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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 23 September 2014 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 284.

Raking over difficulties.

When we first arrived here 25 years ago, most of the garden which sloped down to the gate from the front of the house was grass, or to be more accurate a dense mixture of daisy, creeping buttercup, self-heal and moss into which a few blades of grass shyly intruded. The front path itself consisted of a horrid series of small concrete slabs bedded to a gravel of the local blackish whinstone. Not a pretty sight. A picture taken just after I started to build a holding bed for some of the plants we brought will give some idea.

Raking over difficulties.

Most of the foreground in this picture from 1989 has long since been converted to shrubby woodland, and the further prospect is now dominated by rock gardens and screes. However, it is the area to the left of the path which is now my subject. This has remained something of a Cinderella area. Until a few days ago, a patch of 'lawn' remained, supported by a poor boulder-clay subsoil. In particular, we had long ago planted what is now a mature Prunus serrula in the grass, causing most of the area in summer to receive dappled shade, and most of the soil to become laced with tree-roots.. Between the 'lawn' and the hedge is what passed for a woodland garden under a mature laburnum and a Sorbus glabrescens. The soil had never been properly improved there, and although there were a lot of self-sowing hellebores, they competed with great mats of invasive Geranium x oxonianum and, more pleasantly, Bergenia cordifolia, both introduced by our predecessors. Frankly, the area was a mess which had largely been ignored as we concentrated on more worthwhile and labour-intensive plantings elsewhere.

Some time in the spring, Sheila asked if I really wanted this 'lawn', and if not, could we convert it to gravel? The idea was that we could use it to stand planters, in particular fishboxes containing cool-demanding subjects, primulas, meconopsis and the like, which currently occupied a parking bay near the front gate. I thought this was a great idea, but the prospect of lifting such root-girt turf was daunting. Instead, we decided to wait for the autumn when we would kill the lawn chemically before submerging it in gravel. Because the lawn was proud of the surrounding soil, it would be necessary to edge it with duck-boards to contain the gravel.

So it was that about three weeks ago I watered in two applications of glyphosate four days apart. After two weeks, even the daisies had died and the grass and moss had turned a biscuit-brown. At this point I bought the appropriate lengths of 15 cm pressure-treated plank which was placed around the edge.

As you can see the boards are held in place on the soil-side by pressure-treated pegs, hammered into place with the back of a large axe. The idea was that they would be stabilised on the 'lawn' side by the weight of gravel.

Next, we ordered a dumpy bag of the larger grade of gravel, and this was barrowed into position and raked level. Various small pavers, surplus to requirements, were semi-buried in the expectation that they would form more stable bases for the containers. In the following pictures, a few of the containers (mostly polystyrene boxes which had contained chemical flasks) had already been moved into position. In fact I have rested my back and have yet to move the four largest containers. The first picture is taken from roughly the same spot as the previous view of the dead lawn.

Before the gravel was barrowed in, but after the duck boards were placed in position, I removed the few plants which had survived in the bed alongside and barrowed in three loads of well-rotted compost, before replanting the survivors (mostly primulas) back. This bed can be seen on the far side of the gravel. I have considerable hopes for it when it settles down.

The final, wide-angle shot is taken from near the gate and shows the new gravel area in context, with astilbes and acanthus on the entrance side, and the peat bed and snowdrop borders by the side of the house further up. I have to say that  I am greatly pleased with the whole effect which has transformed a problem area with relatively little outlay and effort.

La Serenissima

Certain plants combine a uniqueness and beauty of form with a romantically retiring disposition to the extent that they can acquire a Garbo-esque glamour and become the objects of ardent infatuation. At various junctures, Cypripedium calceolus, Primula sonchifolia, Rhododendron ludlowii, Jancaea heldreichii and Epipogium aphyllum have, inter alia, become for me idees fixes. As ever with romantic obsessions, familiarity breeds, if not contempt, at least a fading of the glamour (but not for the Ghost Orchid, which I have still never seen!).

For me, the ultimate plant has for many years been Primula sherriffiae. This extraordinary example of the power of evolution to design ludicrously extreme phenotypes seems to be extremely rare, and remote, in the field, and to my knowledge has not been seen in the wild by western botanists since the Second War. Only two disjunct sites are known, one in south-eastern Bhutan and the other in the Mishmi Hills, Arunachal Pradesh. It is found on shaded, dripping wet limestone in warm-temperate zones, and is probably not frost-hardy. It was discovered and introduced by my ultimate hero, George Sherriff, who named it for his mother. Since then it has hung on in cultivation by a thread, largely through the foresight of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh who have maintained a stock of seed in their seed bank, a sample of which is periodically germinated and grown to produce more seed to maintain its viability.

In the early days it was grown near here by Randle Cooke, and I have an old Dufaycolor of his plant.

La Serenissima

At the Pontefract Show last weekend, I was judging when Dave Riley drew my attention to a plant of Primula sherriffiae in the Asian class.(It was unclassed and would probably have done better in New and Rare!). He then casually mentioned that plants were being sold on the Aberconwy Nursery stand! I dashed out of the Hall and within seconds had taken possession of the second-last plant for a fiver! (don't ask, for the time being they have all gone).

Of course the question is, where will it live in winter? (the answer, probably, is the back porch which stays more-or-less frost-free). My plant still had one flower. P. sherriffiae is self-fertile, but never sets seed without pollination as the stigma and the anthers in the amazingly long and narrow flower-tube and separated by some distance. I managed to pollinate the remaining flower, which has to be done by splitting the tube lengthwise to gain access to the anthers and stigma. Here is the flower beforehand.

Apparently the source of these plants was a sample of seed sent to the Levers by a private grower; the ultimate link to the Botanics seems obscure, but we must all be delighted that this most romantic of plants has tentatively reentered general cultivation.

Another lovely, and also rather romantic, plant was offered at Pontefract, this time by Neil Huntley of Hartside Nursery. In my early days as an alpine gardener I occasionally visited Edrom nurseries which were then being run by that doyen of Scottish gardeners, Alex Duguid. Alex grew, in a trough by the front door, a super form of Gentiana farreri, of the most exquisite ultramarine. Neil is now offering what is presumably the same plant, under the name 'Alex Duguid'. He seems reluctant to call it G. farreri, but the G. farreri complex (including the prior name G. lawrencei) is very varied, and it certainly has the unique colour of that group, and the very long calyx lobes which are the mark of true G. farreri.

That is a new acquisition, but I have grown Gentiana 'Silken Skies' for several years; a large pan failed to flower in time for the Show.

Crocus banaticus is now appearing in several places in the garden. I grow it in a leaf-mould soil in partial shade, with primulas, rhododendrons and meconopsis. In the second photo it is accompanied by a few late flowers of Ourisia coccinea. It makes a good Show plant, but for some reason I have never grown it in a pot.

The rhodo is the Anthopogon species Rh. sargentianum.

In the alpine house the first flower has just opened on a petrocosmea. This came as Petrocosmea sp., but I can't see why it is not P. minor? There seems quite a lot of bud to come I am happy to say.


One more plant from the alpine house, out-of season flowers on Primula cottia, a geographical outlier in the P. villosa complex.

We have two different yellow autumn clematis in the C. orientalis group here, but both pale into insignificance in comparison with the wonderful 'Bill Mackenzie', which we don't grow but wish we did, photographed here ona  visit to Cragside Gardens, last week.

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