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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 06 March 2012 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 208.

Catching up.

We came back from Tenerife on February 24th (see last entry) to find a garden which had enjoyed two weeks of benign, balmy weather, so that early spring bulbs, hellebores and others were in full swing, making a fine show. Here for instance was the view up the side of the house, which I grandly call the 'snowdrop walk', now nearly two weeks ago.

Catching up.

Notice the frame light propped against the house wall in the last picture. This covers the small peat wall bed on the right of the picture during the winter months, as the area is full of petiolarid primulas. Normally I would not remove this frame cover until about March 20th, but the bed was so dry, and the plants had suffered so much in our absence, that it has now been put away for the summer. I have done the same for the lights that cover the plunge, the primula troughs and various susceptible meconopsis etc in the garden. Since then it has become colder and we have suffered two crunching frosts, one this morning, but hopefully the plants won't suffer. The lights are to guard against winter damp, not cold, and of course this has been an exceptionally dry winter.

As a consequence of this failure of oversight (there might be other causes such as build-up of virus, and failure to replace compost), my petiolarid primulas are the poorest I can ever remember and none will be visiting the show bench this year. I am sure that one further reason is that I have failed to raise any material from seed for the last two years. Fit, virus-free, vigorous seedlings are always the best way to succeed with Asiatic primulas.

The least bad plants tend to be those which were potted individually. These were left outside under cover too long, and were also too dry, but at least the flowers haven't aborted. Here is P. bhutanica, of which I only have one left, bad news if I want seed as it usually only sets when crosses are made between individuals, even if all are pin (as is the case for remaining material in cultivation).

One plant in the peat bed that has performed quite well (perhaps because it is rooted into the Swedish peat blocks themselves) is Primula boothii subsp. repens. This was a kind gift when I visited the E Kent Show some years ago, and has unexpectedly flourished, as most forms of P. boothii are rather tender.

Nearby, in the snowdrop collection, is the yellow form of G. woronowii, now named 'Elizabeth Harrison'. This has gained notoriety this year as the  discoverer has sold material to a commercial source for micropropping for a completely eye-watering sum (as reported in 'The Times' and other organs). I must confess that as I gazed at my little group, pound signs flashed before my eyes, as in a 'Tom and Jerry' cartoon, but I shall leave it be, safely hidden amongst thousands of other woronowiis in this garden, for now that it has finished flowering it is quite indistinguishable from all the others. I hope that this garden will provide a comfortable billet for this rarity, as G. woronowii performs better even that G. nivalis here.

Other plant that has performed well and on time is the very early daffodil called 'February Silver'. I have featured this before, and indeed a kind correspondent gave me the (correct) name, but it is such an important plant at this time of year, earlier even than 'Tete a Tete', that it is worth mentioning again.

Just above the daffodil is another plant I have mentioned before, but which is performing well for the first time since the last three hard winters. This is Rhododendron 'Christmas Cheer' which has been good for a week now. It survived yesterday's frost, but as I look out of the window on this sunny, frosty morning, it is clear that the flowers will resemble cardboard by lunchtime.

When we got home, a number of bulbs were flowering in the alpine house. This tranche has almost finished now, but some of the later reticulata irises were interesting, as I had not grown any of these until now. Here are Iris 'Edward', 'Natascha' and 'Clairette' in that order.

A few crocuses had also survived the slaughter of the last three winters, during which I lost nearly all my bulbs in pots. Mostly there were seedlings raised from Gothenburg Botanic Garden and two were flowering for the first time. Here then is Crocus biflorus subsp. pulchricolor, followed by C. leichtlinii and C. reticulatus.

Edinburgh Botanics

Last Saturday I went to Edinburgh to speak to a meeting of the Meconopsis Group at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, and during the lunch hour took the excuse to enjoy the garden for an hour or so. The contents of the alpine house formed a rainbow of colour, greatly to the credit of John Mitchell (who ran the meeting), and his staff.

Edinburgh Botanics

Just outside this house are some frames, and on the north-facing side is a monumental specimen of Epigaea gaultherioides. I mentioned to Henry and Margaret Taylor that I thought I remembered the plant there from the late 1960's. Ever practical, Henry examined the accession label. It said '1973', so I was nearly right and the plant has been there for almost 40 years. It takes a long spell of careful cultivation to achieve such perfection!

Out in the gardens, a number of rhododendrons were already at their best. Here is the Rh. barbatum relative, Rh. argipeplum (unlike the former it has indumentum under the leaves), followed by the Rh. thomsonii relative Rh. meddianum. I suspect both will have been frosted by now!

Back home, some of the earlier Primula allionii are approaching their best. I am finishing with 'Ken's Seedling', followed by 'Val'.

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