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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 18 March 2009 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 108

Spring is sprung

After ten days or more of relatively mild, often sunny weather, the spring has come on apace, and the garden is now in full growing season mode. The last of the covers have come off and have been stowed, and the automatic watering system has been reinstated in one of the alpine houses (the other one, that houses the bulbs, is still watered by hand, but I use a hose-pipe unless liquid feed is being applied). I have even started to repot a few very early subjects, as well as the daphne grafts from last season, which were still in the plastic pots the stocks were raised in.

I try to look at the seed pans every day now. Most times I look one or two more show signs of germination and are removed to the alpine house, away from predatory woodlice and their brethren. So far about 24 have germinated, about eight of these sown last year, bulbs and peonies mostly.

Some show subjects have already had their day. I have already put Crocus pelistericus back in the pond. This inundation last summer resulted in a record production of five flowers this year, unfortunately not all produced at  quite the same time.

Spring is sprung

In this photo the crocus looks very like Crocus 'Violet Queen' that I have all over the garden! The leaves, square in section and lacking the central white stripe are the giveaway. The  DNA analysis published in the most recent issue of 'The Plantsman' shows that C. pelistericus and its near relative and neighbour C. scardicus are rather distantly related to most crocus, linking most closely to the Nudiflorae and the relatives of C. minimus and C. corsicus.

But, this is no time to be pontificating! Better just to wallow in the diversity of plants looking their best in the garden at present.

To start with I thought I might showcase some of the pink variants of the primrose, Primula vulgaris subsp. sibthorpii. These plants grow wild towards the eastern edge of the range of the species, from northern Greece to Transcaucasia. They are easy garden plants, and have been in cultivation for many centuries. Almost certainly, all the pink, red and blue tints nowadays available in garden strains of primrose and 'polyanthus originated with sibthorpii. However the original plant tends to be more vigorous and a better doer in the garden, and we grow several variants here.

I have grown the first for nearly 40 years. It originated at Kilbryde, the garden of Randle Cooke that I featured during last winter. It is a very strong grower.

The next one to be featured arose in the garden and is almost certainly a self-sown seedling of the Kilbryde plant. In many ways it is superior, but not as vigorous.

One year I put the Kilbryde plant on the bench and it found itself near a very distinguished neighbour, P. renifolia. Incidentally, a coworker of  Elena Conti is trying to acquire a small bit of tissue of the latter for DNA studies. I think it is now extinct in cultivation. If anyone can put me right, I would be very gratified to hear. Anyway, I cajoled the owner of the renifolia for a small piece of pollen (it was thrum flowered, the Kilbryde sibthorpii is a pin), and in the fullness of time seed was set. Several offspring were raised and they all looked very similar. They are most attractive, but I doubt if they are renifolia crosses. Probably, 'certation' from the renifolia pollen caused the sibthorpii to self.

The final sibthorpii was a gift from a friend. I think this may be one of the Black Sea variants that are often known (at least by the Russians) by other species names, P. komarovii and P. woronowii. It too is a good garden plant.

Mention of Woronow, reminds me to say that the later snowdrops are still in good condition in what started as a very late season. G. woronowii is by far the most vigorous snowdrop here and seeds all over the place, even self-sowing into what passes for the lawn at this time of year.

I have finally found a place that suits G. elwesii here. Not surprisingly it is calcareous and south-facing, on the edge of the tufa bed. This is 'G. caucasicus of gardens', correctly G. elwesii v. monostictus as it has only one green mark on the inner segments.

By far the most vigorous corydalis here is a lovely pink one that I think is C. solida 'Beth Evans', and it grows here in many places. A distant shot of the Kitchen window bed is followed by two closer views.

Another successful plant that is grown in many places here is Olsynium douglasii.

A quick visit to the terrace next. Saxifraga x kochii is a picture in two of the troughs. Nearby, Saxifraga 'Allendale Ruby' is well established in a peice of home-made tufa embedded in a fishbox trough.

A raised bed nearby has Callianthemum anemonoides just coming to its best. This plant has done its turn on the bench in previous years, and will now be left to its own devices for several years while it builds up strength again.

General views of the two alpine houses are followed by a few of the inmates.

I have been pleased with one of the Androsace ciliata I raised from seed two years ago. The other one suffered too much aphid damage and was dumped.

Debuting in its first year is the little Balkan A. hedraeantha. It must be considered very close to the A. carnea alliance.

Primula marginata 'Shipton' is an old favourite. One of several in the garden was lifted for the show season. It hasn't done anything yet. Next week perhaps?

As noted before, Rhododendron forrestii is a great favourite here, and I grow three varieties. I had not featured R. forrestii var. tumescens before. This rare plant is an intermediate with Rh. chamaethomsonii which I also grow (in all reality, all are probably part of the single variable species). I lifted the rhodo this year with exhibition in mind, but it is rather one-sided. Still, it is spectacular thing.

Another rarity to finish, but this time a novelty. Primula knuthiana is one of the more attractive of the section Pulchella species that serve instead of the P. farinosa relatives in China and the Himalayas. Originally I had doubted whether it was distinct from the Himalayan P. jaffreyana, but this new material is definitely different. It has recently come into cultivation from seed collected by Pete Boardman in northern Sichuan and has been offered by two of our leading alpine nurserymen. Doubtless, it will prove as short-lived as its relatives.

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