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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 27 September 2009 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 127.

House keeping

I sang with the Festival Choir in Hexham Abbey last night, Dvorak's 'Stabat Mater' since you ask, very good, none of us knew it, highly recommended. I only mention this to say that our Rector announced to the throng before the magical kick-off that he had some 'house-keeping' notices to give. No doubt he is required to do so by the health and safety gestapo, but the phrase nearly spoilt the occasion for me from the start.

So I use this heading only in a sense of deep irony, but I thought it was time again (after an interim of three weeks during which the absence of any contribution has no more significance than having nothing worthwhile to say) to say a little about the care of this garden and its plants.

The biggest change since I last wrote was that we have had the hedge that separates us from our neighbour to the north cut. But when I say 'cut' I mean savaged. Both Stephen next door and us have become increasingly exasperated by this huge growth of holly and hawthorn which had become four metres or more in height, as much through in places, and totally unmanageable, because even teetering on the top of unstable ladders, it had become impossible to reach the centre. So at huge expense (£200 each since you ask; it is 40 m long) we have had it professionally reduced to 1.5 m high and through. Consequently it is now just bare stems, but of course it will come back to growth and thicken up over the next year. It is just a question of making sure we keep on top of it from now on. The increase in light and air to that part of the garden (with concomitant loss of privacy, it must be said) has been remarkable. Here the Philadephus coronarius 'Aureus' and Physocarpus opulifolius 'Diabolo', pruned by Sheila, together with some Paeonia ludlowii have been given far more prominence

House keeping

At about the time of my last missive, at the end of the monsoon, I was bringing most of the alpines back inside rather earlier than usual as I feared, like drowned rats, that they had suffered from far too much water. Since then it has not rained at all of course, and we are now suffering a considerable drought, so that I have been watering (and 'up and over' on a hose-pipe) for some days (no, we are not metered!).

Nevertheless, the alpines in pots seemed not to have suffered  from their ordeal by water. Through the magic of a wide-angled lens we can see them back in their plunge in the 16' house, and at present they all look, I have to say, in pretty good nick. I have been watering the plunge with a hose since their return, but the plants themselves (which are nearly all in crock pots) scarcely at all.

On the opposite bench of this house I keep most of my bulbs which were repotted at the end of last month and many of which are now coming into growth.I hope that several crocuses will flower in time for the Shows over the next two weekends. Two were sufficiently forward (Crocus kotschyanus and a sternbergia) for them to be put in the fridge for a week in the hope of holding them back.

Here is the plunge where most of the alpines (not the bulbs!) were kept during the summer. What remain are mostly primulas, including what by my standards are a goodish haul of the tricky soldanelloides (wollastonii, wigramiana, wattii and of course the ever-reliable reidii). They will be brought in when they start to die-back, probably in a month's time. Until then the watering is very tricky. They must not be too wet now, but they cannot (yet) be allowed to suffer from drought.

In strict contrast to the larger alpine house, the inhabitants of the smaller house which has a self-watering system are permanent residents. Indeed in one section of the bench shown here they are planted out into the plunge, often amongst home-made tufa. This house is remarkably easy to manage for much of the year, and is not even shaded, although a fan is run in hot or sultry weather.

Here is the other (narrower) bench in the smaller, permanent house. Two good pans of Androsace lehmanniana are conspicuous.

Because this house has self-watering, excess water does run out of the bottoms of the plunge, causing surrounding areas to be permanently damp. Caltha in the spring and schizostylis in the autumn both love these conditions and self-sow with abandon. The Hesperantha coccinea ('schizostylis') are at their best now.

Of course, the south-facing side of the larger house is much dryer, and suits Nerine bowdenii just fine.

It is rare for anything to persist without any problems whatever. It is just a question of knowing what to do. This largeish trough, made of bolted yorkstone slabs, has been invaded by ants two summers running. I have found that ant-wasp foam seems to deal with the problem, but the ants leave a curious, rather pit-heap like texture ro the surface. I shall need to re-topdress it.

It is now nearly a year since I remodelled the scree (see entry 95, 25th October 2008). It is interesting to see how it has fared.  Apart from some humus derived from mossy growth (this is a humid corner of a humid garden), this bed consist of nothing but mixed river gravel of several grades, to an average depth of about 20-25 cm. It has not been fed, and has scarcely ever been watered, except locally where subjects have been newly introduced. I have found it a useful destination for old pot-plants (show subjects etc) of which I have become bored, or the plant is showing distinct signs of becoming bored with me.

There is a distinct pattern to the progress of plants in this bed. Nothing ever dies, but they don't look particularly fit and healthy either. Probably they will look a bit better as they come into growth in their second spring. Interestingly, the regime does seem to suit some New Zealanders including several celmisias and 'difficult' hebes.

A touch of autumn colour to finish with. I can't remember an earlier autumn. The August monsoon  followed by weeks of warm, dry, often sunny weather has brought us October in September. Here is a view from the back garden, featuring Betula ermanii, followed by Sorbus fruticosa.

Postscript, Frank Tindall
To end on a sad note, like many other members I suspect, I shall be travelling to Huddersfield tomorrow to pay my respects to our late President. I was very shocked and upset to hear of his unexpected death and like many others, I have lost a good and generous friend. Also, the Alpine Garden Society has lost a loyal and faithful servant who used his expertise and skills to serve the Society in many ways. We shall all miss him very much.

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