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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 29 June 2008 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 80.

Controlled chaos.

Of course there are some parts of the garden where I attempt a fairly rigid control over plants grown; the alpine terrace, primula beds, troughs and scree. However, most other, slightly more extensive (in the agricultural sense) plantings are much less planned. There is quite a long list of attractive and even desirable species that sow around rather too freely here. With half an acre to maintain I have long since recognised that the pragmatic policy is to allow these to cover the ground, thus outcompeting the worst of the weeds, but to make sure that a given species does not get out of hand, and is not allowed to smother a less invasive neighbour. In particular, selective deadheading is important, to make sure that none of these 'pretty thugs' gets to predominate. I thought it might be of interest to make a list these overenthusiastic charges.

Alchemilla mollis, Aquilegia atrata, A. pyrenaica, Caltha himalaica, Dierama igneum, Digitalis davisiana, D. purpurea, Euphorbia dulcis 'Chameleon', E. flavicoma, Geranium macrorrhizum 'album', G. sanguineum, G. 'Wargrave Pink' (and similar), Hypericum olympicum, Leucanthemum vulgare, Lychnis coronaria (pale pink form), Lysimachia 'Firecracker', Meconopsis cambrica (orange forms selected), Pentaglottis sempervirens (harvested at this time of year to make an excellent 'green manure'), Polemonium carneum, P. caeruleum (from 'Sonia's Bluebell'), Primula florindae, Tellima grandiflora, Thalictrum aquilegifolium.

Here is one of the most invasive, Hypericum olympicum, which I have to deadhead rigorously, but such a cheerful presence at midsummer

Controlled chaos.

I see another three on the list had crept into the photo above, which tends to make my point! (Caltha himalaica, Geranium sanguineum and Primula florindae).

I thought I would feature next a few subjects that have to battle with some of the 'pretty thug' crew, to the extent that sometimes I only find them (half-buried) when I do some selective clearance. This is certainly true of the following arisaemas. Any subjects that come into growth late are potentially threatened and this is also true of roscoeas.

I am fairly sure that this arisaema is A. consanguineum. This has left a few self-sown seedlings, so threatening to join the pretty (or perhaps in this case 'ugly') thug crew.

I am much less sure of the identity of the next subject, as it came from wild Chinese seed merely labelled 'Arisaema sp'. I have some sympathy with this. Usually the collector will be faced with a spike of berries, yielding few if any clues to its identity. I think this might be a form of A. erubescens?

We have acquired many penstemons here, but very few have persisted. As a genus, they don't seem to like us at all. One of the very few exceptions is the subshrub featured next, which may or may not be P. campanulatus 'pulchellus'. This is another plant that tends to be swamped by self-sowing neighbours (especially Polemonium carneum in this instance), and I have to free it up as it comes into flower.

One of many interesting subjects grown from Jurasek seed last year came under the name Gentiana atuntsiensis. Grown in a pot in, perhaps, rather too much shade, this has proved a rather tall (25 cm) and floppy subject, but with flowers that even for a gentian are of the most penetrating blue. This species does not figure in the AGS Enclyclopedia, nor can it be 'Googled', but my rather ancient copy of 'The Plant Finder' shows that it had also been introduced by the Rankins about five years previously. Clearly, it is a relative of G. trichotoma, but that species usually has flowers of a darker blue.

Atuntse is the ancient name for the town of Dechen (Deqen), squeezed into the defile between the Beima Shan and Me Lai in the very north-westernmost corner of Yunnan. By the Beima Shan road last summer we saw plenty of a gentian in early bud that at the time we assigned to G. trichotoma, but now I tend to think it must have been G. atuntsiensis.

Moving onto subjects featuring in the alpine terrace at present, I want to start with the wonderful cushions of Azorella trifurcata. Given good drainage and plenty of fresh air, this extraordinary umbellifer from Patagonia is troublefree here. Two years ago I refurbished this part of the terrace, which involved lifting large cushions of the azorella. They appeared to be largely without root, but when they were plumped down on the new soil, and pegged in, they grew away with little complaint and are now better than ever. Some plants appear to like the protection of the cushions and two daphnes have done well, completely surrounded by the azorella.

New soil has also stimulated flowering in another lovely cushion. I had been happy to grow this dianthus merely for its perfect bluish foliage. As it has not flowered for some years, I harboured the conceit that it was D. pavonius, as it was grown  from 1996 AGS seed so labelled. However, now it is in flower, the fringed petals, short epicalyx scales and one-veined blunt leaves show it to be D. plumarius. Whatever, it is a lovely thing.

Another lateish subject on the terrace is the 'Balkan heather' Bruckenthalia spiculifolia. I grow this in two places, from different accessions. One is from Bulgarian seed I collected in the southern Pirin in 2001, and the other was collected on Greek Smolikas during the AGS MESE expedition in 1999. In the wild it is a plant of very wet acidic peat (although with flowing water), but in the garden it seems perfectly happy with good drainage as long as it never dries out. I suspect it loathes lime, but this is no problem here.

More roses

Last week I featured one of our big climbing roses, and as they are such a feature of the garden at present I am showing five more. We grow no hybrid teas, polyanthus, English roses and the like, but we do have about a dozen shrubs, ramblers or climbers which fit into the garden much more sympathetically.

First are a couple of climbers we bought; 'Albertine' (with a 'Jackmanii' clematis), and Rosa alba.

More roses

Next, two shrubs, both 'inherited' from previous owners. The first is certainly that wonderful plant 'Nevada'. The second seems to have been bred by a friend of the last owners and was raised from R. rugosa. I would hazard a guess that the other parent was R. moyesii.

Finally, the tallest of all, which I suppose must be 'Wedding Day'. I love the way the flowers open biscuit-coloured and then bleach to white.

A couple of wild flowers to finish with. It would have been scarcely credible when we arrived here almost 40 years ago that bee orchids would grow within the town boundary. These are plants of the southern chalk hills! But Ophrys apifera has crept north in reponse to climate change over the the intervening years, and now occurs in a number of sites in our county, enjoying the good drainage and relatively base-rich soils that various industrial reclamations often offer. It was first found in Hexham four years ago, and this year there are three fine spikes.

'Broomrapes', Orobanche, are so-called because one species only, O. rapum-genistae, does indeed infect broom, Cytisus, and gorse, Ulex. It is a very local species, but we are lucky to have several sites nearby. It does not appear every year, but no less than nine spikes have appeared at one of our stations this summer.

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