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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 10 February 2008 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 62.

Winter takes a back seat

Towards the end of most winters we tend to get a warm settled spell. If, as is the case this year, this follows a cold snap, the effect on the garden can be amazing. When we returned from South Africa last week there was little to see in the garden, but after a couple of days of gentle zephyrs, early bulbs are popping out everywhere.

To start with I thought I would highlight some good open ground crocus. Firstly are some of the hybrids between C. chrysanthus and C. biflorus that E A Bowles and others raised a century. These are growing in containers at the University of Newcastle Botanic Garden, Moorbank where I look after the outside plantings, and which I promised to feature more frequently in the diary. Firstly, 'Bluebird' and then 'Cream Beauty'. Both were planted three years ago and have multiplied well.

Winter takes a back seat

This one, planted in the open ground, is 'Zwanenberg Bronze'.

Back in my own garden, the common triploid garden form of Crocus flavus has opened in one sunny spot, while C. tommasinianus is at its best. We plant it around the base of isolated trees in the lawn.

Some snowdrops
Just as the early crocus have surfaced, so the earlier snowdrops have come into full flower. I featured Galanthus 'James Backhouse' last year, noting its tendency to produce irregular flowers. This year several flowers have produced four perfectly regular outer segments.

Some snowdrops

One of my favourite snowdrops is this 'viridapicis'. We found this is a country lane near here several years ago, buried in a bramble bush. We left most of it behind, but did extricate a few bulbs. It is a fine vigorous tall plant and like most snowdrops with green marks on the outer segments it has remarkably long bracts. Whether this is a new find, or has persisted from a garden throwout is unclear.

This raises a controversial matter that I think is worthy of debate. As readers of the AGS Bulletin ('Alpine Gardener' ) will know, I am a passionate plant conservationist and completely opposed to the uprooting of any plant in the wild. But snowdrops are not native in Britain, and thus not wild. Nevertheless they are very much part of our early spring scene, even if they are usually restricted to the outskirts of gardens, estates and policies to which they had evidently been introduced originally. I would very strongly oppose their mass removal, for instance for monetary gain. But, the removal of one or a few distinctive bulbs is, I would argue, another matter, although I would never dig a snowdrop in its native range, or a native plant in Britain. Also, of course, a plant should never be removed without the landowners permission. But these were from common ground. Comments please!

Aconite abundance
Another signature plant at this time of year is the winter aconite, Eranthis hiemalis. We let this seed around at home too, but at Moorbank Garden it has had half a century to form large colonies that are very spectacular when the sun shines. Here it has naturalised with snowdrops and a self-sowing colony of Helleborus x hybridus.

Aconite abundance

Moorbank Open Days

Mention of Moorbank Garden again reminds me to use this space as an advert for our open days under the auspices of NGS 'Yellow Book'. In recent years we have opened  on four dates, and this year these are March 30th, May 18th, November 2nd  (2-5 pm) and June 25th (6-9 pm). There are four acres of gardens, with extensive collections of trees, shrubs, rhododendrons, bulbs, bog gardens, a hay meadow, alpine plantings etc, and also glasshouses with superb collections of tropical plants. The garden is on Claremont Road, Newcastle, next to the Dog Shelter.

Just time to feature a few plants flowering in the alpine house at home. It is some years since I had Ranunculus caladrinioides, a lovely plant that is enjoying life in a long-tom plastic pot in a very gritty mix.

Moorbank Open Days

I experimented with Iris 'Katherine Hodgkin', some of you may remember by putting it in the fridge before flowering last year, causing it to be very drawn and spindly. All the more reason to feature it again in better form. The cold spell has caused the flowers to be bluer than in some years.

Frankly I can take Colchicum triphyllum or leave it. As for too many of my plants, my reasons for growing it tend to be sentimental rather than aesthetic, as I am very fond of it when it flowers on Greek Parnassos in April. This is a plant that invriably looks better in the wild than in cultivation.

Go for it Satch.....
Lastly in this bumper edition, the first of the Porophyllum saxifrages to open is 'Louis Armstrong'. I believe this is a cross between the ubiquitous parent S. poluniniana, from which it is has inherited the unfortunate tendency to produce misshapen flowers, and the lovely but rather miffy S. lowndesii which grows in the same Annapurna range Marsyandi valley, but at high altitudes.

Go for it Satch.....
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