A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: 10 June 2017 by John Richards
Northumberland Diary. Entry 340.
So, after three trips abroad in five months, we are now solidly rooted for the foreseeable (barring occasional forways southwards), time to tame the wilderness which swamps this plot at this time of year. This overwhelming rush of invasive greenery often seems to arrive overnight, particularly when it rains. Indeed, over the two weeks of our absence in Italy the garden leapt from spring into summer, and that was almost without rain. In fact, we returned in the nick, just in time to rescue many items from drought exhaustion. And since then, since the Bakewell Show, it has rained, and rained, and rained. Suddenly, waterlogging rather than watering is uppermost in my mind. The lawn is sodden, far too wet for a much-needed haircut and the barrow half-full of rainwater. Our fickle climate!
As I say, things have moved on apace, so that several of the following items are no longer current. I had hoped that this super i Dodecatheon hendersonii would last for the Bakewell Show, but not a chance!
I had also hoped to show off, as well as show, two excellent plants of the next subject, but as seen in the accompanying photograph, it was already going over. I am particularly pleased with Minuartia pseudosaxifraga as it was introduced, probably for the first time, by the MESE Expedition to northern Greece which I led in 1999, and this may have been the only introduction. I had lost it from the original sending, so I was delighted to see it listed on a seed list three years ago, and I now have two lusty cushions. This is the most desirable of all the sandworts, forming quite tight regular cushions covered with surprisingly large flowers of a good white. It is very localised in the wild and most of its stations are on the Timfi massif, from where we introduced it. It grows in fairly vertical sites, embedded in breccia, and is extremely hardy. I grow it plunged under glass and doubt if it would be as successful in an outdoors position.
While we are on the subject of the MESE Expedition to northern Greece, another successful introduction I hear relatively little of is the heather relative from wet acidic mountains in the Balkans, Bruckenthalia spiculifolia. I find this trouble-free in a relatively well-drained site, although it should never dry out. In fact my two plants have successfully overcome considerable neglect over nearly two decades. I finally lifted one which now lives in a large plastic pot, outside, and is flowering now.
Two more subjects from one of the alpine houses, both planted out in the sand plunge. Firstly, Saxifraga petraea. This very attractive but enormously sticky saxifrage is I believe quite rare in cultivation (as it is in the wild, known from a few caves in the Lake Garda district). It is short-lived, but I let it shed some seed before I cut it back and always have a supply of self-sown seedlings. Some seed into home-made tufa.
Peeking into the last photo you can see a bit of Primula bullata v forrestii. I have a couple of seedlings planted out into the sand-plunge where they have grown enormously and are much happier than in troughs. In the following picture you can also see Rehmannia angulata, Stachys candida and Verbascum 'Letitia'.
One cannot of course have everything. One of the curses and joys of gardening is that seasons are so short, and congested. If unalloyed pleasure continued unabated for twelve months of the year, would the pleasure remain unalloyed? Of such musings is philosophy born. My very favourite plant (with the possible exception of the divine Jancaea which continues to provide an annual delight) must be that minature poppy Meconopsis delavayi. Naturally, much of the enjoyment comes from the knowledge that I can grow it (usually) and most folk can't, a sort of reverse schadenfreude. And it is very lovely. This year, my best plant boasted 20 flowers, and I was in Italy for 19 of them. Was a Farrer ever given to a tiny poppy?
Nevertheless, there have been some great mecs while I was here and I took a few to the Bakewell Show. Three greatly surprised themselves by earning a red ticket ('are you sure my dear?, we certainly aren't alpines'). Here is Meconopsis dhwojii, not looking quite her best.
Unlike many mecs, Meconopsis racemosa is not really difficult; indeed it often self-sows here, especially in fishboxes. This group arose from a silvery blue mother, featured two years ago and has thrown some whites.
A modicum of selection (keeping seed of what I regarded as the best parents) has led to some stunning selections, some of which approach the best M. horridula, a high alpine species usualy regarded as ungrowable, unlike the less specialist M. racemosa, M. prattii and M. rudis.
Of course, the bad news is that these are all effectively biennial and certainly monocarpic, so that they have to be raised from seed. The good news is that they are, at least in my conditions, straightforward, and the short generation time does give the opportunity for selection of good strains.
I confess to having had a similar experience with Meconopsis 'Keillour Violet'. Quite what this is, botanically, I am unsure, probably derivative from a short-lived form of M. grandis. Whatever, one of this years seedlings, saved from my own seed, has belied its name to produce flowers of a good pink, quite the measure of the late lamented M. sherriffii.
Perhaps my favourite of all the monocarpics is the wonderful, well-named Meconopsis superba with its black stigmas. With its splendid winter-silver rosettes, this provides 12 month value, until it finally ups and flowers. It seems to have no set flowering time. One of his years crop has finished and another has scarcely headed while the third is still asleep, flower-wise.
Elsewhere the 'blues' have to fight for their place in the jungle. Here is a typical 'melange' in which Meconopsis 'Alaska', M. baileyi and M. racemosa struggle with a self-sown Dactylorhiza. In the second, a large white aquilegia and Gladiolus communis are involved. None of these plants were actually planted where they ended up; they just chose their abode. These photos encapsulate well the style of this garden (or lack of it) at this time of year.
While we are about it, here is another 'melange', this time from the front garden. For many I suspect such unholy messes are anathema. I love them!
Time perhaps to concentrate on a few alpine subjects. I am not fantastically successful with New Zealand alpines, certainly less so than in my last Hexham garden but that was 30 years ago, with a cooler climate and less dissolved nitrogen from car exhausts. However, I am slightly encouraged by Leucogynes leontopodium (so-called 'North Island Edelweiss') this year, although six flowers is no great boast.
Another 'true alpine' which I have been fortunate to see in the wild in Ten-Sleep Canyon, that vast limestone valley in Utah, is Petrophytum hendersonii. I purchased a small plant four years ago and attempted to ape its habitat by sticking it in a north-facing limestone crevice. It has been very slow, but it has grown, and this year produced three of its squirrel-tail inflorescences.
I finally found a site that pleased Bulbinella hookeri. This is a plant I can't kill, but rarely grow well.
A few things have excelled themselves. Having had a rocky relationship with Primula malvacea (which hates to be too hot or too wet, won't grow outside, and is difficult to 'wake up' in spring, I finally grew a good plant (several sister seedlings failed).
Primula polyneura was one of the first asiatic primulas I ever grew, but I had been without it for many years, which was foolish as it is a good plant and not difficult. I now have it established from three sources (under different names), hopefully for good.
Time to go out, maybe in a blaze of glory, with my introduction of Paeonia peregrina from wild seed from Pangeon. This is one of the largest peonies, and what a wonderful colour!