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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 20 June 2013 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 247.

Demise of Moorbank Gardens

Only two days ago, we heard from the landlords of the University of Newcastle Botanic Garden, Moorbank, the Freemen of the City, concerning its future (the University is relinquishing the garden at the end of November).

The Freemen will take complete control of the Gardens. It is clear that they do not envisage continued useage compatible with the aims of a Botanic Garden, or the opening of the garden to the public (which was our plan), and they have made it clear verbally that after this date that volunteers at the Botanic Garden will not be welcome on site.

It is clear that the costs associated with the maintenance of the present collections are such that it would not be possible for the Garden to continue in its present form without a contributory partner. Our plan was that the site be used as an environmental programme satellite for a college who would then pay our overheads. In this way the collections would be preserved, enhanced, and opened to the public on a regular basis. We believe that this would best comply with the Charitable Objectives of the Freemen.

We offered the Freemen the stark choice between this positive, socially and environmentally beneficial plan; and the closure of the garden. In the latter case we envisage that within a year most of the thousands of valuable and interesting plants will be dead, stinking and rotten, or smothered with weeds.

We accept that the Freemen are the landowners and have the future of this invaluable asset to the North-East of England in their hands. If this tragic decision is the decision of all the Stewards, and thus of the Freemen as a whole, we must, with a heavy heart accept it. The future of the garden is in their hands.

And, back home.....

And now for the good (-ish) news. It may surprise many of you to learn that, here in the North-East, we are really having quite a nice late spring and early summer. Of course April was exceptionally cold (as was March), and the spring remarkably late, but since the middle of May, or even earlier, it has actually been quite reasonable and average. It has been dry, the rivers and reservoirs are low, the shallow soils of wild sites (limestone and whin grasslands, river gravels) burnt up and the annual floras shrivelled. Even some of the wild orchids are looking dry. It has not been hot, but pleasant most days (16-20C), and not particularly windy. 

Looking at weather forecasts, I realise that this pleasant picture has not necessarily been repeated everywhere, and East Anglia in particular seems to have had a miserable early summer, gloomy, cold and windy. It is even possible that we have become so innured to bad weather 'oop here' that anything less has seemed positively balmy.

However the real acid test is in the garden, and I can tell you that I have started watering in the garden as a whole, and I have had to work quite hard to make sure that seedlings and pot plants have remained damp. To the gardener here it has felt like a normal, or even rather warm, period of the year.

Certainly, we have masses of colour. For many years I have felt that mid-June was the peak season in our garden. I have pressed for garden visits, tours etc to concentrate on June, rather than earlier in the spring. Certainly many of the alpine house subjects are well over, but for a real garden spectacle, you can't beat this time of year.

As an example, here are two views of the terrace, followed by one of Sheila's perennials.

And, back home.....

Meconopsis melee

The big blue meconopsis may have been delayed this year (and caused the RHS Joint Rock subcommittee which were assessing trials for AGM status some headaches and extra mileage), but they are now at their best, and making quite a show here. The Committee has now decided which clones to put forward for AGM status (not ratified yet and so not repeated here as yet), but suffice it to say that some of the following are likely to be so enobled.

First though, a sight of the polyglot primary colours in the bed I keep for most of the species. In the following picture red = M. punicea, purple = M. x cookei 'Old Rose', sky-blue = M. baileyi and mauve = plants from seed sent as M. baileyi 'Hensol Violet', but which in fact seem to be a mauve monocarpic form of M. grandis.

Meconopsis melee

Two more species before we start on the 'big blues'. First, the amethyst strain of M. aculeata, and then the real (Chinese) M. betonicifolia (or some say, possibly a hybrid of it), which is I suppose a 'big blue'.

Some of the M. baileyi is here are soundly perennial and have formed big clumps.

Now for some of the 'big blue' hybrids. First 'Slieve Donard' and 'P.C. Abildgaard' which are giant members of thre so-called 'infertile blue group'. They may represent primary hybrids between M. grandis and M. baileyi. The latter clone is of Danish origin and we learn it means 'Applegarden'. 

