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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 15 July 2007 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 42.

Should they stay or should they go?

A typical quandry at this time of year is what should be done with the hundreds of seedlings pricked out in May and now sturdy little plants. In many cases, roots are starting to emerge from drainage holes, and it is clear that plants will receive a check if they are not potted on or planted out now. It is striking how even the most difficult alpine house subjects grow on strongly when young, apparently impervious to torrential rain and muggy damp. It is only when they approach adulthood and especially when they face a winter for the first time that their problematic natures become apparent.

Towards the end of June last summer (2006) I was between trips to the mountains, and a cool spell encouraged me to plant out or transfer to larger pots in the alpine house many of the young plants I had raised. Disaster! No sooner had we returned than we hit one of the warmest and driest spells we have ever experienced and many young plants were lost. Notwithstanding the very cool and wet summer we have enjoyed this year (2007), we still can't be sure that we won't hit a comparable heatwave from now on. Nevertheless, I am convinced that plants should be moved on now if at all possible, and over the last few days I have potted on or planted out well in excess of 100 individuals.

Interesting alpines often need to be accommodated in special conditions, and 'older situations' have often become unsuitable locations after a passage of time. Luckily, I had reprovisioned several troughs and a small crevice bed during the winter (as reported here) and ample space remains to house most of the more alpine of the new subjects. This first photo shows new seedlings of Androsace cantabrica (left) and Asperula sintenisii in part of the crevice bed.

Should they stay or should they go?

Here is a small part of one of the troughs. Plants of Linum pycnophyllum (left) and Arabis bryoides (right) are well established, but the seedling of Potentilla clusiana in the centre is new. I came to admire the latter white-flowered species when I saw it in flower on the Schneeberg (Buletin 73: 351) and am delighted to have the chance to grow it from seed.

Optimistic as always, I have raised a number of Meconopsis and  Primula and as so often, they look fine when young. Perhaps a cool summer will allow them to enter the winter full of vim, so that they have the resource to reemerge during the following spring relatively unscathed. I reworked a cool, partically shaded and slightly raised area with new compost (grit, sieved leaf-mould, perlite and pulverised bark all figure strongly to give a very open mix). Plants in the foreground include Primula obtusifolia, P. 'limbata' (probably a new species that I saw on the Zhedua Pass last month) and P. cortusoides, while further back are Meconopsis integrifolia, and M. punicea. Since then I have added M. latifolia, M. aculeata and M. paniculata. I allotted the final species plenty of room for its massive rosettes!

Yet another area reworked this week has been the 'sumps' in the terrace where I have been growing wetland primulas. The soil in these had not been renewed for a decade, and the primulas had been declining in competition with the beautiful but invasive white-flowered Caltha himalaica. The latter were all removed into pots, or consigned to the compost, and the sumps dug out by 50 cm and filled with about four barrow-loads of last years compost, rough and unsieved, but now well-rotted. The surviving primulas were divided and replanted, together with new seedlings of Primula possonii, P. prolifera and P. secundiflora.

Alpines for high summer
In the current issue of the Bulletin (June 2007), the Anthologist gives this diary a plug (thanks v much!, a reader at last!), and after calling my very first entry at the end of last August 'depressing' (!) (I thought I was being amusing; serve me right!) goes on to consider worthy alpines for July and August. Although I continue to share her opinion about the latter half of August, I have always rather enjoyed July in the alpine garden. Here is one of the most reliable of all alpines at this season, the wonderful Geranum dalmaticum. This beautiful plant can compete in the most distinguished of company, never misbehaving, but it can also knuckle down to the most workaday situations, doubling as a tough ground cover. We grow it in rough gravel over clay along our north-facing and rather shady front path. In this unpromising situation, it covers the ground with its attractive foliage through the year and is covered with the baby-pink flowers for more than a month.

Alpines for high summer

Another wonderful garden plant is the hybrid Dicentra, 'King of Hearts'. Quite as beautiful as its recalcitrant Japanese parent, D. peregrina, this tough plant seems always to be in flower and competes well with encroaching vegetation. I think it was Mike Stone who once wrote that the main reason that they lost plants in their Highland garden was competition from more vigorous neighbours, and this certainly holds good here too. I first meant to feature the Dicentra in early May, then in June, and in the third week of July it remains in excellent form. What a plant!

Better red than dead
On the whole, any colour schemes that arise here are unplanned, but they can be striking nevertheless. One end of the pond, replanted during the winter, is now a symphony of red, and I thought I would feature several of its subjects. Since Lilium martagon 'Naoussa Boutari( featured two weeks ago) first flowered, a lovely red astilbe (anonymous I fear) has joined it harmoniously.

Better red than dead

In the background of the last photo, Primula poissonii can be seen. The next two photos feature this, and the interesting P. wilsonii (with ducks!).

Much the the red comes from bedding mimulus, acquired at our local garden centre and invaluable fillers for a damp spot at this time of year.

Scarlet peril
The red theme is continued elsewhere in the garden, not least through the invasive Tropaeolum speciosum. This is much admired, particularly as it has now grown through the beech hedge and so decorates the lane down which many people walk. However, not by us! If there was ever a plant that is coveted until acquired and then never again, this is it! In about a week I shall have to pull enormous festoons off the rhododendrons before they are submerged for ever. This is a very unpleasant job, as the whole plant stinks. It comes back every year with renewed vigour, and seedlings (bird-sown from the berries) appear all over the garden.

Scarlet peril

Two more Greeks

As I said, July is a great month here and there is no shortage of subjects. I shall finish with a couple of Greek plants, grown from wild seed. Campanula versicolor is a variable plant. The MESE expedition in 1999 collected several forms,one of which, from the Monodendron monastry, was outstanding. However the plant figured here was grown from seed collected in 2004 at nearly 2000m on Parnassos as it is a good colour form, and should be very hardy. This plant grows under glass, but good plants in the open garden are also just starting to flower.

Two more Greeks

The final subject was indeed  grown from MESE seed. This is the Pindos form of the popular Pterocephalus perennis, one of the best late summer alpines and very popular with butterflies. This form is known as subspecies brevifolius, and is sometimes raised to specific rank. It has distinctive very grey foliage. However, forms from further south  classified as subsp. perennis seem to have larger flowering heads and make larger, more vigorous mats.

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