A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: 24 February 2018 by John Richards
Northumberland Diary. Entry 354.
In the freezer
Not showing much sign of giving way, this winter, is it? Pleasantly sunny by day at present, frosty at night, but it sounds as if we are in for much worse for the foreseeable future. I have looked at the medium-range forecast for Harlow next Friday (when we will be driving down) and there is a 50% chance of light snow, maximum 1C, minimum -5C. Hope the Show Hall has efficient central heating! This is the gamble with early Shows, (and this will be the third Show of the year!). Given a mild winter, fine, give us a proper winter (and we haven't had one for nearly a decade now), and the benches look as bare as one might expect during what, meteorologically, is still winter.
Here on our north slope close to the Scottish border with the alpine houses shaded from the low winter sun by the house, the slope topped by a forest, we are later still. Yesterday I took the car out of the garage, the car thermometer registering 1C. Half a mile down the road in the heart of our little town, bathed in winter sunshine, it registered 5C. Say no more!
In desperation for something, anything, to take next week I have popped a couple of pots into the conservatory, which unlike the alpine houses is in what passes here for full sunlight. I don't really approve of forcing and the plants never look as good. There are three golden rules 1) make sure the plants are cool at night 2) never let the temperature get above 15C and 3) surround the pots with shallow water to maintain humidity.
Never mind, there is still a lot of colour in the garden!
Last Wednesday we tried something completely new. We hear as if from a distant shore tidings of the huge social whirl of Galanthophilia (-mania?) presently under way in southern fleshpots. Drumbeats and semaphore from distant horizons bear tidings of massive parties, tables groaning under the strain of overhospitable lunches, and ridiculously priced snowdrops (I believe the £1000 tag has now been topped). None of this happens 'oop here', or if it does, I don't get asked. Come to think of it, probably the latter. Anyway, if you can't beat 'em.......
So, greatly daring, Sheila and I decided to host our own little event, a very modest snowdrop cup-of-tea-and-a-biscuit. As the garden is of limited size, and although there are a lot of snowdrops, there are few snowdrops (varieties, only about 50) and as this was very much an experiment, we restricted the invites to two groups. One was our local AGS group (and were very flattered when some very weighty members of our neighbouring Teeside Group asked if they could come too), and the other the Botanical Group of the Natural History Society of Northumbria. The latter lot are used to me taking them on yellow snowdrop hunts in the north of the county and so have become a little imbued in the lore of the snowdrop.
I had potted up about 90 snowdrops for sale, mostly good large vigorous varieties at about £3-5. There were a few more pricy items, up to £20. I also bagged up clumps of 'ordinary' G. nivalis at £1, and G. woronowii at £2, for naturalising. We were left with about 25 in pots and two small bags of woronowii. All the takings (and donations for tea and bikkies) went into tins for our local Hospice at home. We haven't heard how much yet but it should not be much under £400. Its an easy way to raise money for charity! About 40 folk came, had fun, were polite about the garden, and the sun shone even if it was a little cold. And, I was SO busy, I entirely forgot to take ANY photographs!!
Some more snowdrops
So, following on from the last offering at the end of January, here are a few later snowdrops new to this garden. I want to start with this little chap. Some of you know that some years ago I found a weird little snowdrop close to the Tyne riverbank. This has little upward-pointing double flowers and I christened it 'Mini Muffin. It has had limited circulation. This grew close to where the North Tyne meets the South Tyne. This year, on the opposite bank, I found another individual little double, this time with half-nodding flowers. I have called it 'Watersmeet' for obvious reasons. I rather like it.
I told a botanist friend of mine who likes snowdrops and he paid a visit, and to my chagrin, not far away he found a 'Spikey. This is his photo; I haven't been back yet.
Earlier in the month we had all walked in the grounds of a large policy in the north of the county, full of charming birds. This is full of excellent snowdrops, and here too we found a solitary Spikey. It is of interest to compare the two, some 50 miles apart.
Spikies are not to everyone's taste, I am not sure they are to mine either, but having seen the latter one with us, Jim was primed when he found the Watersmeet plant. Having Googled it, he tells me that Spikies sell for obscene prices!
From the ridiculous to the relatively sublime, one of the very best snowdrops here is 'James Backhouse'. It is best known by often producing a small fourth petal. I have figured it before, but not for some years. There were two James Backhouse, father and son, who ran a famous nursery in York in the nineteenth century. The son in particular was a great traveller and introduced many excellent plants from around the world. It is thought that the snowdrop was probably his.
Being a helle-bore
Of course, the other great late winter genus is Helleborus and they combine well with snowdrops. The late great Primrose Warburg who was one of my early mentors used to pick the flowers and float them in a bowl of water, the better to see their fascinating insides. I am not that precious, but I have taken to picking up the flowers and taking close-up 'selfies'.
The hellebores are a tad late this year and many are only just coming into flower, although Helleborus 'Early Purple' ('purpurascens of gardens') and the real H. purpurascens have been in flower for months. The latter is a funny little thing. Years ago I took it to Dunblane and it was given a PC by the Joint Rock Garden Committee. It has never been as good since, partly because, unlike most hellebores, it is eaten by slugs. However it does seed around in a modest way and I now have four where once there was a singleton, one jammed into the path edging. Here is its 'selfie'. The chartreuse-green is unmistakeable.
The next plant is a seedling from one of mmy mother's hellebores which she acquired as H. torquatus. It is very like its parent, with the same essentially black, blue-pruinose, flowers, although bigger and more robust. Probably it is a H. torquatus x hybridus cross, maybe not the first generation, but whatever it is very nice.
Here is the same plant from a distance.
Talking of H. x hybridus (a catch-all if there ever was one), here are a few 'selfies' of a few varieties flowering here now. Most are seedlings.
I have shown this last hellebore before. I don't grow H. thibetanus, having expensively lost it on two occasions. It seems not to be hardy here. However, after one of these episodes, the following seedling appeared nearby, probably from a Lenten Rose mother. It is quite unlike any of the H. x hybrdus grown here and seems at least half-way to H. thibetanus so that I am moderately convinced that it is this hybrid. Whatever, it is a pretty plant.
I am in the habit of googling plants I am not quite sure of the name of. I was fairly convinced that this group is Crocus 'E.A. Bowles', and on googling it became convinced I was correct. But I also found an article from John Grimshaw bemoaning the demise of 'E.A. Bowles' and saying that it has become rare. I think this group may have been here 25 years, so maybe he is right (he usually is!).
The Parrotia is coming into flower. You can see it is a relative of Hamamelis.
Just occasionally I am so chuffed by some non-botanical event that I sneak it into the blog. So it was that a couple of weeks ago I spent an hour at Gosforth Park, just north of Newcastle. Sitting in the small hide together with another chap we were getting glimpses of a bittern when with great splashes two otters started porpoising in the water right in front of the hide. This went on for some time. The other guy had to leave, there was a pause, then an otter climbed out of the water right in front of the hide and proceeded to eat a rudd, head-up, like an ice-cream. Here it has got to the crunchy phase.