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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 21 May 2010 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 149.

Potting on

OK, I know its only five days since the last entry, but I feel guilty that I have written so little about the gardens recently, and we are off to the mountains again tomorrow, which will doubtless engender some more photos and reports from the wild.

Over the last two weeks we have been gardening nearly full time, what with the NGS ('Yellow Book') opening of Moorbank Botanic garden on Wednesday evening, which needed a good deal of preparatory work at this weedy time of year, and the Southport Show. Most importantly, it has been the time of the Great Annual Repot, and this has taken much of the intervening hours. Luckily it was cool at that time, the current heatwave (it is 27C as I write) onle being two or three days old.

Not counting bulbs, I grow about 200 show plants in crock pots. Most flower betweeen March and May, and after they have flowered they need to be assessed for repotting. I find they fall into three categories. Young plants somewhat overpotted, slow-growing subjects,those which resent repotting (daphnes) and those which flower better potbound (Telesonix jamesii, Physoplexis comosa) are only repotted if they have to be.

Plants which need to stay in the same size pot through considerations of space in the alpine house, lack of big pots, or need to stay in small size classes in Shows (< 19 cm diameter) are repotted into the same size pot. A thin-bladed knife is run round the outside, the plant is inverted, supported at the crown by the third and fourth fingers of the left hand, tapped on the bench and pushed with a finger through the drainage hole. When free the crock is removed from the  base, the roots ruffled, some compost rubbed off the outside, the crock replaced in the pot, and new compost placed in the bottom and dribbled in through the sides. The pot is rapped sharply on the bench to settle the compost, and grit stuffed under the cushion to make it as tight as possible (I should have said that all fruiting stems have first been snipped off).

A few tips. Make up bulk compost in a barrow, enough to last a potting session. When filling in compost, put a modest amount down one side, and then an equivalent amount on the opposite diameter and so on. Ditto with top-dressing. In this way the plant remains central. Put the freshly repotted plant in a bucket of water to half the depth of the pot for five minutes. Then put in a cool plunge for the summer, unless it is a subject (Primula allionii, some androsaces) that live in the alpine house for the summer.

The third category are those which need to be moved into a larger pot, perhaps a third of the collection, say 65 plants. Its a lot of heavy work!

In fact, as initimated, no sooner had I finished than a heatwave arrived and I was delighted that the newly repotted subjects were languishing in a cool, humid, shady plunge where they are currently being hosed with water every evening.

I also got round to the largest seedlings and pricked out about 110  seedlings of 17 subjects (about 20% of the whole). The heatwave, and our imminent departure has led to urgent questions as to where the pans of seedlings, and the pricked out seedlings, should go. The former are now in a shady part of a greenhouse floor (the one with automatic watering and a wet floor!), and the latter in partial shade outside. It is forecast to be cooler and to rain next week. In the meantime I hope I have some watering arranged! The great trick is to leave the hose with a sprinkler attachment in a handy place!

There is also the matter of the primula fishboxes, which have now been hastily barrowed to sites under bushes where they are sahdy and humid. Yes, it has been a busy time!

The curse of the snowdrop!

One more thing I wanted to say. One of my problems is I want to have my cake and eat it. I want my season to start in January with snowdrops, and to finish in November with colchicums, cyclamens and crocuses. Later I want erythroniums, sanguinarias, narcissus and the rest. And in spring I want my rhodos, primulas, meconopsis to flower uncluttered by messy straggly bulb leaves. No! You can't do it all together! I try, and the beds look a frightful mess at this time of year! I don't have an answer to this one.

One thing you can do is to put your bulbs to naturalise in grass. Here are the pheasants-eye Narcissus poeticus, more or less over now, but lovely last week. Perhaps we shall see them in the wild next week.

The curse of the snowdrop!

You can't beat conifers as they come into growth. Here is a combination that gives us great pleasure every year, Abies koreana (now with young cone), Chamaecyparis pisifera aurea nana and Salix helvetica.

Philadelphus coronarius 'aureus' is also a fabulous 'spot' plant, especially when pruned as Sheila does every year.

I am pleased to have got the rather tricky Meconopsis grandis 'Early Sikkim' back to flowering condition, having moved it last year. It is now more than 10 years old and loves food and shelter. Don't we all!.

Paeonia caucasica is at its best as I write.

I can't remember featuring one of our MESE introductions before, Aubrieta glabrescens which is endemic to the very summit cone of Smolikas in north-west Greece, where probably only a few hundred plants grow. It is undeniably an aubrieta, but it is a pretty thing with shiny green leaves and it stays in character in the garden, particularly when grown in a very severe scree, as here.

A seedling from last year which has given pleasure is Dianthus brevicaulis from western Turkey. I grow several seedlings, but only this one flowered, although I see that plants outside in a trough are budded. This is modest compared with the wonderful plant Alan Furness showed a few years ago, but worthwhile nevertheless.

NGS at Moorbank
Just a few pictures from the Botanic garden to finish with. Here firstly is Sheila taking money from visitors, sat in the tailgate of our car at the gate with another Volunteer, our friend Dan. In the background, Trevor is selling pots, and Viscount Ridley, with his back to the camera, is buying some plants. Lord Ridley has been a loyal friend of the botanic garden for many years, and many of the species trees there come from his wonderful garden at Blagdon.

NGS at Moorbank

In the raised bed nearby, Ian Christie's superb Corydalis cross, 'Craigton Comet'  is at its best, followed by a particularly gaudy lewisia cross, and fruiting Pulsatilla vernalis. The last was grown from seed we collected in the Pyrenees four years ago. Interestingly, we can grow neither the lewisia or the pulsatilla outside here at Hexham without winter cover, but in the drier climate of Newcastle (only 60% of our rainfall, and a city climate, they flourish unprotected. Does it help that they are next to a heated greenhouse?

See the Primula zambalensis? Here is the Lewisia.

You are right, this trough (a zinc water reservoir from the glasshouses) is overrun with Cymbalaria hepaticifolia. You have been warned! Here is the Pulsatilla.

Talking of pulsatilla, how often does one see P. campanella, from the Altai on the south side of Lake Baikal?. It grows well for us in limestone rubble in a raised bed where it is sowing around. It features in Josef Halda's amusingly youthful article in the Bulletin, perhaps 45 years ago, when they talk of walking in the Altai, unclothed apart from rucksacks and boots!

Here is Paeonia veitchii, another plant that is seen too seldom. There is a good collection of peonies at the garden.

I should have said that the peony originated with R B Cooke at Kilbryde. So did this Haberlea 'Virginalis' which we also grow in a wall.

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