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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 20 November 2016 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 328.

On my bike

The season of mists and mellow fruitiness heralds a quieter season in the garden which has been judged, probably correctly, as an appropriate time to hold various beanfeasts, the autumn conferences of the AGS and SRGC chief among them. In my case, talks, like buses, seem to arrive in gaggles. So it was that in the previous week I managed to find myself in Dublin, Stratford and Threave (south-west Scotland) within seven days, having had a cataract successfully removed the previous Sunday morning. Shortly before we had visited Edinburgh for a Meconopsis Group meeting. The travelling has not stopped yet, for we travel south for my mother's 100th birthday tomorrow. In fact, this is a great time to meet old friends and make new ones, and we have thoroughly enjoyed being 'on the road'. Talking about the diary at Stratford I mentioned that I got withdrawal symptoms if I did not 'blog' at regular intervals. Perhaps this addiction is wearing thin, bcause this is the first offering for a month. I shall use my journeys as an excuse!

They also provide an opportunity. Here first are a few photos from our Edinburgh visit, first that superb vista of 'The Athens of the North', my favourite city, from an eminence in 'The Botanics' (Royal Botanic Garden).

On my bike

John Mitchell who manages the alpine sections at the Botanics was a speaker at both the Mec Group meeting and the AGS AGM. In his superb talk at the latter he mentioned how some previous mass plantings at the Botanics were no longer successful, perhaps because of climate change. Petiolarid primulas figured amongst these. However there are still many wonderful features there, not least the new peat walls full of Shortias. One group that still succeeds there is autumn gentians. I have featured their mass plantings before but they deserve another outing. Here is Gentiana ternifolia 'Cangshan', introduced three decades ago by John's father Bob, and far more successful at Edinburgh than most other places.

Gentiana ternifolia 'Cangshan'

Another plant rarely seen today is Gentiana 'Kidbrooke Seedling'.

Gentiana 'Kidbrooke Seedling'

Turning now to Dublin, I was fortunate to be offered hospitality by Billy Moore and his wife Anne. Billy is a fine grower and expert judge who has won many prizes at Irish Shows, and he has a splendid, diverse, interesting garden. Here is a view of his frames and alpine house.

They get away with murder in sheltered parts of the Dublin district, or rather I should say they manage not to murder plants that I would, witness the large Madeiran Euphorbia mellifera to the right of the last photo. I need hardly say that Billy's alpine house was full of some miraculous plants, including several of the largest Primula henrici presently in cultivation.

You expect to see good celmisias in Ireland and Billy's garden is no exception, as in this unprotected planting in which the Australian C. longifolia plays a major part.

Afficionados will have spotted the plant of Celmisia 'David Shackleton' in the right foreground. Wonderful that this superb plant still survives. For me, an equally good silver is Celmisia incana, distinct from and superior to the more ubiquitous and easier C. allanii.

Celmisia incana

Another relatively tender plant is that doyenne of walls, Trachelospermum jasminoides. Nice as it is with panicles of white fragrant flowers, to my mind it really comes into its own in the autumn when it flushes a wonderful lustrous purple.

Trachelospermum jasminoides

Home again

The main news here is that after a mild run-in, this autumn has now turned splendidly cold. We have had frosts for several nights over the last week, and last night provided a real cruncher with -4C outside and in the alpine house too. In my reckoning, this is really great. For a start I can forget about annual weeds for the next six months. Also, levels of pests should become well controlled (what my mother calls the 'wowfies'; I have no idea of the derivation of this word or even how it is spelt, but it seems to sum up pestilential creepy-crawlies quite well). We have a particular problem with 'cut-worms' (mostly the larvae of the Large Yellow-Underwing moth I think), and we have the beginnings of an outbreak of wine-weevil after many years absence. I shall wield the 'Provado' come spring. However the real boon of timely frosts in this carbon-rent world is that they shut down more difficult perennials into a healthy slumber. There is nothing mecs, asiatic primulas and many European alpines loath more than a warm damp winter with the very low light levels that this garden experiences (we have now reached the point at which the sun scarcely creeps over the wood topping the hill to our south).

Here is a view of the garden at 10 am this morning.

Home again

And the frost-rimed alpine houses on the other side of the house.

Just along from the last photo are three 'dwarf' conifers, Abies nordmanniana 'Golden Spreader', Pinus mugo and further back, Cryptomeria japonica 'Elegans', topped by what is now a 12 m high Juniperus 'Skyrocket' which we inherited as a fair-sized plant 27 years ago. This frames the right side of the next picture. These conifers become invaluable in the garden as the winter progresses.

It has been a great year for berries and an even better year for Redwings and Blackbirds, so that few berries remain. Waxwings have appeared in our little town over the last few days, although they have not ventured here so far. This photo shows the last of Sorbus lancastriensis, with Sikkimia reevesiana.

Alongside is a rather diminished thicket of Xanthorrhiza simplicissima, an over-vigorous plant cut back to provide planting space for yet more meconopsis seedlings. Truly, this is Jacob's coat of many colours at this season.

Xanthorrhiza simplicissima

The view from the kitchen window never palls at this time of year, dominated by the Betula utilis 'Jacquemontii' we planted quarter of a century ago.

I should perhaps have mentioned the parrotia on the left of the last photo. We planted a second 'Jacquemontii' much more recently to provide some screening to the compost heap. It is displaying mature bark colour for the first winter now.

Another reliable performer at the end of the autumn is Acer griseum. Welcome to winter, start of the alpine season!

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