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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 19 May 2011 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 183.

And in the garden.....


 OK, only four days since the last entry, but I am running behindhand and there is quite a lot of interest in the garden to report, in addition to the Greek trip. 

In general, we have now left the very dry warm early spring behind. It has rained a fair amount, not enough yet perhaps, but we are long way from the crisis levels of drought currently experienced by parts of the South-east. Rather typically here, May has been windy, causing an amount of  dishevellment if not damage, and on the whole it has been sunny but cool. Although many May plants have gone through, the next crop has taken its time, so that we are experiencing something of a 'May Gap'. Some things have forged ahead, Incarvilleas for instance, but there is no sign of any Roscoeas yet. 

Quite a number of last years seedlings are flowering for the first time. Rather to my surprise, I have struggled with Androsace strigillosa. Thirty years ago in another garden this was a plant I grew well for some years without making too much of it, but it finally disappeared and I did not raise it again until last year. I had a number of lusty seedlings last autumn, some of which were planted in troughs and the others made up a plastic potful which I overwintered in the alpine house. Come spring, there was no trace of the former (needed a cloche perhaps?), and of the latter, only one showed any sign of 'waking up', possibly disliking the dry air of that alpine house. I hurriedly planted them out in a cool spot and the one that woke up has flowered. Possibly as a batch of wild seedlings, most were not genetically habituated to cultivation.


And in the garden.....

 Meconopsis superba is in the background of the last photo. I have learnt that this rather tricky species will only overwinter here under a cloche. Another species I have discovered will only overwinter here under a pane of glass is the familiar Androsace studiosorum. This again is a plant that we grew well in our first garden, but have struggled with here. I am not sure if this reflects on the garden, grower, strain of plant, or the climate, but I suspect the latter. The climate has changed a lot in the last 40 years!

 On the whole, my experimental strategy last year of potting up several seedlings together in a plastic pot and overwintering them in the alpine house was not very successful. They looked fine in the autumn, but have struggled in the spring, partly perhaps because they were frozen hard for many weeks in their pots during the winter, but also because they disliked the dry warm air  under glass in early spring. As with the androsace, several plantings have just about recovered having been planted out in the nick of time in early April. Here is Primula muscarioides. You will see that one flowering spike aborted during the severe frost the garden experienced in our absence (several batches of newly pricked out seedlings were wiped out then, even, surprisingly, Dianthus gracilis).

 Two more Chinese primulas, raised from seed last year. Firstly the familiar P. cockburniana, in a more familiar orange compared to the yellow form I had raised for a few years, and then P. tangutica grown from wild seed in what is I fear a very inferior form.

 You can see both Primula secundiflora and Meconopsis quintuplinerva in the background of the last photo. 

One surprise has been the flowering of seedlings obtained as seed from the Meconopsis Group and sown early in 2010. These were named M. grandis 'Early Sikkim' according to my records, but in fact I suspect that I sowed two M. grandis accessions that year, and one of them is another strain of M. grandis. Now that they have flowered I can say that they are definitely M. grandis, and not M. 'Lingholm' as was the case for some of the Mec Group's M. grandis 'narrow-leaved form' (according to their splendid website), but they are not 'Early Sikkim' . Here are these plants, followed by 'Early Sikkim' which was featured three episodes ago, but is still flowering.

 A very good plant at present is Dodecatheon hendersonii.

 Next to the dodecath in one of the 'D' beds is Incarvillea delavayi. Both this and its white form are well into flower although there is no sign as yet of I. zhongdianensis. Perhaps I have lost the latter, but I doubt it and think it is probably still to come through the ground.

 Over to the rock garden terrace which is quite colourful at present.

 One of the best plants here is Oxalis enneaphylla 'Sheffield Swan', Peter Erskine's excellent introduction. Not only is it a pristine white, but it is the most vigorous South American oxalis here.

 In one of the troughs, our own introduction (on the 1999 MESE Expedition), the excellent Smolikas form of Minuartia attica, is at its best.

The May Lily


 Opinion seems to have changed with respect to the status of the May Lily Maianthemum bifolium and it is now generally accepted as native in two or three sites in north-eastern England. Many years ago, a fellow research student was working on this species and needed to visit its locality in the Forge Valley, near Scarborough. We searched for the plant all morning without success and then repaired to the local pub for lunch. On a whim I enquired on the bar in general 'anyone here know where the May Lily grows?'. After a silence, someone rejoindered 'why dost want to know anyway?'. After an explanation as to our motives, we followed detailed instructions and walked straight to the plant after lunch. 

The other main locality lies only about 12 miles to the south of us, just into Co Durham, where it has been known for 200 years or more. This location was gravely threatened by tree felling some years ago, and for the sake of conservation I was encouraged by responsible authorities to take a small piece into cultivation. This has since thrived as the illustrated potful shows. The plant has made a slight recovery in the native location but is still scarce.


The May Lily


 This cool humid acidic garden is not ideal for dwarf lilacs, but we have always admired S. meyeri 'Palibin'. Our older plant had been swamped by a vigorous bay almost to extinction, but since the bay suffered severely in last winters freeze, the lilac has  prospered, relatively, and is flowering now. 

John Richards


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