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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 11 October 2015 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 305.

Abcess makes the heart grow fonder.

Yes, yes, I know, more than five weeks without a contribution. Were I to be entirely frank, this is less due to personal circumstances, and more due to lack on inspiration at this less than inspiring time of year (I have never really come to love cyclamens). Nevertheless, were I to plead personal circumstances, it might be considered that for once I have a plausible let-off. Some of you will know that I have struggled with a somewhat arthritic hip for a few years, nothing that didn't stop me botanising and gardening to some extent, and, numbed with paracetamol and with the aid of a stick, I was able to limp a good four miles of uneven ground to the very last. Nevertheless, I had carefully planned a hip joint replacement for the early autumn on the expectation that a) the field season would be over by then and I would hope to be A/OK by the start of the next one and b) someone else would pick up the autumn leaves, my very least favourite chore of the year.

So it was that I came under the tender care of Mr Murty early on the morning of September 14th. I was able to leave hospital the very next day, and by day 16, I was able to walk the three miles from the Cow Green Car Park to Cauldron Snout waterfall and back (Widdybank Fell, a famous alpine locality in Upper Teesdale, rank with spring gentians, although not then of course). Despite some difficulty in sleeping at first, I have to say that my recovery, and the benefits accruing, have been little short of miraculous, and I feel both very lucky and very blest.

I was nervous as to whether I could attend the Newcastle Autumn Show yesterday, but in practice I did so with rather less physical inconvenience than usual. Tomorrow I shall be four weeks in, and still not allowed to drive for another two weeks and wear those ridiculous surgical stockings.

But thats enough about me. Doubtless you will hear much more about the Show elsewhere, and I took no photos, but for what its worth, here is my tuppence-worth.

This was avowedly a highly experimental Show, being to my knowledge the first ever to be held at a Garden Centre, and thus worth a comment. On the whole I thought it a great success, and a possible model for the future. I was glad that our Director attended, so that she could see how it panned out. The advantages are obvious, of course. Good accessibility and parking, carts to move plants, a ready-made captive audience to both view and purchase plants, and, being held in a glasshouse, brilliant illumination for the Show.

There were snags, some of which were down to this particular venue. Curiously, this large Garden Centre has no toilets, and we had access to only a single private WC. As you may deduce, it also has no cafe, which allowed us to make money from limited sales of sandwiches, cakes and tea, but was problematic for lunches. There were also lacunae from which we can learn. It is a large and confusing site, and not only was it difficult to signpost and advertise the Show and Sales, but even were this optimised, I think that many casual visitors would miss the Show. But I would say on balance, thumbs up. It will be interesting to see how the finances pan out. We paid no rent, but of course had no income from the door.

Autumn gentians

My main contribition to the show bench were several largeish pots of autumn gentians. Despite considerable encouragement, these were still not quite in flower, and did not raise a red sticker between them. They are also rather lax and perhaps not as densely flowered as maybe. Talking to that expert grower Frank Hoyle, we surmised that they had been a bit heavy on the nitrogen. Certainly, the proprietary compost which claims to be a 7:7:7 was mixed with 50% perlite, but they had received several liquid feeds of 'tomorite', which again should not be overheavy in nitrogen. Perhaps the other nutrients had leached more quickly as the pots stood outside all summer. In future I may feed with bonemeal instead. Here are a few pictures, firstly 'Silken Skies'.

Gentiana 'Silken Skies'

And Gentiana 'Blue Silk'.

Gentiana 'Blue Silk'

The last two were raised at Aberconwy of course, and the next one was also obtained from there, as they had rescued and propagated it. However, this is an old clone which I remember at Edrom many years ago, growing in an old stone trough near the cottage, and later named for its selector, Gentiana farreri 'Alex Duguid'.

Gentiana farreri 'Alex Duguid'

The final gentian was raised by Ian McNaughton and named 'Braemar'. I did well with this last year, but this year it has flowered much earlier on one side, despite being turned very regularly all summer.

