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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 20 September 2016 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 325.

On my travels

I have been on the road a couple of times in the past two weeks, talking first to the Wirral Group and then to the Lancaster Group. The best thing about such visits are the chance to meet new people and see new gardens. Before I spoke at Lancaster, the Hoyles kindly welcomed me. As I had visited before I did not take my camera which was a mistake as Frank has ambitious plans for the front garden and major earthworks were under way. As always his massive domes of show plants were dauntingly impressive.

The Friday before I essayed further down the M6 to be hosted by Liz Carter in the pretty village of Burton on the Wirral. Liz was very kind and I have rarely been so impressed by a private garden. In fact Briarfield comprises three gardens. One surrounds the house, and the other two are a short walk away down the lane and connect one to the other. I guess the total area totals more than two acres, all intensively cultivated. Liz and her late husband have gardened there for five decades, and there is a huge collection of rare and mature plants, carefully positioned to form delightful vistas. I was struck by the subtropical feel. Many subjects are on the borderline of hardiness, but this sheltered spot near the sea in west Wirral can be tolerated by a wide range of plants. Also, many mature plants in pots are artfully placed, but brought under cover for the winter. This is the case for the large aeoniums figured here.

On my travels

Liz propagates large numbers of her most desirable charges and runs a market stall two mornings a week, the profits going to the National Garden Scheme. This must be a huge boon for keen gardeners in the district and will ensure that many good plants will get around which would not otherwise see light of day. I wish we had a similar benefactor near here! Liz does have some help to manage the gardens which are opened for garden groups and the NGS, but the achievement is immense, and well recognised in her neighbourhood, I believe. Here is a shot of her front area below the house, with pond.

As an illustration of the many fine tender plants, Lapageria rosea was flowering copiously by her back door.

Lapageria rosea

Liz is perhaps not primarily a rock gardener, but she does nevertheless grow many fine alpines. I assume that the following picture is of Antirrhinum molle, on the bank below her house.

Ness Gardens

Naturally, while still in the area I visited Ness Gardens, which are less than a mile down the road from Burton. I have to say, I was as disappointed by Ness as I was impressed by Briarfield. Ness clearly is now too big for its present level of funding and I found many areas overgrown and weedy. In particular, I was surprised that some of the specialist collections for which the garden is justly famous, notably the sorbus, seemed in poor condition. There also seemed to be a change in direction. For instance, the alpine patio area seemed to have been supplanted by a potager, so that this famous old trough, a Ken Hulme original I believe, still containing Rhododendron forrestii and other distinguished inhabitants, had become very sunken and was surrounded by veg and herbs.

Ness Gardens

I was particularly upset to notice that the main rhododendron collection beyond this point which contains many mature specimens of rarities was overgrown with brambles and nettles and seemed very dry.

Of course, there were many good things to see. The south-facing terraces above the rock garden have always been a good site for tender subjects and seemed to have received more care than most areas. There was a lovely Romnaea coulteri there, one of my favourite plants.


Romnaea coulteri

Ness Gardens, view downhill from the terraces.

Dianella longifolia is a distinguished member of a largely Australasian genus with species in New Zealand, Tasmania, Australian, New Guinea and even Malaysia.

Dianella longifolia

I spoke of a change of emphasis at Ness. Perhaps in an attempt to increase the footfall, the newish centre includes a lavish restaurant area with quite an attractive and ambitious lunch menu. This strategy, apparently aimed to lure in the 'yummy mummy' brigade, has been adopted by several botanic gardens, from Durham and Harlow Carr (Betty's, no less!) to the exalted heights of RBG Kew. I am not against this, but it will only really work if the garden itself is worth visiting. People visit gardens for the garden first, food second.

Before I leave the Wirral, as a link to the next section I thought I would showcase one of Liz Carter's many colchicums, a plant that has always fascinated me since it was given to me nearly 30 years ago by the late Paddy Ryan as part of a gift of several different colchicums. Unlike most of the others, C. 'laetum' has not survived with me. I understand that there is some doubt whether this is the real C. laetum from SE Russia, or a form of C. byzantinum. This is a fiendishly difficult genus, taxonomically!

Colchicum laetum

Back home

I seem to picture colchicums most autumns, but they seem to have been especially good this autumn, back here in Hexham. Here is a good clump of the hybrid known as Colchicum 'Agrippinum'.

Colchicum 'Agrippinum'

Here is Colchicum 'The Giant', ex Paddy Ryan.

Colchicum 'The Giant'

And here the species C. speciosum, or at least what I have as that.

Colchicum speciosum

Scarcely an alpine, but we have enjoyed the evening scent from our Brugsmansia, which seems set to flower itself to death on inadequate foliage. Having acquired this on the demise of our Botanic Gardden and overwintered it in the conservatory, we have found it needs a lot of water and frequent repotting. It has been happier outside in the summer where it has added to the tropical feel around its congeners, but at the onset of cooler nights has been brought inside again. Interestingly, the RHS website suggests it may be borderline hardy, but in Surrey, maybe! It is greatly beloved by cutworm caterpillars which shred the huge leaves to ribbons and appear not to suffer cardiac arrest fro m the poisonous alkaloids!

The autumn gentians are starting. G. 'Braemar' and this dark G. 'Sapphire Selection (a variable seed strain) are in full flower, while most of the others are in early bud. They are all grown in plastic pots, stood outside in a humid atmosphere on the terrace and repotted every spring.

It has been an exuberant growing season, warmer than usual here (but rarely hot, unlike the south!), with plenty of rain and humidity. Here are a few examples of how things have grown. First a couple of fishboxes planted this spring. The big saxifrage on the right hand corner of the further triough is this years seedling of S. mutata from my own seed.

This 'back door bed' (Sheila says it looks like a grave, I prefer a tumulus) was planted in April with small cuttings and seedlings. The power of compost!

That bed was mostly dominated by primulas and meconopsis. This new bed is of even more recent origin and was mostly planted out in June. All the plants are this years seedlings, primulas and mecs again!

Above note 1) anti cat-lav device  2) annual weed seedlings from compost being too cool (it always is but they pull out easily 3) some delicate subjecrts (e.g. Primula reidii, Meconopsis pseudovenusta) plunged temoerarily into the compost.

As a final note, many of you may be aware that I have been asked to talk to the AGS Conference at Stratford in November on the subject of this Diary, a 'blag on a blog'. I am now in the process of writing this talk and, I have to say, finding it very difficult. It is not as if I was short of material, quite the opposite! Also, it is one thing to write a diary, but quite another to write about writing a diary. In the end, I think that what has  interested me the most is how my gardening, alpine gardening, and our garden have changed in the decade I have been writing the blog. Hopefully, this might interest some of the audience too!

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