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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 02 September 2017 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 345.

Autumnal drought

The breaking news here is that, suddenly, it is as dry as a......., its very dry, too dry! This drought has rather crept up on us stealthily. Its not been particularly hot, or sunny, rarely over 20C in the shade, there have been fairly regular light showers, but just gentle sprinklings, nothing penetrating, and it has not rained properly for more than a month. With all the trees and shrubs still in full heavy canopy, pumping, pumping, many beds are suddenly dry 15-20 cm down and plants are starting to look stressed and sorry for themselves. We have been promised rain on a regular basis, and we hear that many parts of the country have received a generous ration (my daughter in Hertfordshire says the ground is thoroughly wet there). Indeed we are promised more rain yet again tomorrow, but now I just don't believe it. I finally broke and started watering with an 'up and under' yesterday, and from now on I shall continue right round the garden on a never-ending routine until it finally rains properly.

Such emergency measures have been vanishingly rare in this cool humid part of the country over the half century we have lived here. Granted our annual rainall is not great (about 75 cm p.a., fairly evenly spread; in fact August is often our wettest month, not our dryest), but high temperatures and dry air are rarities, we face north, and enjoy afternoon shade from high trees (our house is called High Trees). I rarely have to water containers or even pots outside, let alone established plants, with a notable exception. This is the period late-April to late May which is often exceptionally dry here, and plants are coming into growth and setting bud, and so are particularly vulnerable. I have found it necessary to use a hose most springs for a week or more, but in early September, never before!


Finally, it is starting to get colder at night however, and there have been heavy dews the last few nights, dry air notwithstanding. This has been noticeable in the counts from the moth trap which I have been running as part of the garden moth scheme every Friday night. The totals climbed steadily through late July and August, culminating in a warm drizzly night last week when I broke the double century with 208 moths! Even when I ran a light in Reading in the late 1950's (much further south, and from an era when moths were far more plentiful), I never broke the 200 barrier. And then, suddenly, down to 43 last night when the mercury dropped to 7C. The bulk of the moths are still Large Yellow Underwing (usually about 65%, and many of the others Lesser Yellow Underwing and Lesser Broad-bordred Yellow Underwing, collectively cutworms in the larval stage!), but I only recorded five species last night, the first night of autumn, and no autmnal specials either.

In the garden the main activity is pruning. The hedges have been finished some three weeks (Barry, our hedge cutter, Mandy our helper and ourselves have been on the ball this year), but in a mature half-acre garden such as this the chopping seems never-ending. This afternoon it was buddleias. If we don't do them now they seed everywhere, which is a real symptom of climate change. For the first 30 years we lived in Hexham we never saw a buddleia seedling, now they are everywhere. Presumably there was not enough accumulated heat during the season in previous eras for the seed to ripen fully. Before that it was philadelphias, weigelas, deutzias, ceanothus, mahonias, rubus, ribes, viburnums, berberis....the list is endless. Sheila is chopper-in-chief and I help her bag the prunings and take them to the tip in the back of our increasingly pruning-battered car. Ideally I suppose we would  chip the prunings and use the chippings as mulch, but proper chippers cost a  fortune, and almost as much to run. And they make such a din! One has to say that our tip, a mile distant, is a godsend, and one of the best reasons to live in Hexham. No queuing, payment and/or proof of residence here (I have suffered the systems in Reading and Feltham and know what I am talking about!).

Honey fungus

Mention of mulching etc brings me to the subject of honey fungus. I have been prompted by the RHS-driven survey, which reminds me to send in our details now it is September (their survey didn't start until then, but our fruiting bodies started to appear a full month earlier).

In the early days in this garden we felled many trees (we also planted nearly 100!) and were left with many logs, roundels etc. Many of the chunks of timber were used to raise beds above the prevailing boulder clay and into what passes for light here. Many of these bulwarks have rotted gently, some for 20 years, and several have become infested with honey fungus (picture below). The curious thing is, I have suffered few losses as a result. The bodies appear amongst rare Taliensia rhododendrons (Rh. pronum, bureauvii, rufum, balfourianum), lilies, Primula chionantha, P. alpicola, roscoeas, meconopsis, Erythroniums, snowdrops and other spring bulbs) all of which seem not to turn a hair even when the mushrooms grow right through and among them (I try to winkle the fungi out). Possibly there have been a few losses, but whether these have been primarily due to the fungus or poor husbandry is unclear. Certainly I am more likely to assign losses to competition from ever-present weeds than from the fungus.

It seems to me that the old timber may have attracted a primarily saprophytic rather than pathogenic strain of Armillaria. Perhaps the RHS survey will in time be able to ascertain this.

