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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 03 September 2006 by John Richards

Northumberland diary entry 3

Northumberland Diary 3. September 3rd 2006.

In the last issue I talked about replanting troughs, using pieces of shale as topdressing for vertical crevices, and I showed an example of a trough which was itself made from pieces of shale cemented together, looking slightly like a hedgehog! I have no old stone troughs here, not being a millionaire, but I do have a variety of containers which I use as troughs, and which many of the smaller plants seem to enjoy. In total I have about 30 such ‘troughs’, although ten or so of these are fishboxes reserved for Asiatic primulas and these are kept in shady conditions. I hope to write about these in the future, perhaps next week.

In the meantime, here are two more of the seven containers I have replanted in the last two weeks. Perhaps I should first say what I did. Choosing cool damp conditions (not difficult at present!), I carefully dug out all the old plants using a garden fork and trowel, trying to keep the root balls intact. Many plants were too big for replanting in troughs, and were planted in the rock garden, potted up, propagated, or all three of these! The trough was then empted with a spade into a barrow and the old soil dumped under apple trees where the removal of a stump had left a cavity. The drainage holes were cleaned out and carefully covered with crocks so that they could not be plugged with the more impermeable elements of the new compost which always seem to settle at the bottom.

The trough was then refilled with used potting compost, to which about 20% by volume granite grit and some trench fertiliser had been added. All my old compost is dumped through the year in a hidden spot under a large tree, and is periodically turned over with a spade to mix it and keep it all damp. Much of this compost comes from repotting bulbs in late July to August, and from potting on or planting out seedlings about that time, so late August is a good time to refurbish troughs.

The first of the troughs shown here was being used as a cattle feeding trough before a friend bought the field and kindly gave me the trough some 20 years ago. He is massive (over two metres tall and about 100 kilos in new money), which was just as well when it came to shifting it! It is made locally (stamped ‘Corbridge’) and is a good size (about 1 m long) and made from a nicely weathered ironware. Up to now, its planting had been dominated by two large lumps of tufa (see below) and an even larger Daphne arbuscula, which is now in a pot. It will be interesting to see if the daphne survives the move. As I had been able to propagate it, I was encouraged to risk its loss by attempting the refurbishment. The photos here show this trough halfway through the replanting procedure, and after the planting was finished.

Here it is planted.

The second trough I am showing was made about ten years ago from five Yorkstone pavers, in which holes had been drilled to allow the sections to be bolted together using angle brackets from the inside. Outside, the bolt heads are hidden by cement mixed with the dust from drilling.

Tufa troughs

One large lump of tufa which had occupied the Corbridge trough was well-populated with Draba imbricata, an equally big Saxifraga marginata, and several smaller porophyllum saxs, including S. scardica and S. wendelboi. Here it is shown removed from the trough. These plants have been totally reliant on this lump of Welsh tufa over a period of 15 years.

I have replanted these pieces of tufa into fishbox troughs. In what is becoming the time-honoured manner, I had painted these troughs with a plasticated paint for outside use the colour of old stone, and then threw dry gritty sand at the fishbox while the paint was still wet. It is important to make sure the box has drainage holes (most do). Unlike some of our Scottish friends, I don’t feel the need to stress the fishbox with a heatgun to achieve a Daliesque effect, which I find peculiarly revolting. Whats wrong with the shape of a fishbox? It has been suggested that these fishbox troughs have a limited life, but I have now had some of these for seven years. 

In the last entry, I mentioned that some of the colchicums have started to flower, and here is the patch of C. bivonae, taken yesterday. In case purists complain that the flowers do not appear to be tessellated (chequered), in fact they are! C. ‘agrippinum’, that vigorous C. variegatum hybrid, is also in full flower now, in the garden where it is cooler but not yet in a pot.

Finally, Drosanthemum hispidum, which Roy Nunn gave me last autumn. This is a super little plant for the alpine house, native to the High Karroo, totally hardy under glass, and with a very long flowering period. The flowers only open in the morning and early afternoon.

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