A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: 05 September 2011 by John Richards
Northumberland Diary. Entry 192.
Time I guess to abandon my celebrations of the wonderful flora of western China (at least for the time being), and to return back to earth, or at least to the increasingly autumnal garden. What, I hear you ask, of the 'work in progress', announced nearly four weeks ago now in issue 190 on August 12th? Can I remind you that I had started to demolish the rickety wooden staging that had served to contain the plants within my larger, later alpine house, and to replace it with plunge beds made from cemented breeze blocks.
Since then, other projects have got in the way, not least the annual marathon involved in cutting our 250 m of hedge by hand. The hedges are finally finished, and countless old dumpy bags of hedge cuttings taken down to the recycling centre to compost (we used to burn our old prunings, but since we have been provided with depositories for 'green waste' have acted like 'green citizens', burning a good deal of carbon rich fuel between here and the waste centre as we do so!). Also, we had the family to stay for nearly a week, but recently I have been free to complete the concreting, and building of wooden staging, and to fill them with sharp sand. The latter has involved the purchase and barrowing of two (so far) more dumpy bags, and I still have at least one to go. However, one set of plunges is now filled, and provisioned with plants that have spent a soggy summer sat outside, and very well they look.
I guess I need to explain several things. The first is the frame of tanalized timber that surrounds the breeze block compartment, with a couple of cross-pieces. This frame was planned from the outset as there is something similar in my old alpine house as well, which has now lasted 21 years. It serves a double purpose, firstly to make sure that the mechanical forces of the sand and weight of pots in the filled compartment do not force the walls outwards, and secondly to act as a template to which I can more easily attach the automatic watering system.
The automatic watering system, which you can see, also needs explanation. Despite yearly hiccups, repairs and replacements, I have on the whole been pleased with the 'Gardena' system which has automatically watered the older house for two decades. This drip feed system comes on for a few minutes twice a day, and allows me to go on holiday with a quiet mind, not to have to worry about daily watering, and it cools and increases the humidity in that house as well. It allows many difficult alpines, some planted out, to persist from year to year with the minimum of fuss and trouble to me, and without the additional bother of greenhouse shading (in what is a cool, north-facing garden). Amazingly, the main piping of the original Gardena system still functions well with very few repairs after more than 20 years.
Thus I was upset when I could find no local 'Gardena' suppliers when I came to put watering into the new house. I have since learnt that there is one (in Mickley, for Tyne locals), but a black mark to the Gardena website which does not list its British outlets. Thus, I was forced to buy 'Hoselock' instead. Luckily, the connections seem to be compatible with the Gardena system. Both houses now run off the same 'computer' (just an automatic clock really), as I had made provision for an extension of the system when I constructed the original system. Whether the volume of water will be adequate for both houses remains to be seen. Not surprisingly, the amount of water delivered does drop off with distance, although there is a direct supply from the computer to the new house. Once the plants are in place, the piping is much less conspicuous as the next picture shows.
Lets just look at a few of the collections brought in from outside. Firstly, some androsaces, all grown from seed this year apart from the large plant of A. lehmanniana, grown from Canadian seed and now four years old and with several offspring in the other house. There are smaller multiple pans of A. bulleyana, from my own seed, A. integra and A. bisulca v. aurata. Also present are seedlings of A. pyrenaica x carnea, A. pubescens and A. laevigata.
A short detour while I show the next picture, from the other alpine house. This is of what I think probably is the real Androsace pubescens with a few late flowers, but that is not the main point of the photo. You will see a hole dug in the sand next to the pot, and this is one of many holes in the damp sandy plunge that are dug every summer by digger wasps, I think Mellinus arvensis. At the bottom of each hole is a larva which is fed aphids by the mother wasps Needless to say, I greatly encourage these little, harmless and indeed highly beneficial wasps, even if they so make something of a mess of my plunge. But I have no idea where they can get the aphids from!!
Back to the new plunge, here is another collection of plants, newly settled for the winter, which have spent the summer outside in a cool shady spot. This time the subjects are in the main Porophyllum saxifrages, many of them 'Allendale' hybrids, raised by Ray Fairbairn who lives about 10 miles from here. At the back are seedlings of Primula elatior in its purple subspecies meyeri, and the yellow subsp. ruprechtii, both Caucasian.
The final picture from the refurbished alpine house concentrates on the staging on the other side. This too requires explanation. The old staging involved flimsy wooden sides and substantial wooden bases, which you see stacked and temporally stored under the house eaves in issue 190. It seemed a shame to waste these and I wondered if they could form the sides to a plunge, so cross-pieces were screwed into place to form two boxes. Unfortunately, these are rather too high, not for the plants necessarily, but because they take a great deal of filling. I put a lot of old dry potting compost in the base of one, and I have a plan to bring in a lot of old leaf mould that needs shifting for the autumn leaf benison for the other, but despite the moving of a whole dumpy bag of sand, not even the first one is full yet!
Time to look at a few plants in the garden, and this seems as if it is becoming the earliest autumn yet! I said this right at the end of September last year, but here we are in the first week of September, and look at the autumn colour in (in this order) Acer crataegifolium, A. circinnatum and Vaccinium corymbosum.
I can remember October Shows that were too early for autumn gentians. This year, the sole autumn Show to which I shall be going (Ponteland) will be far too late for the super Gentiana 'Silken Skies'. After many years of trying, I seem finally to have cracked the secret of autumn gentians in this garden, which is to grow them in polystyrene 'troughs'.
Curiously, the mid-summer Caucasian Gentiana paradoxa is late this year, and is flowering at the same time.
Earlier this year I discussed the problems caused by mixing bulbs such as snowdrops, erythroniums and colchicums with herbaceous perennials such as meconopsis and primulas, and dwarf shrubs such as rhododendrons. After flowering, the late spring and summer leaves of the bulbs are messy, and detract from the other subjects, often indeed flopping over and outcompeting them. We resolved that as the colchicums came into flower we would remove them from the 'D' bed where they cause the greatest problems and put them in some dry shady worthless plots up the front drive, for foremost amongst the many excellent qualities of large colchicums is their ability to thrive on neglect. We shall take some to Moorbank Botanic Garden too, to naturalise in the meadow there. Here are two of the best colchicums here, already growing in the sort of difficult spot mentionred above, first C. bivonae, and then 'Lilac Wonder'.
A quick seasonal snap of 'the scarlet peril', Tropaeolum speciosum to finish with.