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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 13 February 2012 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 206.

For a change I shall devote this contribution to the University of Newcastle Botanic Garden, Moorbank, on the edge of Town Moor only a mile from the centre of the city, where we lead a group of garden volunteers every Friday morning. If you live near Newcastle and have Fridays free, why not join us? We are open for the NGS (yellow book) on Sunday, March 11th (day after the Loughborough Show!), 2-5 pm, so come along and introduce yourselves.

There has been a Botanic Garden on the site, which is leased from the Freemen of the city who own Town Moor, for nearly 90 years. However, the main development took place in the early 1980's, when the plants at Kilbryde, near Corbridge, which had been left to the University by the famous plantsman Randle Cooke in 1973, were moved to Moorbank, which was extended to 1.8 ha in size (new extensive glasshouses were constructed at the same time). When this major extension was developed on the bare open grassland of the moor (which is used for cattle grazing by the Freemen), we identified an urgent requirement for shelter, both peripheral and internal, and this was very quickly achieved by planting rows of the notorious Leyland Cypress.

'What?', I hear you gasp! Well, of course this is not a domestic garden, but quite a large space surrounded by a good deal more space, and for a long time the leylands did their job and were not too intrusive. However, after 30 years they are now a considerable size (about 18 m high) and were influencing a lot of the garden with shade, water extraction, and had a deterious impact on the landscape. In the end we made the decision to remove a large internal belt (there is another internal belt and two external belts which have been left for now). The work was done by the University Ground Staff who cut our lawns and hedges and have professional woodsmen. This sort of task is well beyond our capabilities. To show the beneficial effect the work has had, opening up lots of new possibilities for us, I am showing two sets of 'before and after' shots, each pair taken from almost exactly the same position.






LeylandsThere has been a Botanic Garden on the sit

And from the other side:

The roots are due to be ground out when the plant becomes available in the next few weeks, and until then we can't get on with the new areas (just as well until a few days ago as the ground was frozen hard for the best part of two weeks). In the meantime, the trunks have been sawn up and the straight pieces kept for bed edging. All the foliage and twiggy material was put through a massive commercial shredder to form the biggest mountain of shreddings I have ever seen. Unfortunately this was dumped on top of the compost heaps which disappeared from view completely, so we couldn't get on with the normal business of gardening (making and using compost) until the chippings were shifted. This has been rather pleasurable; the material is light, easily handled and barrowed and is excellent for paths and for mulching between shrubs etc, to keep down weeds and ground cover.

Here are a few examples of its use. First, the pile (already steaming nicely on a frosty day!) with our friend Pat (her of the excellent snowdrop Galanthus woronowii 'Pats Giant' which she found in her garden) moving a barrowload.

Here is an example of the use of the chippings, first on what will become a shrub bed alongside where the leylands were felled (with Sheila and our friend Elizabeth). Note the use of leyland 'poles' to demarcate beds.

Here are two garden paths transformed by the use of chippings. They are  particularly suitable for a parth amongst shrubs, here mostly viburnums.

Incidentally, the traffic cones are to warn visitors about a couple of beehives!

And here amongst species rhododendrons at the top end. You can see Rh. bureavii and Rh. rex in this photo. We had to move the path because some of the plants had grown so much.

Over the last year or so, students from a horticulture course at Northumberland College CFE have come to the garden to rebuild our pond which had been leaking. We needed a bigger water body, and the means by which the many parties of schoolchildren who visit could safely pond dip, which involved the construction of a platform. Requirement for safe and disabled access to the platform and pond meant that most of a raised bed which bordered the old pond had to be dismantled. Now that the pond is finished I have been rebuilding the bed, and to this end we have acquired two dumpy bags, one of sharp sand, and one of fine gravel. My plant is to turn these raised beds (there are now two) into sand beds, although with (very starved and gravelly) compost 30 cm down. Here is a  general shot of the site, followed by a close-up of the new extension, partially filled. The stone is a local level-bedded sandstone which comes from a quarry near us in Hexham, Ladycross.


Hopefully, when finished, the bed will look more like it did when it was first built. Here it is in 1986, about five years after construction, just becoming mature, but not overmature!

I believe I reported the devastation that occurred in the Botanic Garden just over a year ago, after the very heavy snow which smashed many mature plants. This allowed us to open up much the the front of the garden by the entrance, which is a key spot as the part of the garden visitors see first. Bedding is used here later in the season (most half-hardy subjects such as salvias, osteospermums, xeranthemums and zaluzianskyas which we maintain from cuttings) but early on it is a mass of small bulbs. It will be showier in a month when we first open, but the area is already showing colour.


Galanthus 'Warei' is conspicuous at present.  This was introduced from our garden, from bulbs originally found far from habitation by a country path, but as they are indistinguishable from 'Warei' must have been a garden throw-out I suppose? A real mystery!


Crocus sieberi 'Tricolor' is just coming in the troughs where it self-sows.

Sorry about the pine needles! Careless!

Elsewhere we have a mahonia area where the species M. japonica and M. lomariifolia are grown together with 'Charity' and 'Winter Sun', two of their more distinguished hybrids. Over the years we have found that M. japonica and the hybrids usually flower well before Christmas, although they have a long season. M. lomariifolia doesn't always flower freely, but when it does, as this year, the main display occurs much later, about now. It is said not to be the hardiest species, but in a sheltered area near the glasshouses it has performed well.


Last Friday, I cut back the hellebore leaves at the Botanic Garden, freeing up the flowers, for instance of this double white form.

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