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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 02 March 2016 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 311.

Taking the plunge

We had, for a change, a really lovely day yesterday to celebrate S'ant Dafydd, and indeed the erstwhile start of spring (I am sure it used to be the equinox when I was younger?). Very occasionally I would try to wear a daffodil to work on March 1st in memory of my Welsh father, and frequently, this far north, there was no daffodil to be had. This year I could have had a few, 'February Silver;, 'Tete a Tete', and a few wildlings were flowering along the North Tyne this morning.

The balmy sunny day pushed me into the garden, and stimulated a rush of busy-ness. Close by my 'working area' (a small patio next to an alpine house where seed pans and propagted plants stand) I had constructed a plunge decades ago, not long after we  got here. This is raised and constructed of two sleepers, with breeze blocks sealing the ends, and was originally filled with coarse sand on top of a plastic sheet. This plunge had become severely neglected, a refuge for some spare small trees  which had long ago rooted into the plunge, and it had all become overgrown with weeds, ferns and mosses (its a rather shaded, humid area, but then, so is much of the garden). I was so embarrassed by this eyesore that I took no 'before' photo of it on purpose, once I had decided to take the metaphorical bull by the horns and clear the area out.

More than one barrowful was split between the compost heap (rottable) and recycling (small trees and fern hearts), and two barrowfuls of well-matured leaf-mould brought in. More coarse sand was added (recycled from a second plunge which I confess is also somewhat neglected) and the whole throughly mixed in situ. I think the resulting mix is about 50% each of sand and leaf-mould.

Taking the plunge

Incidentally, note the heavily frosted hart's tongue ferns (Asplenium scolopendrium) in the wall of the plunge, and the frond of soft shield fern (Polytichum setiferum) to the bottom right. Both of these arrived unbidden, as indeed do many ferns in this garden, so that male fern (Dryopteris filix-mas) in particular is something of a menace. The Polystichum (featured in my last contribution) is particularly interesting. It is not native in this part of the world, but is occasionally found as an escape from cultivation, and two large plants of supposed Victorian heritage occur in a wood, once a neglected garden, about 400 metres distant. I can only supposed that this sporeling flew in from there.

Back to the plunge. What to do with it? I plan to use it principally for the trickier Asian primulas, and will probably provide it with shade netting and possibly a sprinkler later in the year (next to the alpine house it will be easy to connect it to the automatic watering system). I have already moved some bits and pieces (four species of petiolarid primula), but also some plants in plastic pots. The latter are a quandry. They stand outside in a cool humid area in the summer and in late October are moved into the alpine house. They are fine here in mid winter, but as the days become longer the greenhouse air becomes hotter and drier, and the trick is to know when to move them back out again, particularly as we are still receiving frequent night frosts. Anyway, out they have gone, and hopefully the plunge will stop the roots being frozen.


If some of you are saying 'cats', the area is now covered with open netting!

Talking of petiolarid primulas, I was delighted to be given some bits of the hybrid 'Soup-Plate' by Ian and Carole Bainbridge after they exhibited it at Hexham last spring. The story of this plant and its ugly name is told in the Show Report for Harlow, last weekend, hopefully now posted in this website, and I have no intention of repeating myself (or you could look in my book 'Primula' if you have a copy). It was thought lost, martyr to cucumber mosaic virus which affects so many primula clones, but the Bainbridges' plant is clean and vigorous. This is a bigger plant than its stable-mate the familiar 'Arduaine' (which I used to grow in quantity and have now lost) with large, plate-like rosettes and violet-purple flowers.

Primula 'Soup-Plate'

Very few of my European primulas are yet in flower, but P. 'Lindum Moonlight' is fully out (why 'Moonlight' by the way?, its pink!). (NB I have just googled it and find that I said exactly the same on the 21st of March, 2011!, it seems to be in the same pot too, so it seems to thrive on neglect!!).

