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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 18 March 2007 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 28.

Pride before a fall

After the mildest late winter on record, it was inevitable that we would be visited with one of those cutting northerlies that  are a speciality of March.. As I write I am looking out over a blustery garden where patches of brilliant sunshine are interspersed by flurries of snow. The temperature has yet to dip below zero so far, but it will certainly do so over the week or more that this frigid spell is forecast to last. Luckily, most of camellia and magnolia flower has yet to open this far north, and the display may yet be saved. Not so the early rhodos and pieris, so I thought I would start with a reprise, the Rhododendron barbatum that has been so magnificent for nearly three weeks now, and a Pieris japonica. Both will probably turn to mush after tonight.

Pride before a fall

Orphanidesia as was
Another two frost-sensitive plants follow. I bought the Epigaea gaultherioides only last year, and it is producing its first flower. I grow it in the new peat wall with the asiatic primulas, and a diapensia. I shall try to cover it up for the days to come, but doubt if the lovely, relatively huge flower will survive.

Orphanidesia as was

And a bergenia
Here is another plant whose flowers rarely survive a frost. This early dwarf bergenia is a form of B. ciliata that grew in the garden, Kilbryde, of Randle Cooke when it was left to the University of Newcastle on Cookes death in 1973. I passed material on to Alan Furness and his plant was given an Award of Merit by the RHS Joint Rock Garden Committee. They noted that it was a distinctive and relatively hardy form (apart from the frost-tenderness of the flowers and young leaves it is very hardy) and they asked for it to be given a cultivar name. Alan named it after his wife 'Patricia Furness'. Since then it has been quite widely distributed and is about to take part in the RHS Bergenia trial.

And a bergenia

Tougher fare
Fortunately, not every plant that flowers now is sensitive to the weather. The greatest bane of section Porophyllum ('Kabschia') saxifrages are birds and molluscs that damage the flowers. If they escape this attention, the flowers are completely weatherproof. Nevertheless, not all 'kabschias' are particularly suitable for the open garden, and many of the toughest have been with us for a century or more. Here are a couple of the best, the very old variety 'Johann Kellerer', followed by a much more recent arrival, Robert Rolfe's seedling 'Cumulus'.

Tougher fare

Show time
I went to the third show in as many weeks yesterday. As befitted an early spring, I thought that this was the best Blackpool Show for some years. Its the friendliest of Shows, aided by the cafe area and the plant sales being cheek by jowl.  I took along Callianthemum anemonoides. I have grown this for some years in a rich scree, unprotected in winter and never allowed to dry out. It has increased in size steadily and I was encouraged to lift it for the show by others who have successfully returned it to the ground after exhibition. This is a plant that seems to be much happier planted out than grown in a pot as it has an enormous root system and loathes a hot dry atmosphere. By the time it was exhibited the plant had developed much further than shown here and had been top-dressed with fragments of coal! Luckily the judges seemed not to mind this lese-majeste!

Show time

Crevice gardening
Another little joke to end with. Years ago I grew a red Daphne mezereum and a white variety wide by side in a scree. This species had never been very long-lived here, and after setting copious berries one year, both died. A couple of years later I found a small self-sown (or should I say bird-sown?) seedling rooted between the house wall and path pavers. It has flourished here, unperturbed by the fact that it has never received direct rainfall, being under the eaves of the house. It is in full flower as I write.

Crevice gardening
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