panful that was presented to the Joint Rock Garden Committee at Dunblane under that name later in the day was given an award. I voted against it, and still believe that 'wagneri' is not distinct enough to be given an award. Here is a fine group of twin-flowered plants at Cambo.

I only put one pan on the table at Dunblane, partly because I was rather late after my walk at Cambo. Crocus adanensis is flowering for the second year, from Gothenburg seed (ex Karen Persson) sown in 1999.

There were some terrific plants shown at Dunblane. Here is the best pan of Iris winogradowii I have ever seen, followed by I. rosenbachiana

A few plants at home to conclude with. The earliest  Porophyllum saxifrages are starting, and 'Louis Armstrong' is putting up a brave display of solid, penetrating Crimson Lake. This is a S. lowndesii cross, but its parent won't flower here for another two weeks yet. Following this is the lovely  'Rosea' form of Ranunculus calandrinioides. I grow the white-flowered form too and it has flowered all winter, but it lacks the ethereal loveliness of its variant. Finally, the Taylors' great petiolartid cross, 'Tantallon', that does so well here.

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