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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 13 January 2013 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 232.

The end of the beginning?

After the cold snap in late November and early December it has been mild and spring-like for about a month now. It is really quite unusual here to have such open conditions right through Christmas and the New Year. Soft Christmasses are normal but we nearly always have snow and ice thereafter.  However, at last, it is much colder today and we are promised snow overnight and a cold week ahead. Already the first few flakes are meandering their way earthwards.  It is difficult to know what credence to put on medium-range forecasts which prophesy that we are about to experience a cold month. Certainly, the Met. Office don't seem to have much faith in their own medium-range forecasts, certainly less than the Daily Express whose Saturday headline thundered that we are about to experience the worst month for 100 years. What? Worse than 1963? Or 1947? (which did not start until after now, I recall). Or even 2010? Well, Daily Express, you may be right, but I sure hope not! (By the way, I  wouldn't like you to think that I read the Express, I saw the headline while shopping!).

Soft winter weather is good news for some, bad for others. We have had a plague of 'flu up here, a nasty 'flu that escaped the clutches of the 'flu-jab and has smitten the unwary, including my poor wife who has just spent five days in hospital from the resulting pneumonia. She is home now and recovering slowly, but she will take weeks to make a full recovery. So no winter jaunt for the Richards this year!

The good news is that I have been able to undertake a much more thorough winter clean-up and tidy than usual, and many parts of the garden have received a good once-over, including mulching with compost, leaf-mould, or gravel. Here for instance is the pond-area, unusually spick and span (of course, winter covers a multitude of sins. If you can't get the garden tidy now, ready for the new season, you never will!).

The end of the beginning?

Last week I bought a dumpy bag of 10 mm gravel, and have spread it about liberally, both on rock-gardens as a top dressing, and on the terrace. Hard work, but as Bunny Guiness so rightly said on 'Gardener's Question-time'  this afternoon, heavy gardening is an excellent aerobic exercise for all parts of the body which expends many calories which many of us certainly need after the excesses of the festive season. Whether an hour spent chopping logs really expends 1000 calories as she suggested, I am sure that shifting a whole tonne of gravel a long way uphill gets rid of all of that!

It is worth mentioning the terrace, as I haven't discussed it for a number of years. The garden slopes down from the road towards the house, and about 8 m above the house there is a step-fall of about 1.2 m. Below this, and bounding the house is a flat area which we found paved when we arrived, a patio if you will, but which we rather inaccurately call it the terrace. The pavers had not been well laid, and water tended to lie on some of the more sunken ones. Sheila brilliantly suggested that these were lifted to create sumps in which to grow bog plants, and to gravel the rest, on top of the pavers.

On the whole this has been a considerable success. Many plants self-sow into the gravel, and the sumps are brilliant with colour in summer months. Most of the self-sown plants have rooted into the gaps between the pavers, so that their pattern is that of an irregular checkerboard! However, the house roof is very mossy, and jackdaws scratch the moss out which falls onto the gravel, so that the humus content of the gravel patio has increased markedly over the years. Also, the gravel had become very dirty, so it really needed a re-gravel. It needs some more, a few bags of 20 mm grade to leaven the texture which I shall do as soon as the weather permits, but certainly the whole area already looks a good deal smarter than before.

The pane of glass is to protect an Androsace studiosorum from the damp. I can't overwinter it these days without. What is very clear at this time of year is the extent to which we have used sleepers ('railroad ties') to terrace the down-hill side of beds in this gently sloping garden. We have 50 in total! I like them, they give a geometric precision to the design of the garden.

Moving round to the front garden (downhill from the house, the other side, where the access is) I also regravelled the scree and rock garden beds there, which temporarily look much smarter as a result. For newish readers, the water-worn limestone in the rock garden was part of  a 10 ton load that we found buried here after we arrived. Real serendipity!

When designing the garden (which never really stops), we tried to plan 'sight-lines'. One of the merits of regravelling is that open areas such as screes and rock-gardens are picked out in greater definition to feature in views. As an example of what I mean, here is a glimpse from the front path to the house through the parrotia to part of the rock-garden. Hopefully it says to the visitor 'here I am, come and explore'!

While all this activity has been going on, time has had to be found for a more gentle and seasonal activity, the sowing of the seed. I think it is important with my system, which involved putting the seed-pans out in all weathers, that most seed is put out by early January. Once imbibed, many alpine seeds need one or more spells of several weeks of temperatures under 5C if they are to be fully vernalised. Of course, it is possible to do it in the fridge, but I prefer to let nature take its course (which is also the lazy route!), and the results tend to support me. However, if seeds are to germinate by late March (the usual time for most subjects after an average winter here), they need to be put out by mid-January at the latest if they are to receive a full vernalisation. So far I have sown 112 pots, rather fewer than usual. I think there will only be the Gothenburg seed to come now (they don't even issue their list until late January).

I am slightly surprised that all the mild weather did notencourage the early subjects more. A few aconites, Eranthis, are showing yellow, and the first snowdrops, 'Dionysus', 'Atkinsii' and 'Straffan' are starting to show colour. I have removed the hellebore leaves (not only to show off the flowers, but also because they tend to smother some snowdrops), but only the species Helleborus purpurascens and the Early Purple Group of H. x hybridus are yet in flower. Here are the demure flowers of the former.

Of corse, this is the season of the winter shrubs, and such subjects as Garrya and Sarcococca confusa are making great shows. We only acquired a Hamamelis mollis after the great freeze of December 2010 knocked back the crinodendron to make a space, but it has done well in the damp summers and is making a brave show.

Mahonia 'Winter Sun' is of much longer standing and has made a noble shrub.

Finally, overfamiliar, but still really worthwhile, dear old Jasminum nudiflorum. Such a good plant! grown here in far too much shade.

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