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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 03 January 2017 by John Richards

Northumberland diary. Entry 330.

Packing it in

Happy 2017 everyone! It can't be as bad as 2016, can it?

One of the less celebrated consequencies of the modern tendency to buy stuff on-line is the accumulation of package material, calling for yet more journeys to the tip if the spare garage is not to submerge under yet more clutter. Just occasionally the rubbish requires a reappraisal. Thus it was that something circular pruchased during the year (I forget what now, a radio?) arrived sandwiched between two expanded polystyrene rectangles. As a devotee of the fishbox, I was not slow to appreciate the potential of these articles, which were saved from the recycler. Later on, during the autumn, I found time to dig them out, paint them with a sandstone-coloured weather-resistant paint which I keep a tin of for the purpose, throw some dry gritty sand at them and put them back in the garage to dry. Stupidly I did not take a photograph at the time, but in the past I have posted pictures of fishboxes in a similar state of transformation.

Just before Christmas I found time to take a tined rake to remove some of the lawn moss (Rhytidiadelphus squarrosus) which largely replaces the grass in some areas at this time of year. This was shredded by hand and then mixed, damp, with an equal volume of perlite, and about a third by volume of cement.

Here is the moss in the barrow, the sack of perlite, the shovel, and the boards I mix it on.

And here the moss mixed with perlite.

You are right, a terrible mess, the perlite sack tore. Also, don't do this on a windy day! The next stage was to add the cement, mix it in dry and then add water slowly, mixing in between, just like making concrete.

When one is happy with the consistency of the mix, the next stage is to make lumps of various sizes which are then compressed by hand. It is essential that marigolds are employed throughout! The nature of the mix is such that it is really only possible at this stage to fashion lumps of the mix, which are likened by my dear wife to the products of an elephant's digestive system (we have been fortunate to encounter the genuine article on a few occasions). These are then put back in the garage, on the boards, for two weeks to set.

Once the 'tufa', for that it what it now hopefully approximates to, is thoroughly dried off, it is time to have fun! The expanded polythene 'troughs' (old packing remember) are filled with a well-drained mix of commercially bought compost, perlite and grit, and tufa lumps of different sizes put in place. Note the brace and bit which is used to bore holes into the tufa for planting.

I should say that the 'troughs' are parked on top of the barrow for convenience of working height, and transport, although in truth they are very light and easily handled.

Lest it be thought that one is restricted to the lump shape, the tufa is now easily modified. I find it easiest to saw lumps in half, which are then set on end to create large vertical crevices, and a Dolomitic 'Sasso Lungo in minature' effect.

I am sure purists will cavil at the use of golden grit together with the grey tufa, and yes, limestone grit would probably be preferable, but the local garden centre doesn't do it. However, the golden grit tones down quickly and will appear greyish within a few weeks.

The 'troughs' were then barrowed to their final position amongst many other expanded polythene troughs on the terrace (I have 30!). They are stood on small upside-down crock pots. They will not be planted for a couple of months during which time the new 'tufa' will cure and be suitable for direct planting. As they are very shallow, I expect to use them mostly for semps and silver saxifrages, although I may be a bit more adventurous with respect to the planting holes in the 'tufa'.


I need hardly say that there is rather little to celebrate outside although our Hamamelis japonica is in full and glorious flower, early this year, Mahonia Winter Sun and Viburnum 'Bodnantense' are still lovely, and Galanthus 'Three Ships' has finally made it, although once again it was late for Christmas here. The earliest Cyclamen coum are flowering, but compared to many gardens at this time of year we can boast very little, probably because the sun remains below our elevated horizon (we see it but the garden doesn't).

There is however, a fair degree of colour in  the conservatory, and I thought I would finish by picturing a few subjects of distinctly dodgy hardiness (although this area does drop to about 5C during a hard frost). Here first is an unnamed begonia and Jasminum polyanthum.



A friend contacted me a few weeks before Christmas to ask if I was interested in growing some haemanthus. He is principally a grower of tropical orchids, especially phalenopsis which he breeds. Some years previously he had been given a collection of haemanthus but had grown tired of them. There are three species, all rather similar and unfortunately perhaps, all white-flowered. H. albiflos and H. difformis have finished flower, but H. pauciliformis lingers on. They seem to enjoy the conservatory.

Houseplant cyclamens are a matter of taste. I dislike many and, predictably, tend to prefer those which most closely resemble the wild C. persicum. Sheila planted up this little group of a red dwarf which, despite my reservations, I am enjoying.

Finally, my favourite houseplant for midwinter, seemingly easy and reliable (although it would probably hate central heating), the gesneriad Aeschyanthus speciosus from the highlands of Malaysia.

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