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March 2019

March 8, 2019
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Well, where are we? Early March, should be exceptionally early, bearing in mind the exceptionally mild, sunny, dry, spring-like weather that has largely prevailed since the last entry. Doubtless the extensive cold(-ish) spell in late Jaunuary and into February held things back for a bit. Certainly, I had been stimulated to install electric heating cables amongst my more tender bulbs (buried in the plunge).

So, no heavy frosts since we last spoke, tick. Much cooler and more humid now, slowing things down, tick. Finally some proper rain, definite tick! In fact, the season is in many ways not that advanced and most of the plants at the recent AGS shows have been roughly what one would expect. Nevertheless, I am ahead of myself in some ways. I have taken most of the minicloches off the meconopsis and most (Mm, punicea, integrifolia, delavayi, quintuplinervia and the like) are well into growth. Hopefully the ‘Beast from the East’ will not rear its ugly head again!

Another sign that I am at least three weeks ahead of myself is that I have already reinstated the automatic watering in the alpine houses (more usually around 20th March). This is always a traumatic event as the now rather ancient pipes (of 30 years standing!) tend to wheeze, dribble and complain a bit when the pressure is reinstated, rather like those of their owner. There is always a bit of dashing to and fro to the control tap while leaking joints and split pipes are replaced.

The earliest shrubs, winter jasmines, hamamelis, Daphne bholua, Viburnum x bodnantense and the rest have now completely finished. Thre lattermost has now been replaced by its later-flowering and much more distinguished parent, Viburnum grandiflorum ‘Donald Lowndes’. Orginating at Randle Cooke’s garden ‘Kilbryde’ and propagated by layers ever since (reputedly, and in our experience, the only successful propatation technique) this was ‘handed back’ by Alan Furness (AGS member and show exhibiter) a few years ago, and has now reached its full glory.

Both the Corylopsis are a real picture, and Pieris forrestii ‘Firecrest’, now huge, is suddenly in full flower, although the scarlet leaves have yet to appear. Rhododendron ‘Christmas Cheer’, which, not having been forced, always flowers in early March, is having one of its better years and has not been frosted (as yet).

Much more unusually, in this garden at least, Rhododendrom haematodes is putting on quite a good show. Originally grown from seed collected by Alan Clark, this scarlet Neriiflorum rhodo is fairly unusual in collections. Here, it rarely sets much bud and has tended to abort buds while being intermittently a prey to fungal infections. This year it seems to have pulled through okay.

Most of the snowdrops have finished now of course, although there is still a good show from the late-flowering woronowiis. Earlier in the spring, I led a couple of walks in yellow snowdrop country in the far north of our elongated county, one with a bus-load of German Galanthophiles, for the second year. I asked them to ‘pay’ me in German snowdrops, and in this they have been most generous. I thought you might be interested in seeing one of their offerings from last year which has done quite well in its first year here. It is called ‘Grune Osterne’ (forgive the absence of diacritics), that is ‘Green Easterner’ and it does indeed have very large, totally green inners, like ‘Merlin’ but better.

Dodging sideways for a moment, during a recent visit to ‘The Botanics’ (RBG Edinburgh) for a meeting of the Meconopsis Group, well worth-while as always, I paid a sadly all too brief visit to the alpine house (having more pressing business in the herbarium). I was enormously taken by this extraordinary new snowdrop species, described by Zubov and Aaron Davies from the northern Colchis in Transcaucasia. Galathus panjutinii is said to be related to Gplatyphyllus and G. krasnovii (the latter appeared in good form at last Saturday’s AGS Harlow Show and won a Certificate in section C), but the almost oval, tramlined leaves realy are something else. The great thing about botanical gardens, is you do get to see really rare plants!

A few weeks ago, I noticed that a very small and shallow expanded polystyrene container had been somewhat outgrown by its succulent (mostly aeoniums) inhabitats, so I turfed them out, repotted them (mostly for sale) and was left with a nice empty container, once used to lack optical goods.

Serendipitiously, I had just visited a local nursery (Halls of Heddon, they will be at the AGS Hexham Show on 30th March) where they were offering immaculately grown, own-propagated material of many alpines, especially saxifrages and allionii-type primulas. I indulged in five and was about to plant them in the raised bed when I thought of this trough. Having covered the drainage holes, I mixed a compost of, essentially, half and half Singleton’s excellent JI3 compost (made with real stacked turves) and perlite. Here it is half filled. It is really important to pack the compost in tight and raise it as high above the sides as gravity will allow.

This tiny container would get rather lost in the container yard on the terrace, so I decided it might look well perched on an as yet unplanted corner of the newly reclaimed raised bed. Here is the site beforehand.

And here, a few weeks later, is the fully planted trough, in situ, and coming into full flower. I am really rather pleased with it.

Talking of Porophyllum saxifarges (yes we were, or at least I was), my favourite, Saxifraga juniperinifolia is in full flower all over the garden. What an excellent plant! It bears up my adage that, in the porophyllums, the European species are more reliable than the (partly Asiatic) hybrids.

As a cure for my bad back, I have bought a folding bike, so I can put it in the back of the car and, having found somewhere reasonably flat (not easy round here) and relatively free of cars and dogs, I can go further than my back can currently tolerate. Last week’s ride took me, not entirely fortuitiously, past two early-flowering specialities of the district. Daphne laureola is probably a Victorian introduction, reputedly as pheasant food, which seems inherently unlikely given the toxicity of most daphnes, but who knows, perhaps they can eat the berries?

Helleborus foetidus is said to be native in one site near Hexham; at least it has been known there for nearly 300 years. If so, it may be the northernmost native site with us. In recent years it has gone back, but a few plants still flower every year.

Finally, and I have shown it before, the peerless beauty of Crocus pelistericus, MESE seed from Kajmatktcalan which we collected almost 20 years ago. Sadly, it was past its best at the Harlow Show.

Image of John Richards John Richards

John Richards has lived in south Northumberland for 50 years and has been a keen grower of alpines, and visitor to the mountains, throughout the half-century. He and his wife Sheila have been in their present garden 30 years and John has been writing this diary about the garden since 2006.

John is Emeritus Professor of Botany at the University of Newcastle, where his research interests centre on the evolution and genetics of plant breeding systems. He is an authority on the genera Primula and Taraxacum (dandelions!). John is an AGS judge, exhibitor and Vice-President and previous President (2003-6).