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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 05 March 2009 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 106.

Down south

We are back from a brief visit to the south, visiting the family, and the large and impressive Harlow Show. My snowdrops wilted in a brilliant shaft of sunlight that cooked just that bit of table they were on, so I upped and went to see some wild ones instead.

In between, just two of many wonderful plants on display. First is a terrific cross between Crocus angustifolius and C. flavus. I have lost the cultivar name, but admire it very much.

Down south

Second, here is Eric and Doreen Webster's Primula fedtschekoi. This remarkable and attractive species comes from areas of central Asia where is grows in wet slutch in spring which dries out to a brick-like consistency in summer, when the plant goes dormant. It is best treated as one would a Juno Iris, and the Websters say they never repot it, so being potbound may help it to flower. Having said that, this is only the third time it has flowered in 20 years. Most if not all plants in cultivation have originated from Gothenburg Botanic Garden. The plant I grew originally was handed over by Henrik Zetterlund at a Scottish weekend; he kept the wizened little dried roots in a sweetie packet in his pocket. I grew it for 15 years and flowered it twice!

Audley End
I am not sure why I went to Audley End, except that it is fairly handy for Harlow, and there was something at the back iof my mind that it was famous for snowdrops. I had forgotten about the amazing 'crinkle-crankle' box hedges!

Audley End

There sure are a lot of snowdrops though! Here are a couple of vistas.

Galanthus 'Audley End'
Galanthophiles love minutiae, and I noticed that many plants ay Audley End almost lacked any green markings on the flower and often had four long segments. In this they were I suppose 'semi-poculiforms'.

Galanthus 'Audley End'

Incidentally, they were nothing like G. Atkinsii 'James Backhouse' that also sometimes throws four outer segments.

A few days later I took a short walk to the Reading University Botanic Garden that lies just across the campus from my mother's house. It seems to have been a good spring for reticulata irises, and Reading had a super display of Iris 'Harmony'. This used to be a good doer for me too, but I lost it to Ink Disease, and I think it has become scarce.

Noble rhodos
The very early-flowering nobleanum rhododendron hybrids provide welcome colour at this time of year, but are of course very susceptible to frosted flowers. I was pleased to see a variety named 'venustum' in flower at Reading. It is perhaps not as good as the 'Christmas Cheer' I grow. This has been lovely, but is now badly damaged. The photo is of 'venustum'.

Noble rhodos

Not all rhodos are as susceptible to frost. After a year off, my own Rh. barbatum is lovely this year, with more than 40 trusses. The last two nights here have gone down to -5C, and 'Christmas Cheer' and Rh. x cilipense are the colour of old teabags. Not so Rh. barbatum which is largely undamaged.

Thius gives me a chance to concentrate on that rather neglected corner of the garden where the rhodo. grows. At present this is full of snowdrops, and Helleborus 'Early Purple Group' still gives a display. The bed is edged with old tree trunk slices which have rotted over more than ten years.

Nearby grows an interesting hellebore grown from seed sent as H. purpurascens a few years ago. It is a lovely thing that reminds me of  Ashwood Nursery's 'Pink Ice' (figured in the latest issue of 'The Plantsman'), although that is a niger x thibetanus cross. I guess my plant is a H. purpurascens x hybridus cross, as indeed 'Early Purple Group' seems to be, although they are very different..

Just this side of the snowdrop bed, shown above, are the covers where I grow some of my petiolarid primulas. Here is 'Arduaine', flowering under its cover.

Woodland path
For some time I have been rather ashamed of the area under the kitchen window that lies beneath a venerable 'Bramley Seedling'. Just after Christmas, in a mild spell, I ripped out all the ground-cover (Lamiastrum, Buglossoides, Pulmonaria, Chaerophyllum, not to mention far too much ivy), saved the snowdrops, snowflakes, trilliums, erythroniums), dug in a lot of leaf-mould, split up and replanted lots of hellebores and edged it with old spruce logs. Designed as an early spring bed it is now performing, and will look fabulous in a year or two when plants settle down. It is too shady to be much use until the autumn when there are colchicums and crocuses.

Woodland path

If you turn round at the point where the last picture was taken, the following vista confronts you. It is said that the secret of garden design is to plan a series of surprises. We did not plan this one, and I rather dislike the pierced wall through which this gap passes, but the sudden denouement of the terrace and troughs works quite well.

Amongst the early saxifrages now flowering in the troughs are Saxifraga juniperinifolia, and its hybrid with S. ferdinandi-coburgii, S. x eudoxiana 'Haagii'. I saw these two species growing together on Pangeon, but never saw a wild hybrid. On the whole I prefer the species, pictured first, to the hybrid in the garden. (To forstall pedants, I am aware that the parent of 'Haagii is said to be S. sancta, but in those days S. junipeinifolia was often treated as a form of S. sancta).

I am finishing with one of my very favourite plants, Epigaea gaultherioides, now on its third season here. I grow it in the 'petiolarid theatre' amongst Swedish peat blocks, but lift it at this time of year, for exhibition and to save it from frost. It is totally hardy when dormant, but somes into growth far too early for its own good.

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