A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: 15 November 2010 by John Richards
Northumberland Diary. Entry 166.
After one of the finest displays of autumn colour for many years, we have suffered one of the abruptest switches between seasons I can remember. Several hard frosts have sandwiched a few days of blustery gales and torrential rain so that, suddenly, the trees are bare and most herbaceous foliage has collapsed into brown sodden heaps. It is winter!
Normally we leave the leaf gathering until most have fallen and the gradual loss gives us plenty of warning. Not this year! After a number of days when I was not free, I had become worried about possible long-term consequences of ungathered litter. I couldn't start to gather leaves until the pit into which they go was cleared of last years rotted mould. Luckily the area into which that goes has recently become vacant due to the construction of the new rhodo bed three weeks ago.
So it was all hands to the pump (well, mine) and in two backbreaking hours I emptied the pit of its sodden mould. The pit (below) is three metres square, bounded by railway sleepers, and the mould this year was at least 30 cm deep; say 3 cubic metres, and it must have weighed at least 3 tonnes, being waterlogged. Here is the pit, and the new pile. It will be ready for use in a few more months.
In the 21 years that we have lived in this half-acre wooded garden I have been assiduous about leaf clearing. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, I regard the autumn leaf-fall as a harvest as much as a nuisance. Well-rotted leaf mould is an excellent component of woodland beds, and many groups of plants, Trilliums, Erythroniums, Meconopsis, Primulas, snowdrops and many others love it. Structurally and in pH it is very similar to peat, but is ecologically much more friendly, and is also more nutrient-rich. Last year, the rather odd people who were renting next door (they are long since gone) dumped all their leaves in our pit, through a hole in the hedge, and until I had to shift it a few days ago I welcomed the extra benison.
This year, and from now on, we will have far fewer leaves, because the big lime tree was felled a couple of months back. After this year the big Acer capillipes will also make far fewer leaves as we are presently in the process of coppicing it. We will lose the lovely bark (and what pristine, solid, gleaming white timber it forms!), but will keep the lovely leaves, and much more light and air will reach that part of the garden. As we grow older, there will be fewer leaves to gather (it is hard work for an old back!). Nevertheless, it has been surprising how much leaf litter has been generated this year, perhaps because it was such a good growing season, generally fairly warm and damp without flooding or drought.
Amongst the other reasons why it is essential to gather all the leaves is that evergreen plants, and all alpines, hate to have heavy cardboardy wet leaves dumped on them. Also, the lawn suffers under autumn leaf fall, paths become slippery, the pond becomes anaerobic and slimy, and it looks a mess. It is vital to gather leaves, even from areas where they are doing little harm if they are not trapped. As the winter progresses the leaves dry out and blow, so if they haven't smothered that precious alpine now, they will probably do so later on!
Also, gathering leaves is satisfying. Here is an area before and after the leaves have been removed.
To rake the leaves, I use a springy tined leaf rake. This is excellent for getting the leaves (and other dead vegetation) out of growing areas, although it is hard work! I would happily use a leaf blower if I thought it would work, but in this garden the vegetation is too dense and the leaves too soggy for it to be effective. I rake the leaves into piles on the lawn, and if the leaves are large and I am near the leaf pile I pick them up between two gloves and carry them there. I used to use two wooden boards, but found these clumsy and unnecessary. With smaller leaves, further away, I put them into barrows.
Leaves don't settle randomly, but accrete against obstructions, in hollows and where eddies form. A lesson I learnt early on here was that if small subjects are placed in raised positions, leaves rarely settled there, so that I didn't have to pick or rake them clear (if raking over alpines, it needs to be done with a very light touch; just the weight of the rake or less. It is a skilled job). This is one of the reasons so many of the planting areas here are raised.
Here is a good example of a low corner against obstructions where leaves gather. They need to be lifted fast if the lawn there is not to suffer.
Because of this effect, few leaves settle on the alpine terrace (just against the lawn edge where they are easily raked up).
Now that the temporary lights are in place over the Meconopsis plantings, I find that few leaves blow under, and if they do, they are light and dry. Evergreen Meconopsis hate wet leaves on them in autumn!
The upper (main) garden is now more or less clear of leaves. I have yet to clear the lower garden on the other side of the house, but that is not so big a task. Here is a general view of part of the upper garden, settled for winter!
There are still several primulas in flower. Rather to my surprise, a flower has opened on the little Primula albenensis that Terry Teal gave me. Although it has now been cultivated for nearly 20 years, it is still rare in cultivation as it is not easily propagated and seems rarely to set seed.
I showed another rare European primula a few weeks ago, but the Slovenian P. carniolica is now looking good and worth posting again.
I planted some Primula forbesii seedlings out in the alpine house plunge. If it doesn't get too cold they should flower all winter. This is probably the wild progenitor of P. malacoides.
Primula 'John Fielding' to finish with. This hybrid of P. megaseaifolia and P. juliae seems to be settling down to be an early winter plant, although the flowering season is so long that I was able to exhibit it last March, four months after flowering has begun!