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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 02 January 2011 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 170.

Another year

 Happy New Year everyone! Lets see what 2011 brings. An International Conference anyway! I am looking forward to it immensely, and to the Tour we are leading to Greece afterwards, now full I believe. Lets hope that Greece enjoys a proper winter, just as we have, so that the alpines flower profusely.

We have crept past the Solstice somehow, and suddenly, spring is on the distant horizon. Snowdrops are just starting to poke their noses through the ground. We have spent the last 12 days with family, down south and then up here, and since we travelled south on the Solstice the weather has been fairly unremarkable. Indeed, New Year's Eve is characteristically frozen and snowy here most years (unlike Christmas itself), but it was unseasonably quiet and gloomy this time.  Over Christmas, at first there was a good deal of frozen snow to contend with, just as much in the Thames Valley as here, but the last grimy lumps have finally disappeared.

The memory of the really cold weather in late November and early December is fading gradually, but plenty of stark reminders linger. Most strikingly, perhaps, is the blackened foliage on some of the evergreen shrubs and trees that were not covered by the snow. The protective effect of the snow is well shown by this Desfontainea spinosa. Above about 35 cm, the foliage is dark, and from past experience I know that this will gradually wither and die off, although the branches themselves will probably survive and produce new growth. Below this level, the leaves are still fresh and green.

Another year

 Perhaps the worst effected has been the Azara petiolaris, which has been completely blackened and some of the leaves have now dropped off. This 10 m shrub is 15 years old and has never suffered this way before, despite experiencing even colder (although briefer) temperatures of -21C in January 2001. It may be cut to the ground, but I expect it to survive as the woody growth seems sound.

 Our massive Crinodendron hookerianum is another matter. It was twice cut to the ground when young (2001 was one of those occasions), and I think it will probably need to be completely removed above ground again. It is completely black and doesn't look good.

 Pittosporum tenuifolium is an interesting case. We are fond of this New Zealander and grow four varieties. Three of these are relatively dwarf and/or young and seem to have survived more or less unscathed, again protected by snow I suppose. However the very large 12 m 'wild type' is blackened except at the very base. However the leaves seem shiny and pliable; perhaps they will recover? Only time will tell.

 There is also the matter of Daphne bholua. This splendid winter-flowering subject from Nepal has a reputation for being somewhat tender. We now grow that popular variety 'Jacqueline Postill'  which is evergreen, although other forms are deciduous to a greater or lesser extent. A large plant I grew from wild collected seed for twenty years was invariably deciduous, although it was mostly protected, growing upagainst a greenhouse. This year, 'Jacqueline Postill' has lost all its leaves, although as far as I can determine the twigs and buds are healthy.

 It is worth adding that many large evergreen shrubs appear to be essentially untouched by the extreme cold, for instance 'Bay' (Laurus nobilis), Arbutus unedo, Eucryphia 'Nymansay', Choisya ternata, Mahonia 'Winter Sun', several camellias and many rhododendrons.

This gives me a chance to celebrate evergreens that are important 'spreaders' and thus have a major impact at this time of year. As I have mentioned frequently, this garden slopes to the north and is terraced. Railway sleepers ('ties') play an important part in garden structure (there are 50 in total), but they are not the most attractive of objects, and it is often useful to hide them underneath spreading shrubs, which also help to knit walls and terraces together.

I shall start with three New Zealanders which are used this way. The conifer relative Podocarpus nivalis (grown from seed 20 years ago), is followed by Parahebe catarractae and Hebe pinguifolia 'Pagei'. Both the latter are looking slightly tatty after the hard weather, but were mostly protected under snow and I find them invaluable being long-lived, hard-wearing, and, in the summer, extremely attractive.

 Here are a couple of legumes which do the same job. Firstly Chamaespartium sagittale. In common with many broom relatives, this has no leaves as such, the flattened stems (cladodes) serving the same function. Nevertheless, It provides attractive 'foliage' throughout the year and in July is covered with large spikes of large yellow pea-flowers. It is fairly readily available in the trade, but our plant is a memento of a holiday in a cottage in the French Auvergne in 1977. We were situated below a large volcanic cliff, and if you drove round to the village on the summit, we found that this shrub clothed the cliff-edge. In August it was in seed, and our plant was raised from this. Perhaps as a result, it sets some seed here which I send to the AGS seed exchange some years.

Following this is the Cytisus 'Kewensis' lookalike known as 'Cottage'.

 Cotoneaster congestus is another excellent 'drooper'. It never has any flowers or fruits here, and I believe this is usual, but as edge cover it is invaluable. Although completely prostrate, it is quite vigorous and has to be constrained with secateurs at times. The prunings often form roots ('Dutch cuttings') and are easily grown on in a pot.

 Finally, two wonderful spreading spruces that I would not be without, Picea abies 'Little Gem' and P.a. 'Nidiformis'. Like many dwarf evergreens here, these have the unfortunate habit of attracting dead leaves at this time of year, but they are completely weatherproof.

 Symptomatic of the cold weather, and unusually for this time of year, the garden is completely without any flowers. Under glass, one brave primula has deigned to flower, the distinguished blue-flowered subspecies of oxlip from the Caucasus, P. elatior subsp. meyeri, often called, as a species, P. amoena. This lovely thing was grown from wild collected seed last spring.

Seed sown


 Oh yes! I meant to say. The Christmas break has not been entirely wasted. In the interstices of the day, chiefly just after breakfast and just before supper (and definitely before the sherry) I have managed to sow this year's seed, 90 packets so far. There are about another 22 left to sow, but I have run out of compost and labels and the Garden Centre is very sensibly shut until the 4th. I sow them indoors, in the dirty kitchen sink (yes, we have two sinks, very posh). At least I haven't had to thaw out the sacks of compost as I did last year. I gave the full details of my sowing technique four Christmases ago and have no intention of repeating myself. It hasn't changed (the technique that is). If it ain't broke etc. However it is just possible that some of you may be murmuring 'thats only 110 packets', and, yes, it does seem to be 20 or 30 fewer than in recent years. I am not sure why, but certainly quality rather than quantity. Incidentally, I must emphasise, the seed may be sown in the kitchen, but it is stored in the fridge until the moment it is sown, and then the pot of seed then goes straight outside to suffer every sling and arrow the climate can chuck at it until germination.



We all probably need cheering up a bit, and I have been scanning in some slides I took in May 2006 in the Alpes Maritimes, just before my photography went digital. It was a good trip, not least for frits, and I thought you might like to see F. tubiformis from the Col de Bleine above Thorenc, F. moggridgei from near Limonetto, and F. involucrata from the Col des Simes. Incidentally, note that wilds frits get lily beetle too!


Seed sown
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