Meconopsis 'Mrs Jebb' is another (smaller neater) infertile blue, while 'Mophead' is partly fertile. This may be because it has arisen from backcrosses from the fertile 'Lingholm' to M. baileyi, although all such ideas are speculation.

Of course there are many other wonderful big blue poppies, and even here we grow others such as 'Lingholm' (which, being fertile is remarkably variable), and members of the 'George Sherriff group' such as 'Huntfield' (although in general the GS group do not seem to do quite as well here). There is a lot of difference between many of the clones, and if they do for you, it is certainly worth trying several. All you need is a deep fertile soil, shelter, and humidity; things that we have in abundance. However, I have to work at it. Beds get tree roots in, and ineradicable weeds, and become overgrown, so that like the Mad Hatters Teaparty, I have to move on, return to the compost heap and leaf mould pile, and build another new bed. If you are on a shallow chalky soil, they are probably harder work, but despite their reputation, given the right conditions I doubt if there are many gardens anywhere in the country where they are ungrowable.

Next to the species mec bed I grow the stately Cicerbita alpina, originating from Norwegian seed, I believe. This is a great rarity in the Scottish Highlands, but I think is well worth a place in the garden.




Elsewhere the Wisteria is appraching its best. Wisteria floribunda is a long-term project, and although we planted it the best part of 20 years ago, only now is it making a real impact. It is planted on the edge of a thick concrete platform (originally the basis for a child's swing, not ours, some long-ago children) surrounded by a battered trellis (we did put that up, to hide the swing). Originally it was meant to climb up the trellis, but has since commandeered a skyborne pyracantha, which has provided a much more robust framework. The good news is that it is so starved, and suffers so much root competition that we never have to prune it, and yet it still covers itself with flowers. This is the rule with wisteria, starve, and never overfeed or give rich soil. Remember that it is a nitrogen fixer.




Thi is a good time for the later alpines. Several dianthus are thriving, for instance 'La Bourbille', such a good plant, which gently sows around and says true. The big plant is in an old expanded polystyrene container, the sort that was used to protect acid bottles.

There are some lovely D. subacaulis and some D. alpina hybrids around now too. Several campanulas are coming to their best. I have only owned C. chamissonis a few months, but it is already starting to impress. Interestingly, I grew the same species from seed last year and planted seedlings out in the same bed, but these have failed to thrive whereas the bought plant seems to be a success.

Paeonia veitchii was a seed-raised plant too, and was put out into three parts of the garden three years ago. It has started to flower in each for the first time.

I originally acquired Celmisia hieracifolia from Alan Furness as a rooted cutting a number of years ago, and planted it in a fishbox trough kept for the smaller celmisias. It looked sufficiently promising to be carefully dug up for last week's Southport Show where it was admired. This is a rare species in cultivation, one of the few celmisias which is commoner on New Zealand North Island than in the South where it is largely limited to the Mount Stokes district. It is a true alpine growing at about 1000 m altitude, and is not fast growing. There is a nearby, larger, relative, C. dallii, but its other cousin, C. holosericea is a denizen of the deep south. Alreadt it is back in the ground, and looks none the worse for its outing.

It is less than a couple of months since I showed pictures of Arum concinnatum growing in the wild in Crete, and I mentioned there that I grow it from Cretan seed  collected many years ago on an August holiday, but that it rarely flowered. I think it must have heard me as it is flowering abundantly now. Perhaps the dry spring has helped it along (the foliage is dying back which happens in Crete too). Mine is a lot less robust, but has pretty lemon-yellow spadices, which you can't see here.

Finally, many of the above were originally grown from seed, but that was certainly not the (intentional) case for these dactylorhizas which appeared throughout my troughs unaided. I think they are hybrids with the native D. purpurella, which I also have and which arrived on the wind (it is common enough around here). The other was probably D. maderensis, which since disappeared after a hard winter, but left its babies behind.

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