Primula 'Lindum Moonlight'

Primula in the Encyclopedia of Alpines

This is probably a good place to advertise that I had been asked to revise Primula (and in time, hopefully some other genera) for the on-line 'Encyclopedia of Alpines', scanned-in from the book and available on this website. The Encyclopedia is now 25 years old and inevitably out of date to some extent. The original volumes were largely written by a single author, a mammoth task, and however successful it was at the time, we hope that updates will be written by those with a particular interest or expertise in a given genus. The main, inevitable, drawback of the original was the paucity of illustration. On-line, this is no problem and I have tried hard to ensure that every species for which modern photographs exist are illustrated, often with several photos. We are very grateful to the photographers who have given permission for their photographs to be so used. All of the 350 or so species of Primula which appear in the Encyclopedia have been totally rewritten, a task which has occupied me for much of this winter, and may in part have resulted in the reduction in the number of diary entries which some kind folk have commented upon!

Wetland crocuses

One of the features of the poorly supported Harlow Show was the number of pans of Crocus pelistericus benched. It is the opinion of Robert Rolfe that this lovely plant is grown by very few, perhaps because it shows little if any vegetative increase and is best grown from seed which is not often set in cultivation (it is worth cross-pollinating it however, as insects are rarely active this early in the year). Also, despite a number of perfectly clear published instructions, few people grow this denizen of sopping wet sedge peat, often inundated in water, correctly. It must be grown in a 'high humus' (you know what I mean, the 'p' word!!) compost, in a plastic pot, stood in a saucer topped up with rainwater in a cool place throughout the summer, repotted carefully at the only brief respite it enjoys, usually about a fortnight in late September!), and then brought into the alpine house to flower in the early spring. It must NEVER dry out!!

One of the problems presented by this seed-grown plant is getting all the different seedlings to flower at the same time. This year I have been rather more successul than most.

Crocus pelistericus

Here is Crocus pelistericus on Katmaktschalan, on the Greek/Macedonian frontier, taken in pouring rain in 2007. It grew close to Ranunculus cacuminus, endemic to these sedgy flushes.

Crocus pelistericus Ranunculus cacuminis

On the same MESE expedition during which we collected seed of Crocus pelistericus in 1999,  we also visited Vermion, the top of which is covered with the chrome-yellow Crocus cvijcii in spring. Although it is perhaps stretching a point to call this a wetland crocus, it is a genuine alpine which grows in peaty turf which does not dry out in summer, so that as in C. pelistericus, it remains in active growth for most of the year and most not be allowed to dry out. I regret to say that I failed to raise C. cvijcii from MESE seed, and have only just flowered it for the first time from Gothenburg Botanic Garden seed.

Here is Crocus cvijcii on Vermion, photographed in 2004.

Crocus cvijcii Crocus cvijcii

Talking of seedlings, here are a couple of seedlings of Callianthemum anemonoides. For some reason best known to itself, my old plant set seed about four years ago. Being Ranunculaceae, I thought it best to sow the seed fresh, and several seedlings duly appeared the following spring. I kept them in the alpine house for a couple of years, but they looked unhappy (in my experience this is a plant which greatly prefers the fresh air) so I put them out in the sand bed where they are now flowering, very dwarf and compect.

Callianthemum anemonoides Callianthemum anemonoides

More reticulatas

I had already shown some early reticulata irises two epistles ago, but the straight I. reticulata clones flower rather later. I think 'Clairette' is my favourite, followed by 'Edward'.

Iris reticulata 'Clairette' Iris reticulata 'Edward'

I think my favourite late snowdrop here is probably Galanthus plicatus 'Timpany', from Susan Tindall in Northern Ireland.

Galanthus plicatus 'Timpany'

Finally, its nearly Easter, but Rhododendron 'Christmas Cheer' is just opening. I took its photo now, as it is bound to be frosted during the next few nights. Time to batten down the hatches again!

Rhododendron 'Christmas Cheer'
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