A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: 08 September 2016 by John Richards
Northumberland Diary. Entry 324.
Another warm spell is in progress here: 25C yesterday and over 22C daily maximum for over a week. Luckily it has been ameliorated by some rain, including a spell this morning, but I don't like it so muggy and close this late in the season just when things should be thinking about going dormant; not good for alpines at all! I had an email conversation with Quentin Groom my fellow county plant recorder the other day about the effect of climate change on changing wild plant distributions in north-east England. I suggested that what has happened here is that the season has shifted to a later position, so we still have cold late springs and slow germination, growth etc until well into June, but increasingly warm and lengthy autumns. This has had the effcts of allowing annuals to ripen seed when previously they had been unable to set seed before the first frosts arrived.
I am still unclear in my mind as to whether these warm late autumns hold back the flowering of autumnal subjects, but our colchicums are now starting, and we have fine Cyclamen hederifolium.
I have written about finally developing enough ruthlessness to abolish old friends (plants!) when they have outlived their usefulness. So it was that on a day far too humid for such violent exercise I decided to remove a large dwarf juniper which has recently dominated the front garden scree.
Here it is from the other side. This bed contains(ed) three large 'dwarf' conifers. The other two, a golden spreading fir and a Pinus mugo are sufficiently close to the house that they do not occupy prime ground in this rather shady garden. However, the juniper had come to colonise about one-third of the remaining scree (100% sandstone gravel to 20 cm with a limestone surround).
Removing the top-growth with a saw and loppers was relatively easy and I managed to fit it all into the green waste bin! Removing the stump and root system was quite another matter, but being embedded in scree, not perhaps as bad as if they has been in clay subsoil. It was interesting how much humus had accumulated from the juniper over 20 odd years; once the roots has gone, this was dispersed more evenly through the area the juniper had covered to give rise to a 'soil' perhaps 50% gravel and 50% juniper humus. Several nice alpines which had become buried beneath the Pinus mugo were then split up and replanted in the newly freed-up area. These included Gypsohila repens, Aubrieta glabrescens, Allium beesiana, Campanula cochlearifolia, Salix retusa, Lactuca perennis, Androsace vitaliana, Saxifraga crustata and S. hostii. An eclectic mix!
It is now more than a decade since I planted up one of the larger fishboxes with a collection of 11 celmisia species, most of which had come originally as cuttings or divisions from Alan Furness's collection 'up the road'. The celmisias had persisted well with few if any casualities, although with varying degrees of success. For instance, the subshrubby Celmisia walkeri had grown to fill almost half the trough, while the very similar (but more silver, more alpine and more westerly in distribution) C. hectori had dwindled to a single live rosette (although there is an excellent individual of the latter of more recent acquisition in another fishbox). Not surprisingly, with the exception of the C. walkeri, most inhabitats were starting to look distinctly 'tired' and the time was overdue for them to be replanted. Originally I had used a number of large 'slivers' of the local shale as 'crevices' or vertical dividers. Dispersing with them created a deal more room. Having dug all the plants out, the soil was dumped in a shady place behind a rose and a new compost crafted from equal parts of good-quality commercial compost (made from sedge peat), perlite and grit. I thought hard about putting the C. walkeri back, as it rather dominated the space, as did to a lesser extent a good C. longifolia, but in the end I fitted them all in, with the addition of a C. argentea and one of Alan Furness's C. semicordata hybrids (a good deal more compact that most expressions of the species). Large chunks of C. allanii, C. angustifolia and C. discolor were planted elsewhere, and after top-dressing witg grit and a good water, the finished product looked like this.
This led to to take a few photos of other New Zealand subjects that have succeeded modestly in this garden. First is Ozothamnus selago. The small saxifraga embedded in the artificial tufa is S. dinnikii.
This Aciphylla monroi is now some 12 years old. For some reason, aciphyllas seem to have gone right out of fashion, perhaps because the supply of wild-colected seed seems largely to have dried up.
In contrast, this plant of Aciphylla spedenii in a neighbouring crevice has scarcely grown in six years, although it is still alive!
Staying for a moment in the southern hemisphere, this late season has been marked by a number of this summer's seedlings brusting into premature flower. The Calceolaria uniflora which performed well in a sand-bed last years is looking sorry for itself, but had set some good seed, resulting in a crop of seedlings, some half-dozen of which were planted out in early July. Several have since produced the odd flower, and the one figured here is distinctly odd!, much darker than usual.
Another precocious flowerer grown from my own seed has been Primula verticillata, still small but flowering already when planted out into the greenhosue sand plunge.
Campanula isophylla is a novelty in the greenhouse plunge. Not very hardy, and very fragile (like its relative C. fragilis which I used to grow in a similar position), I think it is best suited to this position and I don't have to remember to water it as the plunge has automatic drip feeds.
One of the introductions I am most proud of is the dwarf form of devils-bit which resulted from a class experiment more than 35 years ago, and which is named for its site of origin Succisa pratensis 'Cassop'. Not perhaps a plant of the first water, it is reliable and sows around gently, providing valuable colour at this time of year. It comes true from seed and is never more than 12 cm tall. It has been given to friends and nurserymen from time to time but seems never to have caught on.
Another relaible standby now is the yellow sage Salvia bulleyana, forming a fine combination with Zauschneria angustifolia.
Earlier this year I featured the flowers of my seedling of Magnolia wilsonii. Several of these have now developed their extraordinary fruits, just as attractive as the flowers to my mind.
To finish with, the magnolia's more humble neighbour, a self-sown Rosa glauca, also now in glorious fruit.