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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 09 March 2014 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 264.

Spring moves along

Another fortnight elapses, the early spring remains relatively benign, and I have been to my first Show of the season. This was one of the great Loughboroughs with a huge entry of extremely high standard, and many excellent plants left in cars, one imagines. When a reasonable spring arrives, Loughborough is so positioned geographically that all of England and Wales can reach it, and is so timed that the dionysias, allioniis and others are at their peak. So it was yesterday, and many seasoned exhibitors were heard to complain that they struggled to get a single third prize, let alone a first. It was great to see, for instance the Ransons, Wallises, Nigel Fuller and David Hoare at the same Show as, for instance, Don Peace and Derek Pickard.

Back home

Here, we have managed to avoid the worst of the frosts. I have observed before that when rhododendron flowers survive light frosts, they seem more capable of surviving heavier frosts subsequently. So it is that 'Christmas Cheer', featured two weeks ago, still makes a reasonable show, surrounded by Pieris forrestii and P. floribunda which are heavily laden with bud this year.

Back home

More striking is the Rhododendron barbatum. The first photo places it in a garden setting, and the second reveals what I think is probably the best of all the very early rhodos, at least here.

Another very early shrub, Daphne odora is flowering now too. This is very definitely planted in the wrong place. I wanted it to be close to the house and sheltered, so we could enjoy the scent, and so that it would survive in this cold garden. However, the place I chose is clearly too dark for it to flower well, and I don't think that the moist leaf soil suits it either, so that it tends to rather golden, or if you will, chlorotic, foliage. I think it is the form 'Aureomarginata', but the leaves are so yellow anyway, that any marginal variegation can be hard to spot!



This is a time when many of our early bulbs show how many thrive surprisingly well in unsuitable places. Clumps that were planted when the garden was first planted persist remarkably well after shrubs and perennials have crowded them out. Here for example are clumps of Scilla mischenkoana, tucked right under big Pieris on the north side, and later swamped by Euphorbias, but remarkably resilient at this time of year.

Another persistent bulb which thrives in a surprising amount of shade, is Olsynium douglasii. It must be said that I do not grow this as well as formerly, perhaps because I no longer coddle it and it is no longer in fresh soil. Many years ago, I was delighted to be given a Certificate of Merit for a well-flowered clump that I had lifted and put in a pot. When challenged (not by me!!), the then Director of Shows, Val Lee, said that she had never seen a better example on the bench. Decades later, I think I can still say this is true, so Val's award was more percipient than some critics would have had it.

Not a bulb as such, but another subject which thrives under a good deal of competition here is that old and not often seen Hepatica, H. x media 'Ballardii'. It will never make a show plant, being too diffuse and never producing a mass of flower, but this is one of its better years and it is a lovely bland blue.

A bulb which is given rather more tlc in the garden, is Galanthus elwesii. I have written before how this sun-loving Greek enjoys more light and drainage than I can give it in most parts of the garden, but I have a slowly expanding group in the little mound of home-made tufa.

Moving on to the troughs, several of the earlier Porophyllum saxs are now approaching their best. Here is a little fishbox with S. ferdinandi-coburgii (yellow), S. 'Johan Kellerer', and S. 'Jenkinsii' (in bud). The lesson here I think is how much better that S. ferdinandi-coburgii (and many others) are when torn apart, and repropagated in new soil.

Saxifraga juniperinifolia is another old favourite here, grown in a number of places, here in the edge of a sand-bed.

Saxifraga 'Franz Liszt' is another good survivor here.

Soldanella is a genus which I had long given up on,as I could never get my plants to flower. I have a pan in the alpine house which is almost dead. Thus it has been gratifying to see that a little plant sold to me last year as S. hungarica by Harperley Farm nursery, a local outfit, has enjoyed life in the corner of a fishbox where it is ful of bud and promise.

I have a great deal of time for that old primula hybrid 'Clarence Elliott'. It has some faults, notably being rather variable in colour, and a much better blue some years than others, but it is easy to grow and unfailingly floriferous, and always maintains a good compact habit. Here it is looking very much in character in the corner of an old home-made trough that I fashioned about 40 years ago.

I was rather miffed yesterday to have a plant of this clone moved from a class on the suggestion that it has P. allionii in its parentage. As it is a P. marginata seedling, this is far from clear, and I suspect its other parent may have been P. hirsuta or one of its hybrids. This is a problem with the tendency to have classes for 'P. allionii or P. allionii hybrids' as it is not at all clear that many well-known hybrids do in fact have any P. allionii in their ancestry.

I wsas pleased to be able to exhibit the rarely-seen Primula boothii subsp. repens yesterday. Although this grows well here, mixed in with P. moupinensis, it does not always flower well, but when it does it is indeed a pretty little thing. This subspecies seems to only grow in one corner of the Marsyandi/Kali Ghandaki break, south of Annapurna, and is noteworthy by being very stoloniferous, which may explain why it rarely flowers very well.

Finally, this garden is almost a Dionysia-free zone. Looking at the way that top exhibitors manage to present Primula allionii, Porophyllum saxs etc as very tight cushions with embedded flowers, I realise that I will never show these early subjects to top show standard, because my alpine houses do not receive direct sunlight until this time of year, so that the early subjects become drawn. The position and aspect of this garden means that nothing can be done about this (there is no more suitable location within it), so I shall just have to live with it! This does however tend to explain, I think, why dionyias never seem to thrive here. They just don't get enough light and exposure in the winter. The exception is my old D. aretioides 'Bevere', planted out under glass for more a decade, receiving minimal attention, and presently at its very best.

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