Alpine Garden Society

01386 554790
Back to List of Entries for A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

Go to bottom

You can add your comments on the content of this diary entry by starting a discussion, but you need to login first

A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 10 July 2017 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 342.


As I think I have written before, gardens go through a succession of phases during their (and their owners') lifetimes. Certainly, when faced with a patch of ground this size, one's (or at least our) first instinct is to cover the ground.  Transitting a brief phase of uncertain equilibrium, the ground cover then really gets a hold and the garden rapidly reaches its third phase, which I have dubbed 'the Mad-hatters tea-party'.

I well remember a visit more than two decades ago to Gary Dunlop's Ulster garden. Faced with, as I recall, some five acres, Gary had adopted the strategy of intensively cultivating a plot of, say, half-an-acre, and as the more vigorous subjects and, dare one say, weeds took a hold, moving on to a fresh patch. The result was one of the most species-rich collections I have ever encountered. On a much smaller scale, our own space has long reached this third phase, where reclamation and intensive cultivation in limited areas has become the only way to find space for new subjects and to regenerate those treasures swamped by the verdure.

 About the time we moved here, my long-deceased colleague, Trevor Walker, gave me a chunk of a not very well-known plant, the unlikely Ranunculaceous subshrub Xanthorrhiza simplissima. He noted that it had excellent autumn foliage, black flowers and would cover the ground. All this came to pass (although the black flowers are tiny as one would expect in this baneberry relative), particularly the last feature. In a rather neglected, somewhat peripheral part of the garden Xanthorrhiza came to dominate a huge rather shaded patch some 15 x 6 m. This is indeed a delight each autumn (and has been featured in these pages), but I came to realise that it had become a large area of largely wasted ground which I could ill-afford to spare.

Thus came to pass the next major phase of garden reconstruction. A small fraction of the xanthorrhiza had succumbed to a new glade which I had planted with cardiocrinum and meconopsis last autumn. I was determined to keep a fraction of the remnants (possibly a mistake as the woody yellow stolons/rhizomes colonise new ground with great rapidity; I shall have to watch it like a hawk!). However, last week I cleared a patch of ground about 8 m x 5 m. I need hardly say that the xanthorrhiza had become a repository for many other evils, brambles, yellow archangel, ivy and the rest.

Here first is the xanthorrhiza before removal, followed by the full barrow (destined to go to the tip in a large dumpy bag), and the newly cleared patch of ground.

You will see that once the weeds were removed from the remaining soil (including the dreadfully pernicious mouse plant, Arisarum probiscoideum) a liner was reavealed. I had sunk this quarter of a century earlier in an attempt to keep tree roots from the new plantings. At least it had the effect of keeping the remains of the weeds above the liner. Most of the remining soil was consigned to a hedge bottom where it can do no harm. The liner was then cut away to reveal subsoil which was forked over and the remains of the compost heap barrowed in (five full loads). This had the further benefit of freeing-up a new compost heap; as stated last time the one in use had become very full.

Then as usual here I planted in on top of the unmodified compost, seedling meconopsis and primulas as usual; also some lilies. However, pride of place went to a collection of rescued roscoeas. I love roscoeas, but they do not suit this disorderly garden by appearing very late, from mid-June to early July. Consequently, they are often overgrown, or emerge to find that something has been inadvertedly planted on top of them. I was able to rescue seven different species or hybrids, which after division resulted in 13 plants

This is the time of the lily. New to flower here is what may be Lilium langkongense. I don't think I actually germinated this, but bought at a plant sale a pot of seedlings which took my fancy as it is a species I have seen in the wild. Four years and two repots later three of the seedlings have flowered. The pot lives on the terrace in summer but is brought into the floor of the alpine house in winter.

Lilium langkongense

This is a plant I had seen in 2011 beside the road to the Da Xue Shan (Yunnan/Sichuan border), not far above the village, Weng Shui, where we (for want of a better term) slept. Although the flowers look similar (although a great deal paler), the stem leaves are very different.

Lilium langkongense

However, the real star here at the moment is Lilium nepalense. I featured this last year, but the original bulbs have now been augmented by seedlings and there will be 14 flowers in a large pot. In this case the bulbs are overwintered in dry peat in the garage. However, one of a pair of spare seedlings that had been planted out in the open ground near the pond two years ago has also flowered, so this precaution has been apparently unnecessary, at least over the last couple of (mild) winters. At the Joint Rock Garden Committee meeting I attended at Cambridge three weeks ago, a pan was awarded a Award of Merit. With undue immodesty I can claim this pot-full to be even better.

Lilium nepalense

I have enjoyed this trough with the splendid little campanula hybrid 'Covadonga'.

On a quite different scale has been Campanula incurva, that large monocarpic bellflower from low levels in eatsern Greece. This was one of many successful introductions by the AGS MESE expedition in 1999. It remains in the alpine house, but I shall probably bring it out for the garden visits next Sunday (the alpine houses will be out of bounds). Its sprawling habit makes it difficult to photograph in its entirety.

Campanula incurva

Another huge plant in the alpine house is Onosma nana, planted in the bulb plunge which is presently very dry. This is one of three onosmas that I grow this way. Their only requirement is to be cut back savagely after flowering.

Onosma nana

Spawning seedlings is a stimulus to provide homes for them. I have finished planting two of the new 'fishbox' (in fact expanded polystyrene packaging) containers, emptied, refilled and replanted two more, and replanted this 'rock pot'. I made two small rock pots from flattish pieces of sandstone cemented together back in the 1970's and they have remaned substantially unbtouched since. One housed nothing but Saxifraga retusa which has persisted but had essentially stopped flowering. I bunged up one end with a piece of home made tufa, and replanted it with bits of the sax and seedlings of other things.

The other rock pot has antique specimens of Saxifraga hostii subsp. hostii and S. crustata which have persisted untroubled for several decades. What splendid plants silver saxifrages are!

Of course the field season is in full swing and it is proving a good year locally for orchids. One find resulted from a telephone call from a friend who found a colony of frog orchids (Dactylohriza viridis to use its new combination) in a local meadow. As our only remaining colony was down to a handful of plants each year, this stand (nearly 30 plants) was a welcome find. For a  small and pretty uncharismatic orchid, this specimen was surprisingly impressive.

Dactylorhiza viridis
Go to top
Back to List of Entries for A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

You can add your comments on the content of this diary entry by starting a discussion, but you need to login first