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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 13 October 2014 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 285.

Whatever happened to the heroes?

The following may not go down well, but its fun to go out on a limb occasionally! It occurred to me, in the aftermath of another successful Ponteland autumn Show, howay the lads, what high standards are being achieved currently, not only on the Show bench, but in the field of alpine gardening in general. Such musings result in part from an addiction to old, often very old, copies of the AGS Bulletin, Journal of the Scottish Rock Garden Club, and their ilk. The plain fact is that legendary figures of old, exhibitionwise, would have achieved little in today's arenas. Stalwarts from last century, E.B. Anderson, Willie Buchanan, Connie Greenfield, Roy Elliott are spoken of reverently, but if you look at old monochrome prints of most of their plants (and these are the ones good enough to warrant that precious photograph) it is hard not to think 'what a load of rubbish'. I have been around long enough to remember when a plant of Paraquilegia grandiflora with seven flowers (in fact the number has been debated but contemporaries agree it did not exceed 10) won the Farrer Medal. This plant would in today's climate have struggled to gain a third in section B.

The same could be argued about the nursery trade. Purveyors of former times, Jack Drake, Walter Ingwersen, Alex Duguid, Reggie Kaye, Stuart Boothman could be relied on to supply rare and interesting plants, but the number, quality and value of the offerings from the best of today's suppliers are in a different league.

Very much the same can be said for the fields of plant exploration. We revere Farrer, Forrest, Kingdon Ward, Sherriff and others, and there is no doubt that their physical achievements, in the face of unimaginable difficulties, were indeed legendary. Indeed, the first two died in the field, and the last-named from delayed conditions brought on by his hardships. Today, transport is so much easier that it is easy to overlook the accomplishments of John Watson, the Sheaders and others in South America; Vojtech Holubec and others in the Caucasus; the Wallises, Paul Furse and many others in central Asia, or Harry Jans, and again many others in the Himalayas and China. Modern regulations may be such that not as many plants are being introduced as formerly, but we are seeing thousands of wonderful images which are far more accessible than ever before.

Whatever happened to the heroes? Well, I think that we are living, now, in the ultimate era of alpine heroes, both in the garden and in the field. I think modern growers and explorers have been unmatched in the past. Prophets are invariably ignored in their own time, but the next generation (IF there IS a next generation, and that is a very big IF) will look back  at those mentioned above, and, goodness, Cecilia, Don Peace, Brian Burrow, Geoff Rollinson, The Ransons, The Youngs, Cyril Lafong, the Taylors and countless others and think 'those were the heroes'.



Its the best time for berries, and quite a good year too. I have struggled with Callicarpa x bodinierii for several wet summers, to the extent it nearly died. It is not in a great place, suffering from shade and root competition, but it recovered a bit after last year;'s reasonable summer, and after another warm spell is putting on the best show for a bit. It can be much more spectacular than this, but it can succeed in a difficult place, which is a great recommendation.


Sorbus microphylla, an uncommon species from the central Himalaya, is best known for its startling purple flowers, but over the years it has come to fruit more and more profusely.

Large-berried Sorbus cashmiriana has the happy habit of dropping leaves early, the better to show off its abundant, pendant fruit.

Blackbirds are just starting to realise that our Sorbus 'Joseph Rock' seedling (darker in colour than Joseph Rock itself and probably a hybrid with S. aucuparia; both species are sexual unlike many Sinohimalayan rowans) is ripe enough to eat. Like Joseph Rock itself the leaves darken to an attractive purple, but often the fruits have gone by then so that the contrast is lost.

It has been quite an early autumn, perhaps because trees leafed early in the spring, so that our Arbutus unedo has dropped most of its white bells by now. Unusually we have a few of last year's fruit, yet to colour properly, which is also probably a result of two good summers. I was surprised to see how popular the flowers were with the Red Admirals. This is the last type of flowers I would have expected butterflies to visit, but this late in the year, I guess beggars can't be choosers.

If I was to choose a minature tree for the rock garden, it would be hard to go further than Acer palmatum 'Dissectum'. I grew up in a garden with a venerable example some four metres across, but it takes half a century to reach those dimensions. Our plant has been in the same rather dark corner for 15 years.

The Hesperantha coccinea is at its best. An invasive weed here, but such a lovely thing that we give it its head in one area.

We often choose this time of year to undertake drastic pruning as the leaves are dropping and the sap no longer rises. We have taken more than half off our overvigorous but very lovely Parrotia. This has the benefit of showing off its wonderfully contorted stem.

Its a magical time of year!

I cannot overemphasise how important it is to push on this year's seedlings so that they are mature enough to overwinter successfully. This fishbox is full of this years meconopsis and primulas, all of which are now big enough to flower next spring. They were pricked out early and planted out early, and liquid fed.

Finally, one of the pleasures of October tends to be out-of-season flowers. We started (nearly) with paraquiliegia, so here it is to finish with. I wish it would cover itself in the spring!

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