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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 20 February 2011 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 173.

Of mice and men

 Perhaps I should issue a warning to those of a delicate disposition to read no further, or skip to the next item! On rare occasions we have suffered from mice, not in the house (although our late lamented Basil did once bring a large rat into the house and displayed it at the French Window for the entertainment of a visiting bus-load), nor, really in the garden (bulbs seem to persist well), but in the alpine houses (cosy, dry, and food readily available). The last time was several years ago, but I should have heeded the warning last week when I went to pick up a can half-full of water which had been left in an alpine house during the cold spell, and found the spout blocked by a noisous smell which proved to be a very drowned mouse.

However, the bells really jangled yesterday when I found that one of my few remaining bulbs in pots, some Crocus reticulatus grown from Gothenburg seed, had had the flowers bitten off. Also, Tulipa vvedenskyi, another seed-raised triumph, was being systematically grazed off as it emerged through the ground. I drove straight down to the local garden centre and invested in four 'Little Nippers' (99p each). The lad who sold them to me recommended chocolate, and in particular little chunks of 'Kit-e-Kat' bars as bait. Of the four I set last night, two on the plunge of each alpine house, three were sprung, two successfully.

Here is the not-for-the squeamish bit. For those Buddhists amongst you I would say that it you have never trodden on a snail, sprayed an aphid or sworn at a vine weevil, I respect your viewpoint, but regard mice as serious garden pests and breakback traps as humane.

Of mice and men

 Taxonomists amongst you will recognise these as Field Mice (Apodemus sylvaticus) not House Mice (Mus). We are probably a bit rural for the latter. In the second photo you will also notice seriously damaged, probably dead, Primula bracteata. This is interesting. Most but not all of this years seedlings of P. bracteata in the unheated alpine house were killed by the cold, whereas all four seedlings that were kept in the slightly heated house that went down only to -7C are in good condition, as the more mature plants there are too.  You would have thought that this evergreen chasmophyte which must experience very cold winter temperatures on bare vertical cliffs while not covered by snow would be bone-hardy, but it ain't.

Staying in the alpine house, the Porophyllum Saxifrages are starting to flower. As ever here, 'Peter Burrow', one of my favourites, is slightly ahead of the others.

 I have discovered that the larger porophyllum cushions seem to appreciate a good watering into the centre of the cushion as the buds form, perhaps three to four weeks before flowering. This seems to alleviate the problems of distorted flowers and bud abortion.

The Iranian Saxifraga wendelboi is the first of the species to open here. I have it in a trough in the garden too where it opens about 10 days later.

 Two of my favourite petiolarid primula hybrids are now more or less in Show condition. I think both have virus, but have a sufficiently strong enough constitution to be able to grow through it. First  the Taylors 'Tantallon', and then 'Arduaine'. Both have P.bhutanica as a parent, the first x P. nana, and the second x P. whitei. As ever, they were oversummered in fishbox troughs moved to a cool shady position, and then lifted as they came into flower about two weeks ago. For once, I am growing true P. bhutanica this year, courtesy of Alan Furness. Like P. sonchifolia, it will not flower for a month yet.

 Another plant recently lifted for showing (some were left in the garden) is the curiously named Ypsilandra tibetica, a relative of the Helionopsis, but much earlier flowering. I find this a good garden plant in a leafy soil and partial shade. It needs regular division after flowering. Tbe combination of the blue anthers and white flowers is really very attractive. I have suddenly realised that the name means that the flower is shaped like the Greek letter Ypsilon, which I suppose it is.

 Out into the garden where snowflakes, Leucojum vernum, are competing well with the snowdrops. I find the former very vigorous in my leaf soil and partial shade.  It has been divided after flowering on a regular basis so now I have, literally, hundreds of small clumps.

 Another garden shot, this time of my all-time favourite snowdrop 'S. Arnott' growing with Cyclamen coum.

 Oops! See the vetch in the last photo? Public enemy no.1!! I move on swiftly to another favourite very vigorous snowdrop of great antiquity, 'James Backhouse', one of the first plants I profiled in this diary.

 To finish with, another early favourite, reliable and tough here, Helleborus 'Early Purple Group'.

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