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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 24 January 2015 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 289.


There are, I believe, more suicides in January than any other month. The days are short, dark and cold, Christmas is over, and summer seems a long way away. I feel quite different about this month, even if it does include my birthday (they long ago ceased to be good news!). Rather, January is a month full of expectation and optimism in which buds develop, bulbs emerge and plants start to reveal their later promise. Indeed, for the alpine enthusiast, February is a full-blown month, with a couple of Shows to boot, and it is only just round the corner! I am fortunate, I suppose, to find myself on the whole a glass half-full sort of bloke, and in January my glass is definitely half-full, even if I am impatient for February to arrive!

One thing about January, there is I suppose no month in which there is less to do in the garden. The hedges have been cut, bulbs repotted, the autumn leaves gathered, the seed sown, most beds tidied, compost and leaf-mould distributed and, most recently, the hellebore leaves cut back to better display the developing flowers (and the surrounding snowdrops too). Little if any watering is required, it is not a good month for repotting or propagation. In fact, most of the recent activity has centred around picking up twigs and branches as the gales continue and trees shed yet more twigs. Now that I have three mature birches (one each of Betula jacquemontii, ermanii and pendula), I have to say that they are filthy trees in winter, shedding even more twigs and branches than the hybrid limes (Tilia) I have lived with for 25 years. Never mind, as Sheila reminded me today as I was grumbling, we would not be without them.

Another plant I would not be without is Hamamelis mollis. When our previous plant was killed (possibly by honey fungus, although the graft may have failed, the jury is out), I took my own advice and planted its replacement in front of the crinodendron, as the flowers stand out when winter sun strikes them against a dark background of evergreen foliage.

Hamamelis mollis

One of the many splendid features of the hamamelis is its long flowering period. It started at Christmas this year, and is still at its best a full month later. Understandably at a time of year when days suitable for pollination are strictly limited, many winter flowers have long lives. This is equally true of the garrya that I featured last month and which is still spectacular. Another plant I featured just before Christmas, but is now much more striking is a large Cyclamen coum. I have dozens of coums, and although they are all in leaf, most are yet to show few if any flowers, perhaps because they are on the north side of the house where the sun never strikes at this time of year. However, this seedling which I planted under the liriodendron stump (it has been pollarded recently) gets what little winter sun we have, and in any case I think it is genuinely an early-flowering form.

Cyclamen coun patterned form

In fact I thought the variability in flowering time of very early plants might be a theme of this epistle. Another group in which such variability is striking are the lenten roses, Helleborus x hybridus. It seems often to be assumed that these all flower together, but this is far from the case. I have already mentioned how early the 'Early Purple Group' are, often flowering in November (perhaps they are very late instead!), but I find that the standard lenten roses vary by a month and more in their flowering time. Although I cut back the old foliage before Christmas, most, and certainly all the whites, freckles and what pass here for yellows, have hardly started to develop. However, in one part of the garden I have several delightful pinks (mostly siblings I think) which have all inherited a very early trait and they are amongst my favourites. This one is flowering for the first time this year.

Helleborus x hybridus early pink form

I also have a blackish strain, developed from a seedling dug from my mother's garden many years ago, which are also early. Some of the seedlings are deep purple, and some almost blue.

Helleborus x hybridus deep purple form Helleborus x hybridus blueish form

It is of course no secret that snowdrops vary greatly in their flowering time, and in the last offering I mentioned 'Three Ships' that flowers before Christmas. As is eveident from the cyclamen photo above, most of my bog standard snowdrops and woronowiis are only just through the ground and will not flower for several weeks. However, several vigorous clones invariably flower several weeks ahead of the herd, such as the Greatorex double, 'Dionysus'.

Galanthus 'Dionysus'

The large Irish snowdrop 'Straffan' is also notably early.

Galanthus 'Straffan'

Another early snowdrop here is the G. plicatus hybrid 'Brechin'. G. plicatus 'Timpany' is not even  through the ground yet!

Galanthus plicatus 'Brechin'

I thought it might be worth pointing out that I can rarely overwinter monocarpic meconopsis in this garden unless they are cloched. The combination of cold and wet seems to do for them. However, it is often the easiest thing, if somewhat unsightly, to rest a pane of glass on a couple of bricks with another one on top. This Heath Robinson arrangement may be unsightly, but it is only temporary (they are removed in early March) and works perfectly well in this sheltered garden. More exposed sites may require a more high-tech solution such as Alan Furness' bent wire cloche holders.

Last time I showed the first open flower on a Primula megaseifolia. It is now in full flower under glass. (This rather tender evergreen species would very much resent alpihe house cultivation in the growing season as it needs cool humid conditions, but in the winter months is best kept from birds, snails and mice in the alpine house as the developing flower buds canm be attractive to predators). P. elatior ssp. meyeri is also in full flower, but I featured this fecund individual back in the autumn.

Primula megaseifolia

Finally, and very much a signal that the winter has been cool but not too severe so far, is the Arabian Primula verticillata flowering in the alpine house. It seems to enjoy being planted out in the sand plunge, together with its relative P. floribunda, and their hybrid species P. kewensis both of which I also grow.

Primula verticillata
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