A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: 20 July 2008 by John Richards
Northumberland Diary. Entry 83.
Less is more
There is a slight hiatus in garden activities here in mid-July; most young plants that were due to be moved on have found their permanent places, and the bulb repot and hedges are not due for another couple of weeks. When I was working, we tended to go on holiday to the mountains now, but since I became free, we tend to go earlier, before school holidays.
Of course there are the ever-present chores of lawns, edges and weeds, especially during this wettish summer, and seed collecting is starting to gain greater prominence, but still there has been time to stand and stare. One of the conclusions I have come to is the one of the raised 'D' (from the shape) beds is a disaster, and I intend to start again with it in the autumn.
It was Sheila (who tends to work much harder with her perennials at this time of year than I do) who pointed out that the lower branches of several small trees were causing us to lose sight-lines. Also, these areas had become magnets for weeds. This caused us to do some careful pruning, between cuts stepping back and examining the effect from every side. Unfortunately there are no 'before' pictures, but here are our Magnolia x soulangeana and Pinus aristata after the snip.
Mention of Sheila's perennials (by far the most striking feature of our late summer garden) causes me to feature two European subalpines that are more at home in the border. Both are excellent garden plants that might be added to the list of plants that gently self-sow themselves here. First is the perennial Digitalis grandiflora, by far the best of the foxgloves in my opinion, and then Eryngium alpinum.
Not so ace....
Do you remember the furore that surrounded the introduction of the 'first red Potentilla fruticosa', named 'Red Ace'? Vigorous marketing was aided by (and possibly caused) the theft of a plant exhibited at one of the major Shows , reputedly by a competitor in the trade, a story that hit national headlines.
'Red Ace' is certainly a remarkable colour, but it is not a good garden plant, proving rather weak and shy to flower. Years later I saw a rooted cutting for sale at an AGS Show members table, and invested all of 50p. I usually get about five flowers a year! Here is one of them.
Hosta to fortune
In our heavy moist soil and rather humid, shady conditions, hostas thrive, and molluscs are kept in sufficient control by the frogs that the leaf damage is rarely severe enough to spoil our enjoyment. In total we grow more than a dozen varieties. Other gardeners often place them in isolation, but here they join the rough-and-tumble, jostling with competitors. This tends to spoil the impact, but helps to keep down weeds! Here is one of the less vigorous, H. fortunei 'Gold Standard'.
Um, yes, quite a few holes in leaves nevertheless!
Moving on to subjects more likely to be classified as alpines, the only roscoea that is invasive here, R. cautleyoides, is now in flower. We only have this pinkish colour. I must get some yellow ones.
The next subject is what I tend to think of as a 'Wynn-Jonesian' plant, that is it does very little, but nevertheless exudes a distinct aura of class, like an impoverished member of the aristocracy. I was drawn to Besseya calthifolia on an Edrom stand by its shiny leaves and the fact that I had never heard of it. I am easily parted with my cash! I got the impression that the time that it was a member of the Ranunculaceae, and the small fluffy cream flowers do look like an Actaea or Thalictrum. However, I am surprised to learn that it is actually an odd-ball 'scroph.', and despite its'Asiatic woodland' appearence, comes from western north America.
One of the great pleasures of rhododendrons is their young foliage. It will be years before this Rh. macabeanum seedling ever flowers, always supposing it gets so far, but the sheaf of huge silvery young leaves caused a far greater impact than the flowers ever could.
Mallorca is full of 'ancient' plants, left behind on the limestone cliffs of this island fastness while evolution moved onwards in continental Europe. Many of these are surprisingly hardy (think Paeonia cambessedesii). I have long coveted the shrubby Hypericum balearicum, not so much for the fairly standard St John's Wort flowers, as the fascinating, sticky, crinkly foliage. As with Potentilla 'Red Ace', I found a rooted cutting at an AGS Show members stand a few years ago. Fearful for its hardiness, I planted it out in the part of the alpine house where I grow plants directly into the sand plunge. Here it has thrived and is currently in full flower. It has certainly withstood six or seven degree of centigrade frost, but I am not convinced that it would enjoy our winter wet, planted outside.
A lowland heath in Cumbria
At present our Botany group is going on an excursion every Wednesday. Last week we went to a lowland area of sandy heath (glacial sands) and Valley mire north-east of Penrith, and I am finishing with a few plants from here. Firstly, the very attractive bog asphodel, Narthecium ossifragum. I am not sure I have ever seen this lovely plant in a garden; it would be necessary to manufacture very wet acid peat.
Gentianella campestris grows in much drier spots. The gentianellas are biennials, and possibly hemiparasites. Either way, they are not suitable for the garden, but make a considerable impact in the wild, especially when the flowers open in full sun (not the case here!).
Lucky for some.....?
It was too early for Calluna to flower, but Erica cinerea was at its best. This is a lovely thing, thriving on drier shallower soils than heather. Mostly, it was a uniform red-purple, but we were greatly taken by a single large mat of a dazzling white.
Talking of propagation (no, I know I wasn't), what news of the daphne grafts from Greece? Well, the take has been rather disappointing, but at present it is looking as if three each of D. sokjae and D. jasminea may have taken. Watch this space!