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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 14 January 2012 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 203.


Several people have said that they enjoyed my pictures from the US Pacific North-West, and I can probably stretch these to another offering. However, it is some time since I talked about the garden and things are moving fast, so I thought an update was probably in order.

In the two weeks since the New Year, the weather has been mild and open, and once the gales ceased, really rather pleasant. This caused me to get out into the garden and undertake the last of the major jobs I had planned for this winter. Although there is always something else to do, I know these will have been the last rebuilds this year, because I have now completely run out of compost and leaf-mould, actually quite a rare occurrence here. This is a measure of what has been in comparison to recent years (so far!) a rather benign back-end, which has allowed me to tackle far more tasks than would usually be the case.

For some years now I have been eyeing a corner the garden side of the leaf-heap, but uncomfortably close to the one remaining ancient lime tree. This area is in two sections, the distal a woodland bed which used to be full of erythroniums and peonies, and had become virtually grassed over and full of roots; and the proximal a small rather shady scree, bounded by a couple of railway sleepers, which had also become weedy and full of perennial roots. Because of its shape, which projects into the lawn, the latter has been known as the 'V-bed'.




Dealing with these areas has been plain hard work, and very physical. The problem is not only tree roots, and those of perennials such as a lovely but invasive Persicaria, but also that I originally lined these beds with a membrane, theoretically to keep out tree roots. This very much got in the way of forking out weeds and roots, so I decided that I would have to remove the membrane completely. Having done so, it is clear that it has been little if any use. Over a period of what must be 20 years, the membranes had become so pervasively invaded with roots that I have decided to dispense with their use completely, and let tree roots take pot luck. Here is one of the membranes, size 3 x 2 m, excavated.


You see the problem! So, forking out great lumps of weeds and roots was very physical work, and there was a great deal of it. I filled at least six barrowloads, creating more than half a compost heap, and this is after the non-compostable roots were teased out and put into the council green waste bin (they will be chipped; not very 'green'!). Also, each forkful had to be carefully teased apart to sort out bulbs, of which there were still quite a lot, especially erythroniums, and also snowdrops, narcissus, scillas, chionodoxas, colchicums and crocus. There were some perennial survivors too; lots of sanguinaria, Salvia bulleyana, which is rather a weed here, Hesperantha coccinea, lots of Aquilegia atrata , which self-sows, and a few scraps of primula, mostly P. marginata. Also, literally dozens of small tree peony seedlings! Unfortunately, a lovely Paeonia obovata which used to grace this bed had given up the unequal struggle and passed over.

These were all put into an empty dumpy bag. When the beds were finished, most of the bulbs (except some stray bluebells!) were replanted, as were a few perennials, and others given away to deserving causes; a young couple who have moved in next door, and an ex-neighbour and good gardening friend who has a new garden to stock. Here is part of the contents of one of the beds. It is absolutely vital to make sure that every scrap of all weedy roots, especially pestilential vetch (Vicia sepium) is removed from these roots and bulbs.

Once the beds were empty. the liners removed, and the subsoil forked over, new compost was put back in, to a depth of about 30 cm; this caused me to empty a complete compost heap! Here is the peony bed, before and after. It looks bare at the moment, but it is full of bulbs! and I have somewhere to plant new seedlings (woodland edge subjects) this coming season. I shall take care to choose subjects that either come up with the bulbs, or which do not come up until after most bulbs have died back.

The bed shown above is only half-full; subsoil nearest the camera and filled in further away.

The V-bed was also filled with garden compost, although some of the original scree drainage remained, so it will be better drained (and in more light) than the peony bed. It is also raised more as the sleepers were levered onto their narrower sides, to give a greater depth. Also, it was top-dressed with the one barrowful of leaf-mould that remained. Once again, here it is, before (but not after; I forgot to take the pohioto!)


Another seasonal job at this time of year is cutting back the oriental hellebore foliage. This is much easier just as the inflorescences start to elongate rather than later on, and cutting the leaves back removes any disease (very little hellebore black spot here I am glad to say) and frees up developing snowdrops and other spring bulbs. I usually leave this job until mid-February, but the first hellebore flowers have opened already, so I did it last week. I have about 30 mature clumps of various kinds and colours, so it takes some time. Here, once again, are some before and after shots.


Of course, this mild weather has pushed early spring plants on very quickly. This has been the cause of much comment in the media, who as ever have very short memories. Just because we have had a run of three severe winters, they forget very early springs that caused January displays as recently as six years ago, and I well recall a run of winters in the late '70's when I could regularly expect early bulbs almost as soon as the New Year was upon us. So far, I have a few early snowdrops nearly in full flower, and the earliest two reticulata irises are flowering in the alpine house. I bought several varieties unknown to me this year and the first two have flowered; first 'Pauline' and then 'Gordon'.

Also, the garrya has been wonderful, the best ever, perhaps in response to losing its catkins and young growth as a result of the last two hard winters.

For the time being the mild spell is past. It is -5C outside as I write, the third frosty night in a row, and hopefully this will hold things nicely in check for a few more weeks. I conclude with a picture of a frosty garden this afternoon, and of Galanthus 'S. Arnott' flattened by the frost. It will take no harm from this and will perk up as soon as the frost lifts. Snowdrops are magic!


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