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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 13 September 2011 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 193.

Moving colchicums

In my last entry I mentioned the need to move colchicums from one of the 'D' beds where they have shared space with primulas, meconopsis, rhododendrons and the like, because the spring and summer leaves of the colchicums interfere with the other subjects, and leave the bed in a tatty mess just when it should be looking its best. Earlier, there is a similar problem with spring flowering bulbs, especially snowdrops, anemones and erythroniums, and when they come into growth in the late winter I think I shall lift and move the snowdrops as well. The erythroniums and anemones are less of a problem, and I shall see how the bed progresses in their continued presence.

As also noted in the last issue, another feature of colchicums, at least in this garden, is their ability to thrive almost anywhere, and especially in that most difficult of habitats, dry shade, which in this garden at least, tends to be permeated by tree roots. I tend to have built beds up with leaf mould and garden compost over the native heavy boulder clay and, not surprisingly, the many shrubs and trees here have taken the easier option, soil-wise. As photographs showed, colchicums manage well in shade under shrubs, and the main question is how to get the bulbs through the thicket of tree roots and into the soil.

Before we tackle that problem, here is the 'D' bed with half the colchicums removed as they came into flower last week. This provided a good opportunity to give the areas from which they were removed a good weed, and in some cases some renewal of compost.

Moving colchicums

The colchicums involved are 'Lilac Wonder' (the best doer here), 'The Giant' (a little later than the others), 'Rosy Dawn', and C. speciosum 'Atrorubens'. There is also some of the much smaller 'Agrippinum' which was put to one side. Here are a selection lifted and put into a tray on a barrow, ready to be replanted or stored. Eventually there were four trays with about this number of bulbs in each. Two trays were replanted here, one group were taken to naturalise in the Botanic Garden in Newcastle, and one group given to a friend who has just moved house and is starting a new garden.

The 'D' bed with the coclhicums removed (and the weeds!) is looking a bit bare in parts, but the gaps will soon fill in with bulbs in the spring.

We planned to replant in three main areas. Two of these are by the drive, so they make a good welcoming splash of colour as you walk up to the house in autumn. As already stated, colchicums do not associate well with other small plants, so we decided to concentrate planting into fairly close groups, for impact. These areas were cleared of weeds, and then a barrowload of compost tipped onto the top of each site. Rather than attempting to plant the bulbs into the mass of tree roots, the bulbs have been inserted into the piles of superficial compost. Worms will work the compost in, and hopefully the colchicum roots will follow the worms into the subsoil. As I say, colchicums will grow most anywhere here, especially if not in full hot sun. Here are the two new areas, ready for planting.

And here are these two sites planted up, a few days later so that more flowers have appeared from the bulbs.

Here is a more distant view of the second site, with the nicely coloring Sorbus fruticosa.

In the next photo you can see the petiolarid primula troughs, tucked away in deep shade for the summer. They will need to be brought out again in two weeks or so.

The third spot the colchicums were moved to is in another part of the garden, under a mature birch. This tree, just the native silver birch, Betula pendula, appeared as a seedling shortly after we felled a large sycamore, a year or so after we arrived here. It seemed to be in a useful spot, an eye-line 'target', so we kept it. Birches grow fast, and it has had a lovely silver trunk for many years now. Otherwise, this ground has grown little except weeds, which we hope the colchicum foliage will outcompete.

Another seasonal job was completed this week. Once all the suitable subjects had been moved to the newly constructed alpine house plunges, as related last week, it was necessary to find a home for these potential show plants that do not like the hot dry climate of an alpine house, but are better housed in a cool plunge outside, which is sheltered under a frame light in the winter. These are mainly asiatic primulas and meconopsis. This involved giving the plunge a good dig over and weed, and the plants a once-over (removing dead foliage, replacing top-dressing, repotting in a few cases), and in the case of two primula hybrids acquired from a commercial source last year, propagation after the removal of vine weevil larvae. This garden does not have the latter; hopefully this statement is still accurate! Here is the plunge with the pots back in position.

Over the last couple of weeks, I have made a modest attempt to defray expenses (pots, compost, grit, labels, fertiliser, need I go on?) by offloading surplus plants to generous recipients, or, to put it another way, offering others the chance to kill some of my seedlings. This has caused me to look through the remnants of this years propagations (more than 500 seedlings and cuttings originally) and a few have found their way into that part of the old alpine house where I plant direct into the old sand plunge (nothing else added apart from the compost on the rootball, but the plants do get a weak liquid feed a few times a year). I finish with a distant view of the plunge, where you can see mature individuals of Dionysia aretioides, Saxifraga ferdinandi-coburgii, Primula kewensis, in the tufa on the left Omphalodes luciliae, and a mass of Primula erratica, and a close-up involving recently planted seedlings of Meconopsis delavayi, Paraquilegia anemonoides and Omphalodes luciliae again. Classy blues!

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