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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 20 June 2014 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 275.

Midsummer Blues

Here we are, half-way through already. In fact, this is turning out to be a half-decent summer so far. Although we are not anything like so far advanced as the south of the country, it has mostly been mild, warm at times, and mostly dry for two weeks or so.

As yet I have not felt the need to water outside, but there is no rain in the forecast, and I think I shall have to get the hose out this weekend. Given this type of weather at the time of longest days, I have to move some things about. Primulas in the Alpine House mostly go 'under the bench', which means the floor here as the plunges have solid sides. However, on the north side of the plunge they are protected from the direct sunlight, and here they are joined by subjects which have been recently repotted. Seedlings, too, have to be cossetted. Some stay in full light, but primulas, meconopsis and other sensitive souls are moved to a humid, semi-shaded sunken path where the cool air lingers.

The garden is entering its manic phase, or which more anon. Many of the more attractive subjects are indeed blue, like Corydalis omeiensis, which has formed a large mat well over a metre across.

Midsummer Blues

Just round the corner, the true Meconopsis betonicifolia has formed a large clump, now of some five years standing. Here it is the tallest of all the blue mecs, standing head-high (well, my head at 1.75 m anyway), and is long-lasting, making the best blue mec in the garden this year. It sets good seed, and last year I planted out several more seedlings in another part of the garden which have established well. The jury is still out as to whether this material is pure or hybrid, but the seedlings are an exact carbon-copy of their parents.

Another 'big blue' is Cicerbita alpina, which also stands head-high, rather excessive for one of our rarest Scottish alpines!

Talking of excessive height, there is no doubt that the warm still conditions, high humidity and reasonable soil moisture have contributed to some record growth, not least for my Cardiocrinum. This group, which is now more than a decade old, has produced two flowering spikes this year. Because of the colour and the dark stem, I have tended to call these C. yunnanense, but this year the taller stem has towered to well over 3 m, approaching 4 m I would say, and this .is tall, even for C. giganteum.

One more blue, this time in the alpine house. As is inevitably the case, plants did not perform for the new Bakewell Show last weekend, many being past their best, and Campanula 'Joe Elliott' only just starting. It is now approaching its best. What a super thing, with many of the best features of both its illustrious parents, C. morettiana and C. raineri, but a lot easier to grow.

Losing control

As I say, its a fecund time of year. Down on the terrace, primulas, polemoniums and others combine to make a largely self-sown riot of colour.

Losing control

Foliage has now matured, so that the 50 or more small trees we have introduced add a good deal of shelter and dappled shade. This gives the garden a completely different character in summer, compared with the winter and spring.

The last picture was taken to show the dominance of Geranium x oxonianum in many of the less cultivated parts of the garden in summer. We did not introduce this highly invasive ground-cover; it was here already when we arrived 25 years ago. Despite being hybrid, it is at least partly fertile, and seedlings arise in many areas. These are easily removed, as indeed are the great mats of foliage, which make an excellent 'green manure' for the compost heap, although take care not to try and compost the rootstocks which do not break down easily, and often sprout again after years in the heap! It is quite a pretty thing however, and does cover the ground effectively, so that even Ground Elder (Aegopodium) cannot outcompete it.

The biggest danger with the geranium is that it grows so fast, that it often swamps lesser subjects. This is a particular danger with plants which emerge late, such as roscoeas. I am forever forgetting where I have planted roscoeas, and as they rarely appear before mid June in this garden, I have lost several in this manner.

R. humeana, in a robust, mid-pink form, has flowered early this year.

As an aggressive, invasive ground-cover, Hypericum olympicum almost competes with the geranium, although it prefers sunnier, better-drained locations. Nevertheless, I am fond of it as it reminds me of the Greek mountains in the summer, and I have learnt that the secret is to religiously dead-head it when it finishes flowering. This not only prevents seedling, but trims the plants (shears will do) so that they are kept in character. I cut back the aubrietas at the same time.

The hypericum is only one of several plants which I have learnt must be dead-headed, if the garden is not to be swamped by seedlings. Aquilegias are prime targets. I try to leave a few seed-heads of my favourite colours,, good dark blues, bicolors etc, but about now I remove seed-heads of all the dusky pinks, purples, whites and 'Norah Barlow' abominations. Another must-dead-head is Thalictrum aquilegifolium, which contributes enormously at this time of year, but is hugely invasive if not cut back. Primula florindae is another species I have to remove every capsule from.

A plant with which I maintain a delicate relationship is the 'Scarlet Peril', Tropaeolum speciosum. This tends to smother my rhodos, so is ripped off in evil-smelling chunks once it has finished flowering. However, if all the seed is taken, there is a danger that it will not reappear at all (it is difficult to transplant, although seedlings gifted to a neighbour have flourished and she now has it flowering spectacularly through a closely clipped Leyland hedge). This year it is flowering early, and looks great in combination with Pieris 'Little Heath'.

Another more-or-less intentional combination we are proud of is Physocarpus opulifolius 'Diabolo' in combaintion with a very late-flowering, unnamed rhododendron which we inherited and brought back to health.

A few later-flowering alpines. I have only grown this North Island Edelweiss, Leucogynes leotopodium for less than two years, but it seems to have settled in a raised bed in partial shade and has produced a few flowers.

I am amused to see the price-tag still in the last photo; a bit like 7/6d on the Mad Hatter's hat!

Saxifraga cf pedemontana from Turkey, introduced by Vojtech Holubec, surely the most easterly of the 'mossies' is a good thing, and has formed a long-flowering, attractive cushion in the sand-bed.


Another long-stayer is Primula mollis, in a shaded fish-box, which has now flowered for two months and shows no sign of stopping.

I believe I have discussed Lactuca intricata before. Although rather leggy and never making a great show, this Greek subject, introduced in 1999 by the MESE expedition, is easy and persistent, and is one of those strange subjects that never seems to set viable seed, but does leave a few self-sown seedlings from time to time. It prefers stony screes, and curiously, seems to enjoy partial shade.

Just above the Lactuca grows another MESE introduction, the dwarf Rosa heckeliana, grown principally for its excellent hips.

One final dwarf shrub introduced from wild seed, but this time from the Auvergne on a family holiday when the children were young, more than 30 years ago. Chamaepartium sagittale is quite well-known in cultivation, but should perhaps be grown more as it forms an excellent late-flowering subject for a bank or wall.

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