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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 16 November 2015 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 307.

Is it worth the space?

I am only too aware of my many short-comings as a gardener, but am insufficiently ruthless, or driven, to overcome them. Not least amongst these is a tendency to laissez-faire when an old-stager fills a space better occupied by an eager new-comer. With half-an-acre to play with, I have spent a good part of the last 26 years filling what was originally a mostly empty space. If a plant grew, or was there already, I have tended to turn a blind eye. But plants continue to grow, and encroach on planting spaces. As the years unroll, I find myself short of fresh ground where I can plant the seedlings I raise. Looking around, I am forced to wonder whether that old favourite, now looking sick, or short of flower, can finally be dispensed with? Increasingly, the answer is 'yes'.

Back in the spring I reported that I had finally decided to fell an Acer crataegifolium which was starting to die back, and this freed up a planting space in which seedlings meconopsis and primulas have flourished amazingly. Another piece of ground became available in June when it became clear that the ancient laburnum had to be felled as it had split asunder during a summer storm under the weight of its blossom. Another compost heap was emptied and another 20 meconopsis planted out.

The latest event was caused by our assessment of the distinctly underwhelming impact of the entrance area. So far an ancient Malus 'Profusion' from before our time has been spared, but a neighbouring hybrid rhododendron of similar vintage, probably 'Cunningham's White', had never convinced. Next to it had been a space once occupied by a truly horrible double kerrya, into which we had moved a Rosa 'Geranium', another inheritance from our rose-loving predecessors, which we had thought too good a plant to throw out completely. Its half-hearted performance for about a week each June proved us wrong.

So it was that about a month ago our friend Alan helped us move the rose and rhodo. I was still pleading a newish hip, but his long-spit spade and stronger back did a much better job than I would have done in any case. Since then my joints have recovered to the extent that I have dug the resulting ground over, and then barrowed in 10 loads, nearly all of a one-year old heap. This will be left to weather until the spring, when the next set of mecs and primulas will be looking for a home, although we are already planning a trip to acquire a couple of good species rhodos. It is quite a decent space, about 12 metres by three.

We have our eyes on another piece of ground much further up the same border. This area, originally under ancient apple trees which have now mostly fallen down, was dominated by two enormous and ancient shrubs which probably dated back to when our garden was part of a much bigger garden of the 'big house' in whose grounds our '70's Swedish prefab was built. These were (still are in fact) a red weigela and a third-rate philadelphus. For the last quarter of a century we have let them be, until this autumn when Sheila, who is a much keener chopper than I, started snipping, then chopping, one thing led to another, and suddenly both are effectively reduced to stumps from which any subsequent new growth can be controlled and tamed. One benefit is that a couple of climbing roses have much more space to go up what remains of the apples (a massive 'Wedding Day' is still glorious when it flowers further down the border). 

The snag is that the ground was carpeted with ivy (quite well up the lengthy public enemy number list here), so we have had to wait until the fresh ground, where the ivy had been 'mown', sprouts new ivy from the buried roots. At this point, brushwood killer will be brought into play, and we hope to deposit the next compost heap and plant it up by the middle of next summer. Already we are started to dump some spent compost there.

Other developments have been on a more modest scale. One complex chain of events started with the realisation that the half-plunge (i.e a space about 7 x 3 feet) in the older alpine house in which I have for many years planted some subjects out has been dominated for far too long by two plants, Iris aphylla, and Primula erratica. Both flower well,  and are very unusual, but were so happy that between them they took up about half the space. They provided lots of propagation material, but nevertheless by no means merited the huge amount of precious space they had come to occupy. The primula does not really thrive anywhere else, so some has been spared, but the iris was all planted outside in a sunny sand-bed, as I already had a show-plant in a pot in the other house.

Looking to replant some of this plunge, I became aware of how much home-made tufa I had buried there when I first created this planting over a decade ago. In fact I unearthed four large lumps, each about 8-15 kg in weight. These were put on one side, and the area replanted with seedlings, cuttings etc. and top-dressed with grit. Notice the sphondylia primulas, P. kewensis, P. verticillata and P. floribunda which greatly enjoy these conditions and self-sow.

So, what to do with the tufa? Looking around the garden, it was obvious that the long raised bed above the terrace, where I grow most of my more choice alpines (or in troughs),  sported a gap between one of the raised sand-bed sections, and an older raised tufa-bed (home-made again). This gap had become colonised by a rather invasive small hybrid lilac geranium, quite nice in itself, but rather sparsely flowered and tending to spread and smother neighbours when in growth. Another member of the 'do I really want it there?' brigade. Once every tiny piece of the geranium had been carefully removed, the new space was already mostly made up with gravel and sand, so it was easy to half-bury the tufa lumps, making a small cliff as I did so. Using an old brace and bit, I drilled several planting holes into each, in which have been planted  spring gentian seedlings, primula cuttings, and a small Saxifraga dinnikii seedlingAlso, I had become concerned about the well-being of my three Leucogynes (New Zealand edelweiss) which were becoming too shaded, so these were moved into what is essentially a north-facing sand-bed inrterspersed with lumps of tufa. Here are a couple of view of the finished article.

Yet another example of my new-found ruthlessness concerns an old Belfast sink, covered with hypertufa, which had slowly become totally infested with that lovely plant, Teucrium pyrenaicum. NOT a suitable subject for a trough! A couple of months ago I removed every scrap (and an ants nest), resoiled it all, and replanted with new seedlings and cuttings. The Teucrium has been replanted in the rock garden where it seems to have settled down perfectly well. Several bits were potted and gifted or sold.

Another area which has received 'the treatment' is what I call the petiolarid bed, where I grow most of the shade-requiring primulas. This mixture of leaf-mould and perlite readily attracts liverwort in particular, and soon runs out of goodness, so I resoil it every two years ago, usually in the early autumn. The first photo shows the magnificent resting bud of Primula x 'Soup-Plate', and the second one, Omphalogramma delavayi and Primula nana. I shall be happy if all survive to flower in the spring!

The Nerine bowdenii border has been magnificent with more than 50 stems, even after such a poor summer.

I am also starting to collect a few of the hybrids of different colours. These are less hardy and are grown in the alpine house. It is vital that if pot-grown they are underpotted.

Crocus goulimyi has been wonderful, two weeks late for any show! It is also flowering in the garden now, where spare bulbs had been planted.

Crocus goulimyi

The Saxifraga fortunei have also been too late for the shows. This is 'Autumn Tribute'.

Saxifraga fortunei 'Autumn Tribute'

This is the first time I have flowered Cyclamen confusum from seed. It is very late compared with C. hederifolium and did not flower until November. It seems quite compact and distinct, with flowers from the top of the corm, as in C. africanum.

Cyclamen confusum

A view from the top of the garden to finish with, featuring Fothergilla monticola, Sorbus microphylla and with Acer griseum  and Abies koreana in the distance.

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