Honey fungus


Many years ago I built a special, rather shady, corner lined withg Swedish peat blocks and filled with a compost made primarily from sieved leaf-mould and perlite, for the purpose of growing petiolarid primulas. This area was covered with a large frame-light every winter and for some years was a considerable success, as early photographs in this diary would testify. However, nothing lasts for ever, and this area regressed badly. Basically there were three reasons. Firstly, the petiolarids here became infected with virus, and it soon became so that any primula grown here soon died. These days I grow few petiolarids, and these few are kept in quarantine, in pots. Also, the bed became invaded with tree-roots (a common problem in this tree-girt garden). A third fault was, I am sure, that the composts became very sterile. Leaf-mould has relatively few nutrients, and like all composts based on organic material, are not as good at  binding to nutrients as are those with a loam component, containing a clay fraction.

With a few exceptions (the Philesia featured in the last episode, and a substantial Adonis davidii), few plants had remained and the bed was a mess.


After lifting the remaining plants, I hit on the idea of rescuing several old polystyrene acid bottle containers, replanting them and using them as the wall to the raised bed. Having thoroughly dug through the main bed to remove any lingering tree-roots and perennial weeds (oxalis is a particular problem here), I then backfilled the bed with a mix which was also used in the polystyrene containers.

This becomes an excuse for a slight digression into bought composts. For years I have used commercial potting mixes as a basis to my potting and container composts, leavening them with grit and perlite. And, as discussed above, I have become increasingly convinced that such composts lack 'body', by which I mean a loam component which will bind onto phosphates and nitrates in particular, not to mention micronutrients, releasing them slowly over the life of the compost and the plant. About a year ago I became aware that our local emporium was selling Keith Singleton's John Innes No. 3 (£4.95 for 50 litres) which it claims is based on 'real' loam (ideally based on stacked turves) which had been steam-sterilised. The firm is based in Egremont in west Cumberland, at Seaview Nurseries (although Egremont is some distant from the sea!). Be that as it may, Keith Singleton's compost is the first 'real' JI I have encountered for many years, and is clearly based on a good loam, just as they say. Mixed with grit and perlite, I have used it exclusively this year for a wide range of plants, invariably with excellent results. And it was this compost, again liberally laced with perlite and remaining lumps of Swedish peat, which I used to full up the new space.

Here is the same bed in context, showing nearby polystyrene (fish-box) containers for shade-loving plants.

A few flowers

Not a great deal to report on the flowering front. Aconitum helmsleyanum was planted to scramble over Rhododendron 'Carmen' and neighbouring pieris. After five years or more it has established to the point of needing some gentle control. It is beautiful, but really vigorous. I assume it is as virulently toxic as other monkshoods and treat it with care, diligently washing my hands after handling.

Aconitum helmsleyanum

Many years ago we planted a Clematis 'Jackmanii Superba' to scramble though climbers on the pierced wall. This is tough territory with a lot of root competition from chaenomeles, weigela, pyracantha etc. and the clematis has rarely thrived, although it does seem to do better the years that Sheila remembers to prune it back to a few buds from the base. Curiously it seems to flower twice, in June, and then again now at the end of summer.

Here is a novelty. One day last October we drove to Angisktro, close to the Bulgarian border in north-eastern Greece, an area we christened 'Windmill Hill' on account of the number of wind turbines situated thereon. There were a few interesting plants in flower, not least attractive forms of the ubiquitous Colchicum bivonae, but also a good deal of seed. I collected seed of a dwarf Anthemis which I thought might be attractive and it is in flower now. I have been assiduous with the key in 'Flora Europaea', and to my slight disapointment have come to the conclusion that this dwarf ( 25 cm high) with quite attractive golden flowers is just a form of the widespread and incredibly variable A. tinctoria. It seems to answer to subspecies australis and is sufficiently distinctive to be known by this moniker. Not surprisingly it has quite enjoyed life in the dry and dusty spot Sheila chose for it, although whether it will prove perennial, or indeed will overwinter remains to be seen. We have no problem with the large perennial bed versions of this species which thrive here.

Anthemis tinctoria subsp. australis

Two from the alpine house to finish with. I grow two clones of Daphne petraea collected as scions from above the Nota Pass in 2009 and grafted onto D. retusa seedlings. Both have proved very slow when grown in pots in the alpine house (much less vigorous than my old plant of D. petraea 'Grandiflora'). One, with a relatively upright habit and very long-tubed flowers I christened 'Pinnochio' (long nose, geddit?). The other has a distinctly weeping habit (positive geotropy), so that I have taken to growing it double potted to give it room to weep. This form has flowered less well and remains unnamed, but has presently consented to flower a bit.

Daphne petraea weeping form

Finally Campanula isophylla. I have featured this before, but it is a great success planted out in the sand plunge in the alpine house and requires little more than an annual hair-cut after flowering. I suspect that overwatering would prove lethal and it enjoys the unrestricted root-run. A good subject for late summer.

Campanula isophylla
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