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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 11 July 2014 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 277.

Seedling bonanza

Despite sowing fewer packets this year (just over 100), germination was good. I have had germination in 73 pans, but this statistic is complicated; there are still 42 without germination. The shortfall of about 16 is made up by seed sown at the start of 2013 which has germinated this spring for the first time. Nearly all of these are bulbs which have not been pricked out, but will be potted on as a group of bulblets together when I repot the bulbs next month. A few bulbs also germinated which were sown in the current year, but there have still been about 50 subjects to prick on. Some of these have done very well; a number have already been transferred to pots in the alpine house: Petrocallis pyrenaica for instance, Aquilegia saximontana hybrids, A.longissima, Androsace strigillosa, Calceolaria uniflora, Dianthus anatolicus, D. nitidus, Minuartia pseudosaxifraga, Stachys spreitzenhoferi, Edraianthus pumilio, Campanula alpestris and Linum capitatum. Most of these are heat-loving subjects, or those which resent too much summer rainfall.

For plants which like coolth, humidity and moisture, the recipe is different. At the cool bottom of the garden, to where cold airs sinks and then disappears out the gate, stands a cluster of fishboxes in dappled shade. Containers need periodic renewal. This is particularly true of these containers which I fill with sieved well-rotted leaf-mould (80%) and perlite (20%) wth a good admixture of slow-release fertiliser. The leaf-mould has relatively little innate feeding potential, so that these troughs tend to lose 'oomph' over the first year to two years. This can be amleiorated by top-dressing with more slow-release, but eventually even this compost becomes compacted, airless and needs replacing.

Last week I emptied out two of the largest fishboxes, spread the old compost in some woodland areas, and refilled with new mix, as above. Now came the good bit. To plant 25 strong seedlings of 11 subjects of the quality of Meconopsis delavayi, M. simpicifolia, M. aculeata, M. rudis, Primula megaseifolia, P. elatior meyeri, P. macrophylla, P. munroi and P. halleri gives one great pleasure, especially as the seed of nearly all came from this garden. It is difficult not to think 'now, if I had bought this lot from a nureryman it would have knocked me back at least £100, whereas it has cost me nothing' (disregarding the cost of compost, grit etc, of course!). However, over the year I have found that this individual treatment, of new seedlings, in fresh leafmould, in fishboxes, stands the best chance of success, not least for difficult subjects such as M. delavayi. They now have three months growth before the autumn, time to set up strong resting buds, after which they will be covered by a frame light for the winter.

Seedling bonanza

Bellflower season

Come July, come most of the campanulas. This has not been a great garden for campanulas in the past. Many do not flower for the shows I visit, and they dislike our heavy soil and low light levels. However I am now starting to amass a modest collection. In a trough I have C. garganica, obtained from one of our local nurserypeople, Ruth Hadden. This has the inestimable quality of being apparently impervious to ants, which is just as well, as the trough it lives in is colonised by ants every summer, perhaps because it is made of four pavers bolted together and ants can penetrate the vertical gaps. I am sure it would grow better in more amenable surroundings, but for a well-drained site in full sun it is a reliable subject.

Bellflower season

Although I see from my records that I have tried to grow C. zoysii from seed in the distant past, I never succeeded with it, probably because it is so attractive to slugs that any planted out tend to be reduced to a stump in minutes. However, a plant acquired last autumn was planted into shaded vertical home-made tufa in the alpine house, which has proved to be a successful recipe for difficult subjects in the past (a fairly ancient Jancaea is alongside). This plant has come along well, and is now nearly in full flower, showing its unique little 'soda siphon' (Farrer) flowers to advantage.

A third campanula is on quite a different scale. One of the many plants the MESE expedition brought back from northern Greece in 1999 was the huge blowsy monocarpic C. incurva, collected from the walls of Platamon castle, just south of Olympus (it is also common on the foothills of Pilion and Ossa). I had flowered it in the past, but it takes up a lot of room in the alpine house (I doubt if it would survive outside), is not very hardy, and needs to be renewed from seed. However, I sowed some seed two years ago and one of these seedlings is now coming to magnificent fruition. I expect it will now give me pleasure until the first frosts.

Odds and ends

One unexpected minor success (or at least not the expected total failure) has been a little yellow Nepalese saxifrage. Unusually, this is classified in the Hirculus section Ciliatae, very few of which are in cultivation, and most of which proved ungrowable. This plant, S. llonakhensis, was acquired from the Aberconwy Nursery, I think in 2012 and planted without any great hope in a  small trough in full sun. Here it has not exactly thrived, but neither has it died, and is now just finishing a  reasonable display of its little yellow flowers.

Odds and ends

Considerably more than 30 years ago, I led my first plant Tour to Greece. We spent a few nights at Arta, and one day made the long trip to Metsovon and the Katara Pass, my first experience of that excellent locality. At some stage the bus stopped where the bus passed through a defile, and we found a rosetted subshrub growing on the cliffs with small but piercing blue flowers, Moltkia petraea. This little Borage has stayed in my mind ever since, and when I saw seed advertised in Vojtech Holubec's list two years ago, I was determined to grow it. Seedlings grew on well last summer, to be planted out in August in sand-beds in full sun, where they have thrived and now in full flower. The contrast of the gentian blue with the pink Crepis incana (also Greek) is very successful.

Have you all discovered Onosma nana now? Probably so, as it is appearing on the showbench in some numbers. It has proved to be highly amenable, free-flowering, long-lived (or at any rate not short-lived) and easily grown either as a pot-plant in the alpine house, or in any well-drained site in full sun in the garden. Highly recommended.

Hypericum coris is another really good summer alpine.

This year I have been slightly taken aback by an unlabelled Roscoea. This has appeared between plants of R. humeana (earlier) and R. x beesiana (later). Elsewhere I also have R. cautleioides and R. purpurea, but I did not recognise this chappie at all. Recourse to my file index revealed that in 2006 Henry and Margaret Taylor kindly donated a seedling Roscoea during a garden visit, I think grown from wild seed collected in NW India. This was R. alpina, which seems to fit the present subject, so I can only assume that it has stealthily grown to flowering size while escaping all notice (like many of its genus it certainly appears above ground very late). Its very nice, too.

Lazily, I did not grow this Primula capitata from seed, but bought it from a commercial source a couple of years ago. In the past it flowered in September, but it is a good deal earlier this year. Definitely one of my favourite species, grown here in a fishbox where it seems to be reasonably perennial (in thr open ground it is usually biennial).

Until 2011, this garden was a paradise for Dieramas, but that winter put paid to most of them. However, seed in the soil germinated subsequently, and some of these seedlings are now large enougfh to flower. I think they are most D. igneum x D. pulchellum crosses.

I am finishing with two massive show-pieces at this time of year, Rosa 'Wedding Day', followed by my favourite small tree for summer, the luscious Hoheria lyallii.

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