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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 09 May 2017 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 338.

There I was, digging this hole.....

Lots been going on recently, just back from a stint dandelioning on Bute. Bute was buteiful last weekend, cloudless, really much too hot during the day, and rapidly burning to a crisp, desperately short of water and all the peaty soils with gaping crevices. Nevertheless, the dandelions were most interesting, a new species to Britain, another most probably new to science and a third previously only known from Orkney. None of you want to know anything whatever about this most arcane of pursuits (makes alpine gardening look almost normal!), so I shall go back a week to the holiday weekend.

The great thing about being retired is that one can ignore Bank Holidays, except to remember to stay at home and keep one's head down. So it was that I found myself with a couple of spare days and a terribly overgrown small parcel of land alongside our tiny ponds which has been crying out for attention for some years.

This area had in fact once been part of a much larger pond which had leaked, so in the end we bought some small (and leak-proof) pond shapes and filled in the rest with garden compost, hoping to make something resembling a bog garden. In the absence of a cordon sanitaire, this area was rapidly invaded by a horrible mixture of invasive 'plants' (Ranunculus lingua was the worst culprit), and noxious weeds (vetch, ground elder, creeping buttercup, celandine, bellbine you name it) which penetrated the large clumps of bog irises, astilbes etc to appalling effect.

In lifting all this out, the biggest problem proved to be no less than three layers of butyl lining as I had progressively tried to stop leaks in the distant past.

There I was, digging this hole.....

In the end I managed to laboriously cut away sufficient of the multiple liners to free-up a space big enough for another pond 'shape' (about 1.6 m x 80 cm) we bought. The problem was to excavate deeply enough to accommodate the shape, which involved some very difficult digging into horrid grey, stiff, plasticky boulder clay, liberally laced with boulders (this typically underlies most of the garden at a depth of more than about 40 cm). Finally, I was able to get the shape into a position where the sides were level with the ground, and part-filed it to make sure it was fairly level.

The next job was to fill in the surrounds with some of the excavated soil (not the clay!) which had been sieved weed-free, ramming it into the spaces around the shape so that no gaps were left.

It so happened that a couple of very large limesone rocks had become marooned under a large Korean Fir above the pond, and these were rolled down to help cover the edge of the shapes. The remainder of the pond edge was covered with pavers.

I was then able to fill in the rest of the surrounds with three barrowfuls of fresh garden compost, and put two of the irises (I. sibirica and I. 'White Swirl') back in small clumps which had been thoroughly cleansed of any weed roots.

I am not displeased with the final result, although I need hardly say that the pond now needs colonising with aquatics and marginals.

In the meantime, lots of lovely things have flowered. I am delighted to be flowering no less than three of the yellow meconopsis originally all classified in M. integrifolia. It turns out that M. sulphurea, I think in the western (mostly Tibetan) subspecies known as gracilifolia which is distinguished by the narrow, strap-shaped leaves and ascending flowers, is by far the earliest to flower. It is a most graceful plant, but will of course prove to be monocarpic. It may be a good thing that two are flowering together.

Another plant which has performed well and has delighted me is Calceolaria uniflora, grown from my own seed. This is a good illustration of the truism that growing plants from your own seed is likely to yield seedlings more suited to your own particular conditions. Certainly several in this batch of seedlings have surpassed their parents, and this one (which sadly missed the shows as have most of my best plants) was the best. Others have been planted amongst artificial tufa in troughs where they look well so far.

Calceolaria uniflora

I have also been delighted with a batch of Lewisia cotyledon seedlings, raised from AGS seed two years ago and grown in long plastic pots in the alpine house where all have thrived.

Lewisia cotyledon

Another group of seedlings performing for the first time are Gentiana verna in the usual 'Angulosa' form. These have taken to my troughs with varying success. Despite the species growing wild less than 30 miles away, I have never found this an easy plant.

A form of Fritillaria pyrenaica has also brought pleasure this year. I cultivated this for many years in the open garden where it became rather neglected and overgrown. Two years ago I rescued it and pot it in a pot where it receives conventional bulb treatment in the alpine house. It has responded magnificently.

Fritillaria pyrenaica

A more modest bulbous subject is only just flowering now, despite its extreme south-western location in Portugal. This is the local endemic Scilla vincentina, which seems perfectly hardy under cold glass here.

Scilla vincentina

Delosperma congesta had responded to propagation and repotting. This seems to be a plant which need regular repotting and well worth the effort too.

Delosperma congesta

Out in the garden I have been tremendously impressed by this tree peony. It is necessary to say that tree peonies are weeds here and self-sow with some abandon. These are the red P. delavayi and the yellow P. ludlowii, both of which have simple flowers of modest proportions. We have tried to grow P. rockii and P. ostii, but they didn't like us and died fairly quickly, but not before flowering. I do wonder if some of their 'blood' has entered this particular P. ludlowii seedling.

I shall conclude with the earliest dianthus to flower here, D. microlepis. Several seedlings have settled down in the sand bed where they have proved slow-growing but reliable. Doubtless they receive very little in the way of nutriment.

Dianthus microlepis


A couple of more additions while I am about it. I have arised a nice batch of Primula reidii from seed. These come well and grow adequately in a cool spot (gritty compost, plastic pot, feed regularly with liquid tomorite). The trick is overwintering, best plunged outside in a covered frame. I think it is vital to give them a good water in mid-March to 'wake them up'. Often they go down looking good and then fail to reappear. I have four, pins and thrum so am hoping for seed.

Primula reidii

I have two sizeable groups of Trillium grandiflorum. I like this group as it is set off by the Primula 'Waverley' seedlings I have written about previously. Rhododendron 'Curlew' is also in shot.

Trillium grandiflorum

Finally (really finally!) I popped up to the Dipton Forest for my annual fix with Green Hairstreaks yesterday afternoon. Tree Pipits were singing everywhere too.

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