A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: 16 November 2008 by John Richards
Northumberland Diary. Entry 98.
Its a wrap
Over the last week I have finished, more or less, the last two jobs of the autumn. Firstly, the tulips have been planted. We wait this long, partly because the tubs had summer bedding which has remained in fairly good condition until now. In fact we have potted up some gazanias and osteospermums and put them under the bench in the alpine house in the hope that they can be reused (or cuttings taken in the case of the osteospermums) next year. Also, it is said that tulips are less susceptible to fungal infections, and are less drawn, when planted late. We never resoil the whole tub/pot. Instead the bedding is removed together with the top half of the compost which is put onto the used compost pile and will be used to refurbish beds in the future. The bulbs are planted and the tubs filled up with the cheapest proprietry potting compost we can buy. Currently we are getting 60 litre sacks for £2.99, excellent value!
Because last spring's bulbs were lifted early and stored cool and dry, most are flowering size. Although we planted eight tubs, we had bought only 24 new bulbs this year, having saved about 100. Non-flowering size bulbs are discarded.
This is also a cue to repot the very few pots of alpine tulip (four!) and calochortus (two!) that had remained dry on the floor of the alpine house. They are now back in the plunge.
The other job was the leaves. There are still two small corners to clear, but I have done 95%. Using the same storage space year after year, I judge that there have been more leaves than ever this year. In part this may be down to the wet summer, but trees I planted when we got here 19 years ago grow ever bigger. Nevertheless, interestingly, leaf clearing is not as big a chore as it was once. The leaves seem to tidy themselves into particular corners now, and they no longer settle in difficult places like the pond, terrace and alpine beds where they had to be meticulously removed by hand. As the garden has matured, eddies and wind patterns seem to have changed for the better. I think that new 'high spots', for instance the tufa bed and crevice bed, mean that leaves no longer lodge there.
As a consequence, there should be very little to do in the garden until the New Year when I sow the seeds. Possibly, I may tackle another bed that needs renewal during the intervening weeks. It depends on the weather, but I am not feeling pressurised. It was so different until four years ago, when I only had the weekends to garden in!
Of course, the 500 or so plants under glass are quite another matter. I find that November is often a critical month, for as the plants go dormant they seem particularly susceptible to phytophthora and rots. Often I fear they are too dry, but even a little extra water can spell disaster. So far this autumn seems not to have been too bad, although I removed a rotten chunk of Pulsatilla vernalis today. The biggest problem is of course the variable weather. After a remarkably cold spell, it is now ridiculously warm, going up to 15C during the day; it has also been sunny. Lovely weather, but rotten for alpines! I usually manage to keep on top of whitefly by using 'Provado' when plants are in growth. I noticed another small outbreak during the week, principally on androsaces. I am loath to use Provado this late, and in any case it may not be effective when plants are dormant. Instead, I mixed two drops of 'Fairy Liquid' (a proprietary brand of mild detergent for those outside the UK) in a litre of warmish tap water in a spray canister, and gently squirted the aphids away. So far, this simply remedy seems to have worked well.
Very little is flowering in the garden now, but here is that excellent garden plant, Crocus speciosus, which flowers very late here.
Alpines I Have Grown
I have long been a fan of Robert Gibbings. Gibbings was a huge, bearded, rumbustrious Irishman with the appearence of James Robertson Justice and the style of George Bernard Shaw. He led the revival of wood engraving as an art form in Britain in the first half of the 20th century, and also greatly encouraged the use of engravings to illustrate fine books, not least through the Golden Cockerel Press that he helped found. During some of his career he taught at Reading University where he was a colleague of my father. My father is quoted anonymously in Gibbings' best known book, 'Sweet Thames Run Softly' and my mother still has a signed copy of the first edition as evidence of this acquaintance.
Thus, it was with great interest that I discovered recently that Gibbings had written an introduction to a slim hardback entitled 'Alpines I have Grown' and written and illustrated with woodcuts by Russell Leslie. This was published in the dark days of November 1940 by Lindsay Drummund, having been printed (on very poor paper!) by the Chiswick Press with which Gibbings was also associated. The woodcuts are variable in quality, but some are so good that I was under illusion that they had been by Gibbings himself until I acquired a copy. This I was able to do through the Internet last week, paying the princely sum of £9 for a less than completely clean but perfectly adequate copy. Interestingly, the copy is inscribed 'July 31 1943. Michael Reford writes:- This is just the book for Anna's birthday'.
Well, you will not be surprised to know that I have immediately jumped to the conclusion that 'Anna' was the great Anna Griffiths. Can anyone help me here? When was Anna Griffiths' birthday? Did she know a Michael Reford?
In fact, Russell Leslie was a pupil of Gibbings, and Gibbings was kind about his labours in the preface. I thought you would like to see the title page.
In all, 29 alpines are illustrated and given brief descriptions. There are also vignettes of another 10. It is clear that Leslie was a skilled and discerning cultivator of choice alpines, which include Campanula cenisia, C. piperi, Epigaea asiatica, Lewisia brachycalyx, Narcissus triandrus, Primula allionii, Ramondia pyrenaica (sic) and Trillium ovatum. I am including scans of my four favourite illustrations. Despite the famous John Nash illustrations for Clarence Elliott's catalogue, there seem to have been relatively few engravings of alpines, and I dare suggest that this little book should be better known.
I have put this final illustration in, not only because I think it is a fine woodcut, but also because of the interest in seeing a plant labelled 'Androsace tibetica' cultivated well in the 1930's. Most plants so labelled turn out to have been what is now known as A. himalaica, a first-rate garden plant. However, I don't think this is. What is it? A. foliosa?