A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: 04 May 2008 by John Richards
Northumberland Diary. Entry 73.
Spring is sprung
At last we have enjoyed a spell of warm, spring-like weather as we enter May; indeed May Day which is so often accompanied by freezing northerlies was positively balmy for once. Not surprisingly, blossom and leaf-burst that had been on hold for some weeks responded enthusiastically. We have just returned from a 24 hour visit to the flesh-pots south of Manchester where the East Cheshire Show was held in a new and very suitable venue (good natural light in the show hall for once!). Well done to Liz and her team for putting on such a good Show which we hope will continue in the present venue for years to come. Cheshire looked wonderful; masses of cherry and almond flower everywhere, and fresh green leaves.
In our garden the Acer crataegifolium is at its magnificent best this week, lighting up that part of the garden. Who needs flowers when young growth is so good?
This encourages me to feature three familiar but really excellent shrubs that are presently at their best. First the ever-reliable Camellia 'Donation' by the front door; then the good scarlet Chaenomeles japonica we inherited with the house that Sheila keeps pruned and tied in; and finally one of the few rhdoodendrons that are flowering this year, Rh. hippophaeoides, perhaps the best of the lapponicums.
Wash and scrub up
For months, I have been planning to clean our Betula utilis 'Jacquemontii' . In this humid garden the pristine white bark becomes sullied by green algae very easily, and it also helps to remove some of the outer peeling bark. I finally managed to avail myself of several buckets of warm water and a stiff yard-brush. It was hard work, but the result justified the effort put in.
They say that prophets are never praised in their own country, and it is certainly easy to become blase about the merits of one's own locale. I have been writing this diary for nearly two years, but have yet to feature Hexham, the little Northumberland market town in which we have lived for nearly 40 years (but only 18 years in the present garden).
On the whole this is quite a nice little town, well-known to many exhibitors of alpine plants for the Spring Show that is held in our large civic sports hall. In the centre of town is a fine and ancient abbey church with Saxon foundations, and this lies close to parks, recreational facilities and decorative plantings. At one stage I was invited to join an advisory committee to the 'Britain in Bloom' team, and one point we made was that despite the magnificence of the summer bedding, the season was much longer than was covered by this late-blooming display and more effort should be expended on spring bedding. I am glad to say that this advice was heeded and such a criticism could not be voiced today.
This seems to have been a very non-alpine contribution so far! I have enjoyed exhibiting Gentiana angustifolia over the last couple of weeks. This is one of several raised from wild seed of Pyrenean origin about eight years ago. Most are grown in troughs, but two were planted in a rich scree, and one of these, being well-budded, was lifted a year ago. It did not make an exhibition plant last year, and suffered badly from an aphid attack at the end of last summer, becoming covered withg sooty mould that grew on the sticky exudates. After treatment with 'Provado', a thorough clear-up and top-dress, it spent the winter plunged in the alpine house, and produced 22 flowers this spring. As will be seen it is quite distinct from G. acaulis, with narrower leaves as suggested by the name, flowers of a different shape and with different internal markings.
While on the subject of G. acaulis, I thought readers might be amused by this 'freak' gentian that has appeared in the wall of a 'fishbox' trough. There is a plant in the compost above this point, and I can only suppose that a stolon discovered a chink of light below ground where there had been slight damage to the polystyrene wall. It looks contrived, but in fact I had nothing to do with it!
Talking of fishbox troughs, just over a year ago I featured a plant of Rhodothamnus sessilifolius, purchased from Ian Leslie who had grown it from Halda seed. This very rare, almost legendary endemic of north-east Turkey is very closely related to the familiar Rh. chamaecistus of the eastern Alps, and seems to differ chiefly in being dwarfer and with narrower leaves. A well-known German grower is growing plants from the same origin and has queried their identity, which caused me to look hard at my remaining plant which grows outside in a fishbox trough and is flowering at the moment. The leaves are about four times as long as wide, whereas according to 'Flora Europaea', those of Rh. chamaecistus are only about twice as long as wide, so my plant at least seems to be correctly named.
Now is the time of the tulip and several species are in flower on the 'alpine terrace'. Both the following species have persisted for many years and have slowly multiplied to form small clumps. First is the familiar T. urumiensis (which is difficult if not impossible to separate from T. tarda), followed by T. aucheriana.
Every year we buy a few sets of dutch tulips, which are grown in plastic tubs, usually placed on the terrace, to be replaced by summer bedding, dried off and naturalised in the garden in November. One of the joys of these tubs, filled with a light bought-in compost, is that they can be moved to 'fill in' a dull spot in the garden. Here a tub has been used to temporarily brighten up a spot by the pond.
The 'good form'.
I based last years Show Report for Harrogate on the theme that the trick of exhibiting was to select 'good forms'. It is one thing to preach, but quite another to practice. More often than not, any 'good form' that I possess has come into my possession through good fortune rather than any superior judgement. So it was that serendipity certainly smiled on me when I bought this plant of Lewisia tweedyi 'Rosea' out of flower last summer. Grown in a long-tom plastic pot with deep slate top-dressing, plunged in the alpine house, this has proved to be an outstanding plant, which has seen off large numbers of competitors at both the last two Shows.
A long entry, but it is a busy time of year. My last offering is Iris magnifica. I have grown three of the 'easy' Juno irises outside in a sheltered (and rather overgrown and weedy!) raised south-facing site for some years without difficulty (the others are I. orchioides and I. aucheri). The others have become slightly overgrown and have stopped flowering, so I moved them this year. Not I. magnifica which has continued to flower, although only one spike was produced this year.
Oh no, I see there are two spikes after all!
Happy gardening John Richards