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Hexham 2023

April 1, 2023

Driving out to Hexham on Saturday, April 1st, the banks of Daffodils along the A69 were looking a bit sad in the drizzly rain showers. Arriving at the Show Hall, I was greeted by Narcissus looking anything but sad. I arrived at the same time as David Millward arrived with two pots of Narcissus obesus ‘Lee Martin’, one large, the other small, both pots crammed with as many bulbs as was possible to get in, with leaves carefully arranged, falling over all sides of the pot. I’m told the leaves can be a nuisance, covering surrounding plants in the plunge. The large plant sailed on to its almost inevitable Farrer Medal. David is an exhibitor based in Scotland, and this was the first Farrer Medal he has received, although he has already been awarded 10 Forrest medals, three with this plant.

Narcissus obesus Lee Martin exhibited by David Millward

Narcissus obesus 'Lee Martin' exhibited by David Millward

Narcissus obesus ‘Lee Martin’ is named for the late Lee Martin, a much missed and much respected exhibitor, who himself had a great deal of success with this form. It is very amenable to showing, holding its relatively large flower heads well, bulking up well, and dividing well without going blind.

The smaller plant had a different experience. The class for miniature and dwarf Narcissus was so well supported, mainly by plants of this form, that it had to be moved from its place on the benches to a side bench. There, David’s plant met its match with a plant of Narcissus obesus ‘Lee Martin’ from Alan Furness. It was this plant that won not only the class, but the best plant in a 19 cm pot. Alan had received his plants from David, and now showed what he could do.

Putting the two plants side by side showed that Alan’s plant seemed to have been grown harder. The flower stems were much shorter, of an even height, and also the leaves were much shorter. Both growers grow their plants in a plunge in a bulb house; Alan’s is in full sun, with no shading at any time, and also in a much higher and more exposed location. David’s house is kept frost free in winter. Both growers normally repot each year, though Alan admitted he had missed the repot this year. Both growers use a compost of about equal JI No 3 and grit, and both feed their plants religiously. For Alan, the secret ingredient is a dusting of Arthur Bower’s Trench Manure (a slow release fertiliser) in the compost. For David, liquid fertiliser when in leaf, low nitrogen fertiliser before flowering, and liquid Potassium Sulphate after flowering.

These were not the only good bulbs to be seen. Three out of four of the plants considered for the best plant in a 19cm pot were bulbs; Anne Wright’s beautiful plant of Narcissus ‘Giselle’ repeated its success with another Certificate of Merit, and John Bunn’s pretty plant of Fritillaria yunnanensis was also considered. This plant was also grown in a covered bulb plunge, though with open sides. It had been grown from seed in 2004 (nearly 20 years ago), and was potted up every 2-3years, including last year, using a JI No 3/grit/leafmold mix.

Narcissus Giselle exhibited by Anne Wright

Narcissus Giselle exhibited by Anne Wright

Sadly, there were no entries in the Novice Section (we really must make an effort to find new exhibitors), but there was a good entry in the Intermediate Section. Raymond Hurd won the aggregate trophy, the Gordon Harrison Cup. There was no award for the best plant in the intermediate Section; if there had been, I would have given it to Vivien Self’s plant of Pterostylis curta, a summer dormant orchid from Australia. During dormancy it is not watered but kept (in a plastic pot) in a shallow plunge which is not allowed to become completely dry. When it starts to shoot (December/January) it is watered from below; fed in February with Maxicrop Seaweed plant stimulant; then subsequently with weak tomato feed. The plant has been growing for several years without repotting, in a mixture of Perlite (50%), potting compost (25%) and sand or fine chicken grit (25%).

Frank Hoyle brought his usual collection of impressive plants, with a Certificate of Merit for Saxifraga ‘Coolock Gem’; but the plant of his which pleased me most was Kelseya uniflora. This is an almost legendary plant from Montana, where it grows as often large mats on Limestone rocks. These plants must be ancient as it is very slow growing. It is a member of the Rosaceae, not a family usually associated with cushion plants. The mats or flat cushions are attractive, but rarely quite tidy enough for cushion plant classes, suddenly greening up in spring. In cultivation, it rarely flowers well, and many growers never persuade it to flower. The flowers are little pink flowers, slightly scruffy, that sit tightly in the cushion. It appears to flower less well if it becomes potbound, and flowers best about two years after repotting. Frank also adds limestone (limestone grit, crushed tufa and magnesium limestone) to a JI/Grit mixture.

Saxifraga Coolock Gem exhibited by Frank & Barbara Hoyle

Saxifraga Coolock Gem exhibited by Frank & Barbara Hoyle

A plant which stood out with its heads of white flowers standing above its palmate leaves, was Mukdenia rossii, shown by Mike Dale. This is one of a number of woodland Saxifragaceae, in this case from China and Korea, that are increasing in popularity, particularly in the herbaceous border. As well as the flowers, it normally develops fine red autumn colour. Mike admits that he obtained it about 4 years ago, and it has been sitting in a pot behind a hedge facing east while he considered where to plant it. This year it flowered so well that the judges awarded it a Certificate of Merit.

Mukdenia rossii exhibited by Mike Dale

Mukdenia rossii exhibited by Mike Dale

There are a whole range of alpine willow species, which normally seem insignificant, but are very attractive in flower. John Savage showed a delightful plant of Salix myrtilloides ‘Pink Tassels’, covered in pink catkins, just beginning to open fully. Salix myrtilloides, the Swamp Willow, is found throughout Northern Europe and Northern Asia, and also in the Alps and Carpathians. John leaves it uncovered throughout the year, in a sunny and moist (but not wet) spot, in a moisture retentive yet well drained compost.

Salix myrtilloides 'Pink Tassels' - John Savage

In the lobby as you entered the show hall, was a large non-competitive display, set up by Dr. Ruth Starr-Keddle (Farming and Nature officer of the North Pennines AONB Partnership). Ruth has spent many years working in the North Pennines, working with the local farmers, and with teams of volunteers (Including AGS members) to help survey, and improve Northern Upland Hay Meadows. The photographic display showed this work, and other conservation and restoration projects in Upper Teesdale, being carried out under the project name “Tees-Swale; naturally connected.” A variety of hay meadow plants in pots were shown, including Cirsium heterophyllum, Alchemilla sp., Trollius europaeus, Sanguisorba officinalis, Geranium sylvaticum & G. pratense, along with equipment and reference books. The combination of information and education, photographic display and live plants resulted in the award of a Large Gold Award.

It was also pleasing to see how many people stopped to look and read, and talk with Ruth and other workers on the display. The AGS must be concerned with the upland vegetation of our own country as well as distant parts of the world, and its members should find time to support conservation projects like this. Your reporter has spent many hours working on this project and would recommend members with some time on their hands to seek out similar projects near where they live.

North Pennine Partnership Teesdale display - Large Gold Award

North Pennine Partnership Teesdale display - Large Gold Award

Of course, as at any show, there are also members discussing, visitors asking questions, people buying plants, and people eating and drinking; one of the virtues of the present venue (Hexham Mart) is a café selling farmers’ size portions. Every show, your reporter considers the full English Breakfast, before settling for a Ham and Black Pudding Roll. A happy show, with the feeling of being nearly back to normal after the pandemic; not quite because the numbers are still down. Indeed, one of our most prolific exhibitors was missing due to an attack of Covid – but I understand that he is now fully recovered. Thanks to Angus, the show secretary, for all his hard work; for all the volunteers who assisted him in any way; and also to Diane Clement and her team of judges. We hope to see you all at the autumn show!

Show Reporter: Peter M. Hood
Show Photographer: Peter Maguire