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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 29 November 2012 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 229.

Seed list

While I remember, before I forget, lets start with congratulations to Diane and team on getting the seed list out scarcely into the last week of November. I may be wrong, but surely they have beaten all records in this Olympic year? The bad news is that I hadn't even started looking for it on the web site this year, and so received a severe jolt when it popped through the front door yesterday. So that was half a morning with a coffee and the list, straight to the website, to discover I was, what was it, in the three hundreds of those who had already ordered! Calamity!. Hope I don't only get second choices!! And what a list! So many 'most have' things! As always I shall probably rue my choices when the seed arrives, but thats the fun of the game! The good news is that with luck Diane and her 'Santa's little helpers' will have finished the worst of the distribution during the bad weather and comfortably before Christmas, so they can enjoy their mince pies with the satisfied feeling of a difficult job, well done!

Talking of bad weather, well folk are hard on our weather 'oop north'., and not without reason, particularly during our dank cool summers. Also, we have been very liable to floods in recent years, usually in the early autumn, and Morpeth and Rothbury have become household names in this regard (more so, Cockermouth, but thats north-west).  You may have been hearing more bad stories over the last week about flooding in the North-east and wondered how we got on. Well, the North-east is a large place (especially for the RHS who include Lincolnshire, which is more than half-way to London, in our region!). This time it has been north Yorkshire and parts of south Durham that have copped it. We have not only emerged unscathed, but are not even particularly wet for this time of year. But now its getting cold. -3C last night and scarcely above freezing as I write.

Very little in flower at present: mahonias, viburnums and arbutus. Almost the only 'alpine' making a show is Crocus goulimyi. In common with all our Mediterranean crocus (not as many as previously), it was extremely late this year, and seems set fair to be still flowering at Christmas. The following photo was taken while the temperature in the alpine house was still below zero, so its quite a toughie! C. niveus and C. boryi are scarcely through the ground, and may not flower at all this year.

Bye bye Ellwood

My father's sister, Betty Davey, was married to the first general manager of Calder Hall, as the Windscale and Sellafield atomic power station was known then, and lived at Drigg on the west coast of Cumberland. Naturally, we spent all our summer holidays in this idyllic region, and I enjoyed playing in their large garden which included a massive rock garden in the old style, built of the local blocky red sandstone. Here I am aged about eight, sailing my boat in the rock garden pond.

Bye bye Ellwood

The reason for this outbreak of nostalgia is that when we moved to the North-east in 1970, Betty was still alive, although her husband had died after the notorious Windscale fire (1957) in 1960. By then she was very unwell, and we visited her as often as our very young family and my job permitted. Several of the supposedly dwarf conifers planted in the rock garden had by then reached a considerable size. I took cuttings of several, and one particular success was what I think was a form of Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Ellwoodii'.

This was planted out, and survived two subsequent house moves, so that it, or propagant from it, I forget, was planted close to the house when we arrived here 23 years ago. Obviously, this tree had considerable sentimental value as my last link to my aunt and the 'Red House' garden near Drigg, but despite being close to the north wall of the house in a sterile and dry patch, it had grown to a stately 6 m, and a good 1.5 m through. Also, its roots had penetrated the special bed I had built to house my precious petiolarid primulas, of which more anon, and was sucking it dry. Worse, it was becoming difficult to walk past it round the house. Clearly the time had come for it to go, and Sheila and I thought we could manage it ourselves, me with the saw, and Sheila tugging on a rope to keep the cut open (always a problem with gummy cypresses).

Unfortunately, I forgot to take a photo beforehand, but there is the tree half down.


And Sheila with some of the prunings. We took six old dumpy bags full of prunings to the green waste disposal depot (we can get two at a time in the back of our small estate car).

We left some rather ugly stumps about 0.5 m proud, and were delighted when our friends Alan and Mala came round, Alan with his chain saw, and took the remains right down to the ground, a very neat job. Alan also sawed up the heavier timber into logs, very welcome now that the colder weather has arrived. Here is the neat stump. We are planning to put in a wooden handrail up this path which can become lethally slippery in icy weather.

Just round the corner from the last photo is the 'pet bed', the special bed I had built with Swedish peat blocks to house petiolarid primulas some eight years ago. As already noted, this had become invaded with cypress roots over the last few years. Equally seriously, it had become badly infested with polytrichum moss and other bryophytes, so I was struggling to grow primulas and the accompanying shortias. Once the tree had gone, I resolved to take the bed apart and start again. Here is the bed yesterday, before I started.

As a matter of interest, here are two photos taken just after the bed was completed, in 2004, and one year later, with petiolarid primulas in flower.

Some primulas had survived to the present day, mostly P. moupinensis and P. boothii repens, both of which have a creeping habit which probably helped their survival.

There were also some Shortia uniflora kantoense seedlings, and I was amazed to discover that a fragment of Diapensia lapponica, which I hought was long-gone, had survived.

The peat blocks were extracted, the worst of the polytrichum sliced off them. Most had fragmented, but I kept the larger lumps, and stored the smaller pieces for infilling.

Once the old cypress roots and weeds had been removed, the blocks were reinserted round the edge of the reformed bed. The blocks were put back upside down, so exposing fresh surfaces, and hopefully burying what moss has survived beyond resuscitation.

At this point I repaired to the compost heap and leaf mould pile, and filled two barrows with a well-mixed and partially sieved mixture of I part well-rotted compost, one part well-rotted lead-mould, and half a part perlite. This was used to infill the peat walls, and the extracted plants (primulas and Diapensiaceae only) were replanted. Our overtame blackbirds were already showing a keen interest, and would undoubtedly scratch everything straight out again from the loose new compost, so the plants have now been caged under an old bakers tray, and topped with glass to keep excess moisture away (this is my usual policy for petiolarids in the garden). I shall probably plant out some primula seedlings which are at present languishing in pots on the floor of one of the alpine house into some of the free space, but that will have to wait until the present freezing weather relents.

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