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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 04 January 2009 by John Richards

Lilies and Nomocharis at Kilbryde. Entry 102.

Now is the winter of my discontent.....

Well, not made glorious by anything much yet, apart from a third diarist. Welcome Diane, well done and keep it up. Happy New Year everyone!!

I have just had a mosey round a frozen garden and cannot remember a winter, certainly not in the present house, when there was so little in flower in early January.  In fact, it was a particularly cold December here, and is threatening to continue this way well into January. Apart from the 'traditional' unfrozen week just before Christmas (in fact the thermometer twice reached the dizzy heights of 10C during that short spell), we have had hard frosts every night since about November 26th. Even daytime temperatures have scarcely raised above zero, with a high of 4C quite a rarity. Consequently, nearly everything is soundly dormant; jolly good for real alpines! We have had almost no snow; less good news!

Almost the only sign of life comes from the first petiolarid primula to flower; not P. nana this year (lots of bud but no sign of movement yet; contrast the two previous years), but P. irregularis. So far relatively tender species such as this and P. boothii show no signs of damage under their large frame-light. I think it is sudden cold spells in a warm winter that catches them unawares.

Now is the winter of my discontent.....

Petiolarid primulas often look good long before they flower, partly because many are decked with farina, but also because they look potent, stuffed with buds. Next to the P. irregularis, here are P. gracilipes and P. moupinensis, packed with promise!

Perhaps the ultimate sign that a plant is happy with its lot in your garden is when it starts to self-sow, unaided. I well remember how species such as Primula bhutanica and P. sonchifolia used to do so in the Sherriffs' Highland garden, Ascreavie. Thus I was delighted to see that P. moupinensis is replacing itself at a modest rate here. And I thought I had collected all the seed! Here are first winter and second-winter seedlings, firmly embedded in a Swedish peat-block!

One man went a sowing.......

Yes, you are right, polytrichum moss! Not yet a menance; we shall see!

Talk of seedlings reminds me to mention that as usual I sowed what seed was available over the New Year; so far 106 packets. I am expecting about another 30 packets from specialist groups (Saxifraga, Androsace, Meconopsis) and Botanic Gardens, so the final total should be about 140. This number has remained roughly stable for a number of years now.

This encourages me to comment on the much larger numbers of seed packets that Diane (Midland Diarist), Vic Aspland (latest edition of 'the Alpine Gardener') and a number of other enthusiasts grow. All I can say is that they are heroes, and goodness knows where they find space for their young plants. From my records I can describe fairly standard statistics for seed progression over several years here, and I thought it might be of interest to pass them on.

For every 100 packets, about 75 germinate (about 55 in the first year and the rest in subsequent years). I know this is a high proportion, but nearly half the seed I sow is my own, and of these all show at least some germination).

Of these 75 packets, about 20 are bulbs and these are allowed to grow on in the seed pan and are then pottted on in bulk as they come into growth the next year. This leaves about 55 to prick out. Of these, perhaps 25 have 5 seedlings or fewer (often only that number of seeds were supplied), say an average of 3 = 75 seedlings.

Of the remaining 30, I consider 15 so desirable that I prick out at least 20 of each = 300 seedlings. Many of these go into the Newcastle Botanic Garden, or are sold or given away subsequently. For the other 15 I prick out about 10 of each = 150 seedlings. This gives a total of about 525 non-bulb seedlings.

Notice that these statistics were based on a notional 100 pots! As I usually sow about 140, I probably prick out at least 650 seedlings into individual square plastic pots. Certainly at one stage last year I counted about 550 seedling pots (there will be more as some are planted out into final positions before others are pricked out).

I know from experience that this is as many seedlings, or as much space, as I am able to provide (for). As I say, those who sow more seem heroic to me!

Here are this years seed pans (so far!).

One man went a sowing.......

Cover or uncover?

Another thing I wanted to comment on is that both Vic and Diane (and indeed Ron Beeston) stack and cover their seed pans. Well, this clearly works for them, and takes up less space. Also, it protects the pans from birds, rodents and other misfortunes. Nevertheless, I was brought up to believe that the best way to break alpine seed dormancy was to subject the sown seed to all weathers during the second half of the winter. During a wet spell, the seed imbibes moisture, and is then frozen, or at least severely chilled, during the next cold spell. Subsequent cycles of moisture and cold vernalise the seed which then germinates as soon as the soil becomes warm enough. I suppose it is possible to make sure that stacked and covered seed is moistened and frozen regularly, but it is a lot of work.

I should add that with my lazy system I have found it important that early germinating seed is brought under glass until the end of April, which helps the small seedlings grow on and protects them from pests, particularly, here, woodlice.


I also wanted to add that although nearly all my seed is subjected to all weathers, there are a few potentially tender subjects that I keep in the conservatory, frost-free. The problem here is, I have to remember to water them! This year Babiana, Bellendenia and Bessera species have stayed inside. Nevertheless, it is remarkable what will endure outside. A few days ago, while clearing a space for new seed pans by throwing out two-year old failures, I found a flourishing pan of Crocus laevigatus seedlings. Needless to say, It was taken straight inside!

More Kilbryde specials.

In the absence of anything more to talk about here, I thought I would figure a few more of Randle Cooke's Kilbryde plants from the first half of last century.

The first to feature was unlabelled and, although it looked familiar, I couldn't place it. Thank you Robert, all-knowing one, for recognising it as the northern Chinese bugle Ajuga ovalifolia, featured in a 2004 Bulletin. Does anyone grow this interesting plant now?

More Kilbryde specials.

I used to grow Theorhodion (formerly Rhododendron) camstchaticum, but it greatly disliked the warm summers of the 1990's. Perhaps it is time to try again?

I have never seen the fritillaria-like Lilium souliei in cultivation. In the wild it grows in cassiope-infested bogs, for instance at Tianchi, Zhongdian, which may explain its intractability. The first photo is Cooke's. The second, completely ruined by a publisher who copied it badly before destroying the original, I photographed at Tianchi.

Cooke grew a range of nomocharis. Here are his photos of N. saluenensis, N. aperta and N. pardanthina, followed by my photos of the latter two species at Napa Hai (Zhongdian), and the Cang Shan respectively.

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