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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 15 June 2010 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 151.

Back home, weeding!

Well, the pictures of Daphne petraea seem to have gone down well, so I guess I shall essay one or two more instalments of our Italian holiday in the next few weeks. However, the garden is throbbing, positively crying out for attention, so I shall stay at home for this episode and perhaps stray abroad again next week.

It had been cold during much of our exodus, with light rain on many days, but just before we returned there had been a hot dry spell, and our expert waterer (and if you can guess who it is, he really IS expert!) had called in a few times and most things were in good nick. The lawn needed a cut, unsurprisingly, and there was (still is!) a heap of weeding to do. Public enemy no. 1 at this time of year (almost any time in the summer) is the vetch Vicia sepium. All I can really do is to pull the stems, reaching down to the bottom, before the seed ripens (which is does very quickly). There is a lot else to do as well, not least deadheading (bluebells especially if I am not to have a garden full of bluebells). I also take great care to deadhead all the Primula denticulata and aquilegias for the same reason.

However, the really urgent job is pricking out seedlings, especially after such a good year for germination. I did some before I left, but am now up to 270 seedlings of 40 items. There are 35 items left, not counting 12 pots of bulb seed which are left in situ. A few things I have potted straight on as a small clump into a crock pot and left in a shady place. I tend to do this with really tricky subjects, this year Androsace brevis for instance.

Despite the chaos, the garden looks lovely!

Back home, weeding!

This photo shows the terrace area with the 'sumps' containing candelabra primulas. Here is one of these, featuring yellow P. prolifera and scarlet P. 'Inverewe', two of my favourites.

Before we proceed, mention of Androsace brevis reminds me to note that other very tricky subjects such as Androsace bisulca, Primula nanobella , P. walshii  and Gentiana orbicularis look good so far in their shady plunge and have all put on quite a bit of growth. It is my contention that many alpines make most of their season's growth shortly after flowering. Consequently, if they are to be repotted, this should occur immediately after flowering, so they can take advantage of new soil, and it is vital then that they are NOT stressed; cool and damp is the order of the day, and not too much light. They are getting 18-20 hours a day anyway. And it is a good time to give them liquid feed. There are only a few alpines (dionysias and Primula allionii of course, Androsace vandelii) that are not better outside, cool and damp at this critical phase, than cooking in the alpine house. While they are in active growth they will not rot or get botrytis. The end of the summer, August, is a different matter and many are better back under cover by then.

Amongst the plants which have done well under glass is Paraquilegia anemonoides and I am happy to say that one has set seed (DON'T write!, there isn't that much!). I am sure this is a plant where it is vital to have two, as they are self-incompatible, and won't set seed by themselves. I didn't cross them, but there were plenty of bees in the glasshouse then.

Time for more pictures. I am sure that effete southerners expect hardy northerners to grow exotic subjects like blue poppies and nomocharis. I don't want to upset well-worn prejudices!

This is the time of the big mecs of course, and I want to devote a few portraits to these, amongst my favourite plants. Having built up big rosettes after one, two, or in one case even three years, several are flowering now. Thats it of course, they are monocarpic, but should leave tons of seed! First, here is a plant I have been nursing under the misapprehension that it was the blue M. wallichii, which is what it said on the outside of the seed packet, and which it resembled vegetatively. In fact it just seems to be M. paniculata, but nice anyway!

The 'Ghunza form' (have I spelt that right?),distributed by the Aberconwy Nursery, with its wonderful golden rosettes, is flowering now too. Is it also a paniculata? In any case, it is rather later to flower.

I see that the back of the last photo features Primula sikkimensis in a dwarf form, and P. flaccida. Back to the mecs. These were grown from my own seed set on a plant that I fondly imagined was M. latifolia. Greatly to my surprise, the parent has survived child-birth and is also flowering again for the third year. But it isn't a M. baileyi, surely?

After the sneak preview of some summer-flowering primulas, here are a couple more, both in section Sikkimensis. First is the lovely rosy form of P. alpicola, classified within v. violacea, but much better than many of the muddy purples so-called. I have been trying for some years to get one as good as this, and now have some here and at the Botanic Garden, Moorbank. They are good perennials and I should enjoy them for some years.

This lovely plant has come to me this year from at least two independent sources, originating from wild-collected seed. With the distinctive rosy staining to the ice-white flowers it is a super thing. I think the best name for it is P. hopeana, which I increasingly regard as a species. I have pins and thrums, so hope that seed may set.

Oh!, the 'confetti' in the last picture results from my habit of pushing fishboxes containing primulas well under shady shrubs in the summer. In this case a Viburnum plicatum 'Mairesii'.

Like most of the shrubs here, the viburnum was untouched by the severe winter. As it is deciduous, this is not very surprising. However, the continued well-being of a number of supposedly tender evergreens which have been cut to the ground in previous hard spells over the last 20 years, but were untouched by the much more severe weather last winter continues to amaze. I note that John David of the RHS is conducting a survey of how plants fared last winter, and if you want to take part, email him at  A good example here is Olearia macrodonta which gets damaged most winters, but is in perfect nick, and now in flower.

Here are a couple more examples, Crinodendron hookerianum, with Cardiocrinum yunnanense budded underneath, and Embothrium coccineum, two supposedly tender Chilean subjects. Unlike everything else pictured so far, the latter is not my plant, but is flowering in the sheltered quarry at Blagdon, north of Newcastle where we had a most enjoyable visit last Thursday.

Mention of Blagdon encourages me to mention how what I think must be Ixiolirion tartaricum has been naturalised by Lord Ridley in the hay meadow outside Boston House, where he keeps his excellent collection of Aesculus. Most accounts of this relatively little known bulb of a startling dark blue say that it needs a summer baking, which is will certainly not receive here. I thought this was a really good way to treat a subject which can be straggly in other circumstances.

Last year I grew some Incarvilleas from seed under the name I. zhongdianensis 'alba'. I never saw such plants in the wild (although we did see some startling pale pinks), but it has turned out to be a stunning subject, only just starting to flower in this picture. The normal rose-coloured form is flowering here too. I. mairei is still in bud.

To finish with, one of the many good summer alpines collected by the MESE expedition in northern Greece. This came from the north shore of the little lake 'Drakolimni' on Smolikas, and is probably Minuartia attica.

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