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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 06 November 2012 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 227.


No sun, no moon, no morn, no noon,

No dawn, no dusk, no proper time of day

No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease

No comfortable feel in any member

No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,

No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds


Well, not quite as bad as that perhaps! Old Tommy Hood was writing in 1844 in the middle of the Industrial Revolution, amongst the dark satanic mills, and I don't suppose that the smoke and smog helped matters any. Today we have a 'dreich' day up here, cold, wet and windy (at least the Scots got one word right!). However, yesterday was a lovely day for a funeral (for the doyen of Northern Botanists, Professor George Swan, who died last week aged 95), making even Blyth Crematorium look reasonably blithe.

We were in the south last week, baby-sitting grandchildren while my son-in-law had a spell in hospital, but just before we went, the North-East gave us quite a taste of winter, October snow! I can remember June snow before, but October is new for our 43 years here, I think. It only lasted a few hours of course, but was very pretty while it lasted. Here is Desfontainea spinosa, looking very Christmassy!










Sorbus reducta had reached that stage in which the leaf colour was so intense that it was difficult to discern the berries.

However, the snow soon saw to that and within 24 hours, nothing was left but the berries! Luckily the birds visit this very late. Nearly all the rest of our Sorbus berries have been eaten already in what has proved a disastrous year for fruits for the wintering thushes.

The parrotia looked fantastic in the snow. This has been as good as ever this year, giving us more than two months-worth of changing colour, the best autumn colour plant of all I say, certainly here.

Other parts of the garden looked terrific too, the snow showing off the vivid colours of Acer griseum and Davidia involucrata well here.

Autumn colour is a moving feast, as well as a moveable one,of course. As I look our of the window, beech is at its best, together with Xanthorrhiza, Viburnums and others. Fothergilla monticola has lasted well, and like parrotia, the leaves are different colours.

Acer micranthum is not the fastest-growing of maples, and it has taken a decade to make an impact. Like many of the eastern maples it likes shelter, and suits our cool woodsy garden well.

Acer circinatum is another species which has taken time to make an impact.

You will have gathered by now that I greatly treasure autumn colour, which can make as great an impact, with comparable swathes of colour, and lasting just as long a season, as spring blooms. In general I don't think people plant for autumn colour, or think hard enough about its use in the garden. OK, I accept that we are talking shrubs and small trees here, not alpines, and the smallest of gardens will not be suitable for most autumn colour subjects. However, shortias, vacciniums, dwarf sorbus, species azaleas and many other alpines can have startling autumn colour, and there is usually room for one or more of the smaller acers, or a fothergilla or hamamelis.

While 'down south' I was able to spend a day at Kew. Interestingly, their colour was nothing like as far advanced as ours, nor as good. Springs vary in their 'flower power' and this is equally true of autumns. We have enjoyed one of the better ones up here, but it looked as if this was less true of the London region. However, there is still time, and there were some super trees to see nevertheless. Here is Cotinus obovatus, followed by Acer opalus. Tommy Hood wasn't thinking of such glory when he wrote his dirge!

Time to visit a few alpines while I was at Kew! I was greatly impressed by the way autumn crocuses were naturalised in grass under trees in many areas. Both C. pulchellus and C. speciosus seemed to be represented. These had yellow anthers, so although they resembled C. pulchellus in many ways, I think they must be a pale form of C. speciosus.

I was also delighted to see a pale form of C. tournefortii in several places on the rock garden, where they are clearly hardy. We certainly could not grow this cycladean sea-level species outside here! Joanne Everson told me that there are at least two accessions thriving outside.

The less commonly seen C. caspius was in a pot in the alpine house however, probably because of its rarity in cultivation rather than any innate tenderness.

The tender chinese petrocosmeas did not survive our recent run of hard winters, so it was good to see some thriving pans in the shelter of the alpine house. P. ioides, followed by P. minor.

Finally from Kew, and far away, right at the other end of the garden not far from the pagoda, the Japanese garden looked fantastic. I wonder how many casual visitors get far enough to enjoy it? I fear that the following photo may not do it justice, but the combination of liriopes, tricyrtis and callicarpas, all various shades of luminous violet, was both original and stunning.

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