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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 14 March 2011 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 176.

Spring on hold

 We are now well into the Show season, and the weeks seem to be fairly whizzing by. Nothing new about this in fact, it seems to be a symptom of what I am pleased to call 'maturity', but nevertheless, one Show seems to have scarcely finished when I am preparing for the next and burning increasingly expensive fuel, not to say rubber, on yet another long motorway haul. It is a proof of someone's Law that if things are going OK, time goes so fast you have no time to enjoy it, but as soon something goes awry, time grinds to a halt!

Up here, spring has definitely ground to a halt, which has not helped exhibitors. The very early spring was normal and punctual with snowdrops, aconites, crocuses, petiolarid primulas, porophyllum saxifrages and so on very much on time in February. Then, over the last three weeks or so we have suffered a long series of crunching frosts. In this north-facing garden, where the southern horizon is topped by a tall forest, the sun arrives late on a frosty morning, and the thaw often waits until almost noon, the frost closing in again a few hours later. Consequently,  plants have had little encouragement to develop further despite the longer days. The garden is still a mass of snowdrops, and very little else has moved. Managing the alpine houses is particularly difficult. They are in the sunniest part of the garden, and the internal temperature swings from -4C to +15C in only an hour or so. This does not help the frozen foliage, and the air in the houses soon becomes dry. I have finally decided to open the vents continuously (they have been shut all winter) and run the fans on bright mornings and this should stabilise the temperature.

 Of course, we have not had it anything like as bad as the Scots. Only those who had been able to come south the previous day were able to attend the Scottish rules Blackpool Show, so severe had been the snowfall through the latter part of Friday and into Saturday. Those who made it must have been dazzled by the display at Blackpool, where the displays of Primula allionii in particular were quite remarkable. If last season was notable for porophyllum saxifrages, this year Primula allionii is sans pareil. I was involved in the judging of eight three-pan entries in two classes (for the European Primula class at Blackpool did not exclude P. allionii) in which all 24 plants involved were virtually perfect. Never I think have I been involved in more difficult judging, and in these circumstances, the tiniest blemish weighs heavily. There is no doubt that exhibitors can now choose from a splendid range of new allionii varieties, dwarf, tight and with brilliant colours, and as yet unsullied by virus. Many have been raised in Germany, but in this country Brian Burrow has played an important role in the development of these super plants which have raised the species and its exhibition onto a new level.

P. allionii is, of course, the supreme alpjne house plant, which is very difficult to grow outside, at least in the UK, and if you have an alpine house, there is no real reason why you should want to. It is a symptom of our late spring that none of my allioniis are yet in full flower under glass, but the first flower has in fact opened on one of the plants I grow unprotected in my alpine 'cliff, under an overhang where they have now survived for five years.

 Thyese little plants are of course far more typical of the plants in the wild where it grows to no great size in the vertical limestone brecchias it inhabits above the Roya Valley.


 Among the plants which are coming to their best now are some Asiatic primulas with a complex history. A few years ago, our local group member Derek Lockey was growing Primula 'Tinney's Moonlight' when he noticed that some seed had set, and from this he raised quite a number of varied and attractive plants. 'Tinney's Moonlight' itself was a seedling raised by Gerry Mundey who gardened on the top of an acidic wooded hill south of Salisbury. I believe its parentage was P. aureata x P. boothii v. alba. Possibly it still exists, but most of the Mundey hybrids have long since disappeared, being susceptible to virus and not very hardy. Derek thinks the other parent to his seedlings was P. irregularis which was in flower at the same time, and was of the compatible (pin or thrum) morph. Certainly, the male parent must have been pink-flowered, as some of the resultant plants were pink, although others segregated out white like the seed plant.



Derek kindly gave me a number of these seedlings last year. During the cold spell they stood on the floor of a greenhouse with a fan heater running, but which nevertheless dropped to below -8C. When it became obvious that they were suffering I took them into the frost-free conservatory, probably a day or two too late. All suffered to some extent, and I have definitely lost two, several of the others succumbing to botrytis which they have survived after a through (and damaging) clean up. However, several clones do seem to be hardier and in particular his number 4 (first) and number 14 are now in good condition.


 In our local group meeting last night we had a 'Gardeners Question Time', the first for a number of years. It seemed to go quite well and the audience seemed to enjoy themselves (David Dimbleby-like, care was taken to involve the audience as much as possible). Almost the last question the panel faced (and the panel had no prior notice of the questions) was 'what is your Desert Island plant?'. One comedian said it would have to be a cactus, but then accepted that the island might be one of the Outer Hebrides. Faced with such a  question,and such a choice, one panics and the brain slots into well-worn grooves. Given mature thinking time, I doubt if I would have come up with Primula sonchifolia, but the petiolarids have long been close to my heart. This difficult species has notwithstanding been in continuous cultivation since its romantic introduction from Burma in bamboo tubes frozen in a ships ice-hold in 1928, having been chipped from under the snow during its winter dormancy. I work hard to try and raise a new seed generation most years, and here is part of this year's crop, which germinated a year ago.

And some saxs

 Time to leave the great genus Primula and to go outside where more of the early saxifrages are coming into flower in troughs. Here are two S. oppositifolia varieties, the white 'Corrie Fee', followed by that old variety 'Splendens'. Both are long-lived and reliable here. One of the other questions we were asked last night was how easy it was to propagated Porophyllum and Porphyrion saxifrages. The answer seemed to be 'very easy, especially just after flowering, when almost any clump will root in a gritty compost if kept cool and moist, and especially if a little bit of root is included (Irishman's cutting), but it is important to only propagate little bits, just one or a few stems, not great clumps'.

And some saxs

 Here is one of the first alpines I ever grew, although not on this occasion from the same accession. Saxifraga burserana 'Minor' is one of the best forms of this lovely species, which has been in cultivation for well over a century.

 It is a measure of how static this season has become that Iris 'Katherine Hodgkin' is still flourishing several weeks after it first opened. In the meantime, Corydalis 'Beth Evans' had deigned to open its flowers in the sunniest spots.

 Things can't be that cold, I suppose, because the frogs have been and donated their reproductive benison on a sunny day. As always they have donated far too much, so that if it is all not to go putrid, I shall need to scoop out at least three quarters to put somewhere more capacious. Most of the remainder go, I suspect, to feed the dragonfly larvae resultant from the Aeshna juncea female I saw dipping there last summer, not to mention one another, but some at least seem to survive, as the garden hops with young frogs come the summer.

 Its the season of the hellebore! Just a few Helleborus x hybridus varieties here to finish with.

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