Gentiana 'Braemar'

I also took along a pan of Crocus kotschyanus which I bought at a plant sale a few years back. I confess that I had not previously noted that about half the bulbs have the typical yellow throat to the flower and half a white throat (v. leucopharynx). Doubtless, this distinction is only controlled by a single gene, and although the purist might be tempted to sort them into the two varieties, I rather like the contrast. Fortunately, so did the judges.

Crocus kotschyanus

The autumn bulbs are very late here this year. Crocus banaticus has finally started to flower in the garden, but many large colchicums are still going full bore in mid October, and most of my Show pans of Greek autumn crocus have not started yet. Remarkably, even Merendera montana is only just showing colour. However, many bulbs of this, sternbergias and some crocus seem to be blind this year. I think I may have overwatered the resting pots during the summer, and in this cool season, they received very little 'baking' up here.

Of course, the colchicums outside have been as good as ever. Here is a stand of Colchicum 'Lilac Wonder'.

Colchicum 'Lilac Wonder'

Autumn colour

We have of course reached that magic time of year when the leaves start to colour, and this had already become an excellent fall for colour. I would like to take this opportunity to republicise my website '' which has about 400 images of trees and shrubs in autumn colour, all hopefully correctly named and with comments on identification, gardenworthiness, and locations at which you can see them. I decided to run this for a year and see how popular it proved. Despite not 'Googling' well (it is improving now I have rewritten the intro), it had gathered some 13,000 hits in a year so I decided to run it for another year and see if it really takes off. Please check it out, and if you like it, please tell others! By the way, I make no money, indeed the site is at present costing me to run.

I thought I would start a brief celebration of this season in this small garden, with the view from the kitchen window.


Autumn colour

In the last picture, parrotia in the foreground. I love the contrast between the grey Salix lanata and the acers.

This next view is further down the front garden and features a large Vaccinium corymbosum.

The other end of the garden features a contrast between the dying foliage of  Simethis planifolia, and the early colour of Fothergilla major. And, even rhodos have some autumn colour!

Davidia, out of the bedroom window!

Betula ermanii

And Sorbus reducta.

Sorbus reducta

As always, the red form of Hesperantha coccinea, highly invasive here, is making a great show in the one area, next to the pond, where we have allowed it to take over. It is completely hardy and all it asks is to never dry out which is no problem in this garden. As can be seen here, it currently dominates the view from the conservatory.

Hesperantha coccinea

Salvia microphylla, wildly fashionable as are all the Mexican salvias, is rather less reliable in winter here. In fact the various clones vary in their hardiness and 'Blackcurrant Sage' is one of the toughest. Unless we have a long freeze, it should survive in this warm dry site next to one of the alpine houses. Incidentally, I note that this clone did not have its award reinstated during the recent RHS trial of Mexican salvias, perhaps because it is less free-flowering than some. I wonder if the hardiness of the various forms, particularly in the North, should have been given more credence?

Salvia microphylla 'Blackcurrant Sage'

There are many plants which are very relaible under cold glass but will not tolerate winter wet when the frosts come. The Cretan endemic Verbascum arcturus is one of these. Unusual amongst mulleins in being perennial, it is fast growing and if dead-headed will flower more than once a year. It is best grown in a long-tom and rapidly roots out of the bottom into the plunge, and if the tap roots are broken it sometimes grows from root cuttings. Given room, it is in fact happiest when planted out into the sand plunge itself. Otherwise it is necessary to propagate it fairly regularly from seed or cuttings. Is it worth it? Well, it reminds me of Crete, which is worth quite a lot!

We often get the odd flower on Gentiana acaulis now, especially the clone 'Coelestina' which was arised locally at the long-defunct Harrison's Ponteland nursery more than half-a-century ago. I think it has the largest flower of any of the acaulis group.

Gentiana acaulis 'Coelestina'
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