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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 20 October 2013 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 255.

Soggy autumn

Its not often I wish for a frost, but what we need now, more than anything, is to wake up to a white lawn, crispy, rimed leaves, and to celebrate the demise of myriad little annual weeds which have rejoiced in this warm, soggy autumn. This kind of close, warm, humid weather, conjoined with a rapidly shortening daylength, is no good for difficult alpines either. I have spent a few minutes today snipping little bits of mildew-affected tissue out of the few remaining scraps of dionysia I struggle with, and I am even finding diseased tissue in some of the European primulas.

We are in the middle of autumn here, and some of the colour is at its best. This is the fortnight for which we grow the Acer palmatum for which I think the correct name may be 'Osakazuki' (we obtained it as a small plant, unnamed, in 1993). After this the leaves shrivel and lose their lustre, but for the time being, contrasting with the bark of Betula jacquemontii, and the berries of Sorbus fruticosa, it is simply outstanding.

Soggy autumn

Its a good year for the 20 or so sorbus we grow here; a good berrying year in general. I have never been so impressed by Sorbus glabrescens, the 'white hupehensis', which has a very heavy crop. As yet the birds have yet to touch them. In fact, at the moment there is a curious lack of blackbirds, which are usually the main beneficiaries. Normally this garden is disputed by at least three territorial males who consider it highly desirable real estate (a good deal more than the local Agents), and carve it up between them in  never-ceasing noisy squabbles. This year it is silent. I guess this is only a short respite, for the winter thrushes haven't come in yet, but nevertheless spooky and without ready explanation.

Another sorbus, this time a whitebeam, one of many local endemics with which our western limestone cliffs and gorges are blest, has taken nearly 20 years to reach a height of four metres or so. Originally, I collected a few berries from a plant on Humphrey Head in the Morecambe Bay, central to the highly localised distribution of S. lancastriensis. It is a handsome small tree with fine autumn colour.

One more berrying plant is the yellow-fruited form of Pyracantha coccinea, which I think may be called luteocarpa. Pyracanthas are best in full light and with a dry root (they are native to Greece amongst other countries), and our woodland garden does not suit them. At the same time, I suspect that all ours are inferior seedlings (we found them in situ and have not had the heart or strength to remove them). Two, on walls and fences, are kept fairly heavily pruned (and with very thick gloves!), but this one has been let go and is now a small tree, five metres high, up which our lovely wisteria scrambles, so it serves it purpose as a very prickly prop.

Work in progress

Amongst my many faults as a gardener are a fatal (to the plants) fascination with very difficult and probably ungrowable subjects, and a sentimentality which results in the retention of largely worthless subjects which should have been consigned to the compost heap years before. Of course, sloth and inertia are major players in the latter trait.

One of the main features of this garden is a long-ish narrow terrace bed about 25 m long, raised above the patio. As the bed has good natural drainage, and is in what passes for full light in this garden, all of it is used for alpines. These growing areas progress from one to another, starting with the first sand bed, to the artificial tufa mound, and finishing with a limestone rock garden and what has just become a second sand bed. In between, some eight or nine metres had become submerged under, essentially, two species. On the flat grew a huge expanse of  Azorella trifurcata, and down the north terrace sides, a vast covering of Parahebe cataractae. Although both these subjects were delightful in themselves, indeed impressive in flower, and covered a lot of weed-free ground, they were also taking up a lot of precious space, not least because the terrace wall, hidden under the parahebe, was composed of water-worn limestone.

Ineed it is ironic that when we first came here 24 years ago, the limestone lay jumbled along the terrace, but completely hidden under a mass of Hypericum calycinum, so that we were unaware of its presence for several months. And, here I was, quarter of a century, hiding the same stone (rebuilt, of course) under another vigorous, if somewhat classier, shrub.

This is what the area looked like before I tackled it a couple of weeks ago.

Work in progress

Here is all the azorella from the top.

And here is the area cleared, from the patio looking up.

As you can see, the underlying soil is very gravelly, dating back to when I first built this bed and barrowed in many tons of gravel for drainage. My plan now is to introduce several barrows of sieved leaf-mould which I shall fork into the remaining gravel, and then top-dress with about 10 cm depth of new grit/gravel.

There is also the question of the rock face. You will see, slight right of centre in the last photo, two overhangs. Such crevices with 'natural' overhangs, have been employed elsewhere on the terrace face to plant Primula allionii, which have flourished now, unprotected, for a decade. Greatly daring, I have just stuffed a few cuttings of Dionysia aretioides into the 'new' overhangs. We will see! It would be a great joke if they took.

Before we leave the garden, a view from the western boundary across part of the upper garden taken yesterday, showing colour in Betula ermanii on the right.

Before we go into the alpine houses, a view of some celmisias in the second (new) sand bed. Most of these celmisias are new acquisitions, a most generous donation from Alan Furness's quite outstanding collection of the genus. I am particularly fond of C. spedenii (bottom right). The left hand plants are from his excellent form of C. gracilenta (much better than those I grew before). The top right plant is a mystery, probably a hybrid of C. allanii which arose in Alan's garden (where plants self-sow in abandonment), possibly with C. du-retzii. Incidentally, this bed has still to be top-dressed, as it is awiting for the next load of gravel which has not been ordered yet.

Finally, a few late 'stars' from the alpine houses. Firstly, Saxifraga fortunei 'Mt Nachi'. I grow a few forms of this autumn-flowering Japanese saxifrage outside, most in woodsy soil in part-shade in the fond belief that they are woodland plants. Here they grow well, but flower poorly if at all. In desperation I put 'Mt Nachi' in a plastic pot last year and brought it into the alpine house. Here it got completely cooked in the hot summer (although fairly frequently watered with a hose) and was left in place, although most other subjects were removed during the hot spells. Here is the result!

Another autumn subject which more expectedly seemed to enjoy the hot summer under glass was another Japanese, Allium thunbergii 'alba'. For some reason, this treatment seems to have kept it pleasingly compact. For family reasons I had to miss the Ponteland Show last week, where it might have done quite well.

To finish with, three crocuses from the southern Peloponnese. These are seed grown, showing the problem with this means of propagation, you get variability not only in flower shape and colour, but in time of flowering too. Firstly, C. melantherus, that autumn-flowering relative of C. biflorus, which I consider sufficiently distinct to be a full species.

Second, C. boryi with its white anthers and feathery stigma.

And finally C. niveus, perhaps the largest-flowered of all crocuses.

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