A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: 21 January 2014 by John Richards
Northumberland Diary. Entry 261.
Narnia its not
Nevertheless, despite increasingly frequent commentaries that its the earliest etc etc ever, and the thingummies are flowering/singing/spawning six weeks earlier than ever before (our media's characteristic love of hyperbole to the front again) we have had some frosty nights, if not particularly severe ones. Snow still seems far away, and am I bov-vered? (no!). Despite what they say about hard winters and bud set, most plants that give us early warning seem very well provisioned. I think good flowering more often follows a good summer (and indeed a poor blossom year) than a hard winter.
Here is our frosted lawn a few mornings ago.
Frost has its merits in season, and evergreen shrubs often look handsome after a good freeze. I love the Taliensia rhodos, not for the flower (most are poor flowerers at least for their first 25 years), but for the foliage. Many have good indumentum and lovely rusty backs to the leaves. Here are a trio of rather scarce species, Rh. rufum, Rh. roxieanum oreonastes (which does have some buds this year) and Rh. balfourianum.
Nevertheless, its been open for most of the time, which has let me get on with one of the more strenuous jobs, emptying a full compost bin and barrowing the contents to top-dress new beds. Here are the compost bins, after I had just emptied the central compartment a few days ago. I usually empty two compartments a year, which means that I leave each compartment for approximately 18 months.
About half the bin was merely forked across the path to the bed seen on the right above, which is part of the modest veg. garden, where we mostly grow peas, broad and runner beans, and sweet peas for cutting. Some of this will be moved later to the perennial border which Sheila is still engaged in cutting back (fuel for the newly emptied compartment!).
Apart from this, about 12 barrowsful were wheeled round the garden. Some went to the bed shown below which has been finally rid, chemically, of ground-elder (we hope! after repeated applications) and badly needed replenishment. I am using it for a collection of dieramas, supported by a Rhododendron yakusimanum and the Sciadopitys.
In the late summer (issue 255), I cleared part of the alpine terrace of parahebe and azorella and replaced it with a sand-bed (issue 259). Part of this has a very steep north slope, and I did wonder how stable this would be. I have been gingerly planting it up with the sort of alpine that enjoys a vertical position, in the hope that they would eventually bind and stabilise the slope. However, several very rainy months later (although not, I grant you, as wet as many parts of the country), the slope has remained in position, and I am beginning to hope that the possibility of a minature land-slip is receding.
Further along the terrace, the situation is less acute as the slope is poised about stabilising railway sleepers, and propped by horizontal shale slivers. I am beginning to wonder whether this is necessary, and whether a sand-bed can be used on a slope as well as on the flat.
Now that we are a month into the post-solstitial era, the troughs are starting to wake up. I am not that sure we are particularly early in fact. I usually have early porophyllum saxifrages such as 'Johan Kellerer' and x salomonii showing colour by now. Also, although snowdrops such as 'Straffan', Dionysus', 'Brechin', 'The Linns' and 'James Backhouse' are starting to flower, it is clear that they won't be fully out until the start of February, which is not unusual. In this north-facing garden, below a south-hill with a forest on top, the sun has scarcely reached us yet, minimising the effect of an early start.
Some trough photos. The first one features the saxifrages cotyledon, 'Southside Seedling', 'the aforementioned 'Johan Kellerer' and ferdinandi-coburgii.
Fish-box troughs such as this are not damage-proof, and sometimes they can split. I am afraid my reponse to such a calamity is very Heath Robinson. I tend to use troughs in groups, so I just tuck the broken trough in so that it is propped up by others! You can see this in the following photo of a green-painted trough (wouldn't do that again!) which features Saxifraga juniperinifolia.
This third trough features Saxifraga scardica, S. cochlearis minor, Geum parviflorum and S. exarata. The last-named had characteristically rotted in the centre, so I pulled out the rotten material and filled in with grit (photo 2). I fully expect the plant to fill in satisfactorily over the summer.
Mention of troughs brings me to Corydalis pachycentra. It is rather unexpected that most if not all of the small blue corydalis from China come into growth in the early winter, to remain winter-green, finally to die back after flowering in the late summer to remain dormant for a few months. I now grow a few of these, including C. pseudoadoxa, C. emeiensis and C. 'Craigton Blue' and they are amongst my most valued subjects. C. pachycentra grows in a fishbox trough without winter protection and flowers in April. Peter Erkine has rated it as a garden plant for many years, but it is not easy to obtain, although I had coveted it for years, having seen it in many sites in the wild. Here is my plant, followed by a picture of it on the Da Xue Shan (acidic side).
Finally, one of my favourite winter subjects, Bergenia purpurascens, which is glorious in the second half of the winter, particularly when the sun hits it. It turns a rather disappointing dull green in summer, although it does flower well.