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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 29 September 2010 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 161.

Post poodle

About a month ago, I reported that we had grown weary of our bristlecone pine, Pinus aristata dominating quite a large area of the rock garden terrace above the pond, but having reduced it by lopping most of the side branches, our resolve failed us, and we decided to see whether we could live with the consequent 'poodle tail'. To remind you, here is the tree before and after lopping.

Post poodle

Well, I guess it will surprise no-one to learn that a month later, we hardened our hearts and decided that the remainder of the little tree had to go. Sawing it down was a surprisingly difficult job. Although the diameter at the base was only about 12 cm, it had a rubbery texture and an exceptionally gummy resin which tended to glue up the saw blade. It took a great deal of scrubbing with hot soapy water to finally remove the resin from my hands! Its not surprising that individuals can live for 4000 years; I guess they pickle themselves!

Once the tree had gone and the stump reduced to ground level, it was clear that a good deal of very promising new ground had been freed up; essentially a  level raised bed running down to north-facing crevices between large limestone boulders. The first task was to clear this of all plants. Some, although useful cover for the difficult ground below the tree (Euphorbia cyparissias, Salvia bulleyana, various dieramas and schizostylis, a hybrid geranium) were clearly too robust for the purpose in hand, were disposed of, hopefully permanently (the Euphorbia in particular can be rather persistent). Some bulbs were reserved, and two plants, a rather weary Salix 'Boydii' with dieback, and a superb Daphne retusa (from seed many years ago) were left in situ.

Here are two images of the area, firstly after the tree was felled but before clearing, and them with the ground cleared.

As can be see, robust plants thriving in 'sumps' created by removing pavers from the terrace remain in place; bergenias, candelabra primulas, Rheum alexandrae; it is only the raised ground that has been cleared. The idea is to link from the limestone cliff on the left of these photos through to the raised bed beyond where the pine grew as one continuous limestone rock garden.

Most of the 'soil' in the raised area was slightly dirty gravel, or a very lean scree if you wish. Some things thrive in this, but for the plans I have in mind, I needed soil renewal and a much richer mix. However the drainage created by the gravel is priceless in this shady site and my rather greasy native soil. I took one barrowload of well-rotted garden compost (lovely black stuff) and forked it in. I then covered the area, with two barrowloads of old potting-soil. Most of this originated from the big clear-out of dead bulb pots last month, and not only has a good structure, but should have a reasonable amount of feed still left in it (and some baby bulbs!).

Here are two pictures of the area with new soil on, but before planting.


Next came the planting. Firstly I positioned three big plants that had been living in pots for show puposes, but are deemed to need a spell back in the ground to help them back to their original free-flowering behavious. These are a Gentiana angustifolia and a Pulsatilla halleri, both of which  contributed to a couple of AGS medal-winning exhibits, and one of my two Draba densifolias, which has proved more susceptible to mildew under glass than its sibling. I also took the opportunity to free one of my two Daphne kosaninii, following Ron McBeath's good example, shown a couple of weeks or so ago.

Several other plants came from the scree further along, where they were showing signs of starvation in the spartan regime: two Oxalis (an enneaphylla 'Patagonica' and a laciniata seedling), a Gentiana acaulis , a Ozothamnus intermedius and two Allium flavums. I viewed this as an excellent opportunity to revive by division and propagation some tired saxifrages. Some were in pots ('Kathleen', S. micans, S.marginata MESE form), while others, mostly mossies, grew in the same bed but further along (I find that species mossies such as S. cebennensis, S. cervicornis, S. rosacea and S. cespitosa benefit from propagation and moving to new soil periodically). Another very tired plant was my only Primula juliae which was taken from its trough, split up and replanted in a north crevice.

In much better heart were propagations of Primula 'Clarence Elliot', villosa and 'Aire Mist'. It will be interesting to see if the lattermost will thrive away from the protection of the alpine house.

Here are a couple of views of the area planted up, and top-dressed with pea gravel. It look four bags, and is still rather thin!

This sort of renewal is vital to the continued health of the garden as a whole, and the collection of plants in particular. It is great fun to do, and extremely rewarding to complete, even if the prospect can be daunting! And there is so much else to be done! This is the problem when this type of intensive gardening is fitted into a half acre garden. Much of the garden remains relatively extensive in concept ('unkempt' muttters Sheila as she walks past), and there is no doubt that this kind of small scale renewal is the way forward if I am to continue to grow the plants I treasure in what has become a mature garden.

In this context, the bed figured next is giving me pleasure. This area was reworked about three months ago and planted with seedling meconopsis and primulas. How they have loved this damp mild weather!

Two bright spots to finish with. It has not been a great summer for butterflies, but we have enjoyed some second generation Red Admirals recently. Here is one sitting on the buds of Mahonia 'Winter Sun'.

And a pleasant autumn combination. Colchicum 'Rosy Dawn' (I think) with Aster frikartii (in the wrong place!) and Potentilla 'Tangerine'.

By the way, this reminds me to react furiously to several recent articles in gardening journals and Sunday supplements by writers who should know better calling colchicums 'autumn crocus'. Although they mostly go on to say that colchicums are not crocuses and are in a different plant family, even, this old and grossly misleading English name should be banned forthwith and NEVER used for colchicums (its fine to use 'autumn crocus' for Crocus that flower in the autumn however!). If you must use an English name for colchicums, whats wrong with 'Naked Ladies'? Nothing that I know of!! But why not just say 'Colchicum'. Its an easy word as well as correct, and nothing ever stopped us calling plants 'Iris', 'Buddleia', 'Narcissus' or even 'Crocus'; Latin genera (NOT families!!, but thats another grievance) all!


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