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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 03 September 2015 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 304.

Hedged in

A major feature of this garden, not often mentioned here, is that we are bounded by hedges. The total length of these is some 220 m, of which perhaps 130 m, separating us from the road and lane (we are on a corner) is a very mature beech hedge. Our garden was carved from a two acre estate in 1977, and a few of the trees, and, undoubtedly the hedge, date back to the development of the original garden to the big house (1883). The hedge is undoubtedly one of the features of the garden, and is both a joy and a trial. Until about four years ago I cut it myself by hand on step-ladders. This caused it to grow by the year, so that every five years or so a local farmer was paid to take it back with a flail. Frankly, I dreaded the annual task of hedge-cutting, and eventually decided that anno domini and common sense dictated that I should hand the job to someone younger, stronger and with better equipment (I have never had enough upper-body strength to manage mechanical cutters well).

Consequently Barry, from Acomb Tree Surgery, has undertaken the task for the last few years, and he came yesterday. The great thing about beech is, it grows late,so that the hedge will now look good for 10 months until it is cut again at the start of next autumn.

Here is a view of the cut hedge from the other side of the road, showing part of the road hedge to the left and about half the lane hedge to the right.

Hedged in

Every time I, and doubtless you gentle reader, access this site, you are assailed by a picture of our front garden in autumn, with a row of pink Nerines to the right. This dates back to 2006 when I started this diary, and the photo was chosen by Jim McGregor to introduce this and other diaries. Consequently, I thought it might be amusing to show roughly the same view on more or less the same date, nearly a decade on. Although the 'bones' are roughly the same, there are many differences. To start with the nerines (still there) are not even budded yet, symptom of this very late season. Indeed they are still in full leaf. A large Helichrysum splendidum has gone (killed like so much else by the cold at the end of 2009), and there is now a large Helleborus argutifolius, out of place and scale, which needs moving. Also, there is a new  sand-bed along the edge of the alpine house. Most strikingly of all, the 'dwarf' conifers have grown. They do!

I wanted to show that picture to introduce my next topic which is the importance of 'free-range' silver saxifrages in this rock garden. It is constructed of some very lean scree mixes bounded by large lumps of water-worn limestone (for new readers, the latter was in the garden when we arrived: I would never buy this theatened natural resource). Basically, silver saxifrages form large cushions when planted in the former,and then self-sow in bewildering array, into the latter. First of all, here is a picture of part of the rock garden (taken in the opposite direction to the last photo).

Here is Saxifraga hostii (ssp. hostii) forming a vast cushion more than one metre across to the right, and an equally large expanse of Androsace sempervivoides to the left.

As I say, the saxifrages self-sow, and seem particularly to enjoy finding minute crevices and fissures in the limestone to colonise, places where they could never be planted on purposes. Here first is a seedling of the smaller, more acute-leaved subspecies of S. hostii, subsp. rhaetica.

Saxifraga hostii ssp. rhaetica

And another self-sown seedling, this time of the vigorous larger subspecies S. hostii ssp. hostii.

We grow a number of different forms of S. paniculata, some named forms, and others grown from wild cuttings in the distant past. These have rather lost their identity, particularly as so many seedlings have appeared. Here is a large and vigorous new form.

Saxifraga paniculata seedling

Note the single young seedling from S. 'Southside Seedling' alongside!

Reverting to S. paniculata, one of the most distinct forms we grow is the old 'Minutifolia' which I believe was introduced by Farrer.

Saxifraga paniculata 'Minutifolia'

Were I to select a favourite silver saxifraga, it might well be S. crustata from the Eastern Dolomites and Slovenia. This also sows around here, and here are some youngish seedlings embedded in a boulder.

Saxifraga crustata

This time last year I reported on a visit to Ashwood Nursery in the Midlands where John Massey was a diligent host while showing us his magnificent garden, and generously gifted some of his superb hybrid roscoeas, based on R. purpurea, originally raised by Robin White and styled 'Royal Purple Group'. In the last entry I showed one of those before flowering, but they are now all in full flower, and I have to say, they transform the area of the garden where they have been planted. For me, they are amongst the best of all late summer alpines.

Roscoea purpurea 'Royal Purple Group' Roscoea purpurea 'Royal Purple Group' Roscoea purpurea 'Royal Purple Group'

Nearby, Lilium henryi is flowering. Grown from seed, this featured two years ago, but failed to flower last year as it built up its strength again. This is, I believe, normal. However, it is back to its best again.

The Lilium langkongense is also in flower.

Few 'genuine' alpines are at their best now, but one that is I still call Trachelium jacquinii ssp. rumeliacum. Originally grown from seed collected in the Enipeus gorge below Olimbos in Greece, this has been with me on or off for many years. I lost it in 2009, but a piece survived at the Moorbank Botanic Garden and when this close, I repossessed it. I am sure this has now been reclassified as a Campanula, probably as C. jacquinii, but this old dog is increasingly reluctant to learn new tricks!

Campanula jacquinii ssp. rumeliacum

Not all bulbs take forever to flower. Last year I raised from seed both Lilium formosanum, which flowered last month and is now setting seed, and Gladiolus flanaganii. These are both rather short-lived and border-line hardy spectacular late-flowering bulbs which develop rapidly, and some of the glad bulbs have now started to flower. Others in the pot will wait another year. This is of course the famous 'suicide lily' of the Sani Pass in the Drakensberg where I have been fortunate to see it in the wild, in a less than suicidal spot!

Gladiolus flanaganii

I have shown Clematis 'Hendryetta' before, but it is a great success here where it smothers a Salix helvetica. A rather dwarf viticella, it is very suitable for a small garden with limited space.

Clematis 'Hendryetta'

I am finishing with a short from the far end of one of the alpine houses, looking right through to the other one. On the left are the bulbs, waiting to grow. Not a whisker yet in this late season!


I finished this diary , made a cup of tea, and went to the Alpine House in a light drizzle. As soon as I went in I thought I could smell a strange perfume, that I associate with stinky Araceae. And, yes! the Arum pictum had opened. One of the better things I have picked up from a members stall in recent years, this grows in a plastic long-tom in the alpine house in full sun, and was not dried out in particular. The leaves disappeared in June, reappeared in August, and, bingo! I have seen this Mallorcan in the wild at Formentor, and at the Mirador on the way there, the last time in flower in September.

Arum pictum

And here it is growing in the wild at the Mirador, taken in 2007.

Arum pictum
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