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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 15 November 2009 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 132.

Replanting a trough

From time to time, not often enough, I get so disgusted by the poor state of a trough that I am forced to turf everything out and start again. Four of my troughs have currently achieved this advanced decripitude, and on Thursday I attacked the first one. The biggest problem with some of my troughs is moss, which is worst at this time of year. So humid is my garden, that moss tends to overrun even the best drained of containers in time. This photo shows the state of the trough before I started.

Replanting a trough

As you see, the trough is glazed, which is undesirable. On the plus side, it is quite an interesting shade of brown, is a reasonable size, and has very thick walls so it has good thermal stability. Better still, it has CORBRIDGE (the next small town to here) stamped on it. For many years, a commercial kiln above the town produced these distinctive troughs for stock to drink from. I purchased two from a farm sale about 15 years ago (£5 each as I recall). Drainage holes had already been drilled. They were planted then and have not been touched since, so they were definitely due a rework!

The first surprise when I started to remove the plantings was that they were well rooted into quite substantial chunks of tufa. I had entirely forgotten that this had been a tufa trough. It might explain the relative longevity of some of the inhabitats. Here are Draba bryoides (as I am delighted to see that Holubec calls this plant in his Caucasus book, rather than a form of D. rigida) and Saxifraga scardica. The Draba was originally obtained from the late Bob Straughan in 1978. It lived in a pot for 15 years, and was part of an AGS medal winning 6-pan at Harrogate in 1988 (!). It eventually outgrew its pot, was divided and part of it planted in this trough. The Saxifrage was grown from seed collected in Greece in 1987. Incidentally, neither of the plants were originally planted into the tufa, but were inserted into crevices manufactured between lumps of tufa, so they have rooted deeply into the Welsh tufa themslves.

Once the trough was empty (the soil was put in a barrow), it was moved to a new position in more light (it weighs about 100 kg empty, so is best 'wheeled' on its narrow side). Then, the drainage holes were cleaned out and crocks put over the drainage.

There was a fair amount of old soil to dispose of. The soil had fragments of tufa throughout and otherwise appeared to be mostly composed of grit, so I thought it might be best spread below the outcrop of artificial tufa as a mulch. This area has dwarf tulips, scillas etc in the spring.

I was now able to make up some new soil to refill the trough. About half a bag of proprietary John Innes no. 3 and half a bag of coarse sand were mixed with several handfuls of perlite and some Growmore pellets; also some old grit saved from 'dead' pots was added. I then added this to about half its volume of gritty old potting soil, mixed it all thoroughly, and planted up the trough.

The hardest job was picking all the fragments of moss from the cushions. I was not entirely successful in this but hope the new sunnier position and improved drainage will discourage the moss.

I also added several of this years seedlings of two forms of Saxifraga callosa, and Dianthus subacaulis. I was now faced with the problem of knowing what to topdress it with. This is not easy. As it is still to some extent a tufa trough, I eventually chose some Cotswold limestone chippings. At present they look quite horrific, but I have used them before and know that they will rapidly tone down and look much more natural. However, I am first to agree that they will never match the earthenware exterior of the trough, and perhapsa reddish andesite might have been a better choice. But this would clash with the tufa! We will see if I can live with the limestone.

I should have mentioned the third large plant, on the right in the first photo and on the left in the second one. This is Minuartia recurva grown from seed collected on Smolikas by MESE in 1999, so a good deal younger than its cohabitants. It is quite a nice plant that covers itself with white starry flowers in late spring.

Yesterday was the occasion of the late Chysanthemum Show in Hexham, and I busied myself shifting tables and handing out prizes. I was chairman of the Show for a few years and instituted a few classes that were not chrysanthemums! It is not easy finding plants of Show quality at this time of year, but I was quite pleased with a variety of Saxifraga fortunei called 'Autumn Tribute'. Here it flowers too late for the AGS autumn Shows and is now at its best.

For many years I have grown  in the garden a large blowsy and undistinguished form of S. fortunei which also flowers in November in most years. It  was rather earlier this year, but is still in quite good condition

Unlike the AGS, the Chrysanthemum Show allows several entries per class, so I also entered Primula 'John Fielding'. This interesting cross between P. megaseifolia and P. juliae should flower in early spring, but i has been in flower for a number of weeks, so it needed considerable tidying up. I fear that its spring potential has been blown this year. It lives in a pot on the shady floor of the alpine house.

There are classes for cut berries and for foliage. Here is my entry for the former, now residing on the kichen table. There are six Sorbus, S. cashmiriana, S. reducta, S. 'Joseph Rock', S. eburnea, S. glabrescens and S. microphylla; also Skimmia x reevesiana, Berberis 'Red Pillar'  and Callicarpa 'Profusion'.

Finally, I was struck by an article in Saturday's 'Times' in which Stephen Anderton was recommending the use of dwarf conifers (very unfashionable!) for winter colour. He showed a lovely picture with the classic combination of blue Picea pungens contrasted with yellows, for instance Chamaecypartis pisifera nana aurea. I thought 'but you don't need conifers for this contrast' and went out to photograph blue foliaged Rhododendrons R. oreotrephes and R. impeditum with Vaccinium praestans.

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