A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: 07 January 2007 by John Richards
Northumberland Diary. Entry 18.
For peats sake....
During the week the continuing mild weather allowed me to build the small peat bed in the site shown in last weeks entry. In the end this took six blocks, so I had to acquire another three, purchased at £3 each. The original three had stood outside for three months and were thoroughly saturated. The second batch had been stored inside and were very dry, so that before they could be used I had to hydrate them. This was achieved by putting them in a barrow full of water for two days.
Filling the gaps
Once the peat blocks were wet through, they were cut with a fine-toothed large bladed saw. The texture of the peat allows quite thin slices to be cut, not more than 12 cm thick, so a block can be cut into three, lengthwise. Once wet, and bolstered with compost, the structure seems quite robust. In the area above the blocks the main plants are snowdrops, daphnes, hellebores and meconopsis. Here I have used fairly coarse, unmodified lead mould (one year old) above garden compost. However the terraces between the blocks (see below) are designed for more delicate subjects such as primulas, and here the compost is made up from 50% sieved leafmould, and 50% old (peat-based) potting compost from planters filled with tulips in spring and bedding in summer (the compost is replaced annually). In the following picture the barrow holds sieved leafmould and the compost pile lies alongside.
The bed is in quite a shady corner, with the house wall on one side and a large apple tree on the other, and the peat walls face north. This is one of the coldest places in the garden, being near the bottom of the slope, and those plants most desirous of a cool place in summer such the the petiolarid primulas have been planted directly below the blocks, in full shade and high humidity. Now that the bed is constructed and partially planted, several friends have warned me that blackbirds are the chief menace, as they love to scratch amongst the blocks and uproot the newly planted primulas. In the short term this should not be a problem as the plants are protected by a frame light, but once this is removed in March I shall have to net the bed until it settles down at the end of the summer.
Sarcococca, the 'Christmas Box' or 'Sweet Box' are modest plants that would attract little attention in summer. Flowering in mid-winter, at the same time as they bear last years berries, they have a delicate charm as well as a powerful sweet scent which fills a room if they are cut and brought in. The most popular is S. humilis, but I prefer the foliage of S. confusa which has the additional merit of thriving in the deepest shade and tolerating quite dry conditions. In common with most box relatives this is monoecious. The relatively showy flowers are male; the female flowers which form the berries are borne on the same plant but are very tiny. My old edition of 'Hillier' says that this species probably came from northern China but is unknown in the wild. Perhaps it has been rediscovered by now? All my sources are quiet as to why the latin name translates as 'corpse berry'. Answers to either of these queries, or indeed any other comments or questions, can be posted in the on-line discussion slot.
At this time of year, it is difficult to say whether a crocus is autumn or spring flowering. I have always found C. alatavicus very early, the first to flower after Christmas, and this year is no exception. Originally I grew four from Gothenburg Botanic Garden seed, but over the years they have dwindled to one, so I am obviously doing something wrong. Coming from subdesert areas of central Asia, it may well not be the easiest in this cool moist northern garden.