What happens after a frost-free spring

I thought I was only taking six months away from blogging, but it seems to have become spun out into seven…

It has been the usual long, dark, wet winter – but in contrast to last year virtually no snow has fallen, and the temperature has seldom dropped beneath -3 degrees celsius. So, for once, the rhododendron and early azaleo buds have survived. In fact, I’ve seldom seen the early rhoddies cover themselves in blossom to this extent:

This is rh loderi ‘King George’ -a blowsy pink number with a remarkably strong scent (which you only get to experience on the rare windless day).  I planted this in entirely the wrong place where it doesn’t get enough shelter from the north, so not only is it growing more like a creeping shrub than a stately tree of 25 feet, which it can manage in more favourable climes, but its buds are normally shrivelled by sleet-laden gales. On the rare occasions it escapes, it does provide something of a wow factor at the entrance to the house.

The flowers turn from their carmine beginnings to a pink-tinged white as they open out – just the kind of colour that interior designers commend for ‘feminine’ bedrooms. The frangrance is also somewhat ‘feminine’, reminding me of expensive bath soap.

This is a bog-standard early purple – so bog-standard that I have forgotten its name (if I ever knew it). It usually survives the frost about one year in three, but when it covers itself like this, the weight of the blossom drags the branches almost to the ground.


Finally, the only respectable tree rhododendron I posess (again, no name, sorry). It has taken the better part of forty years to reach this height, but reliably rewards me with a block of colour before the blue poppies behind it come into bloom.

Even on a dull evening such as tonight, the view from the terrace is really rather exotic!


Glaucidium Palmatum – Japanese wood poppy

It’s time to pull together my previous meanderings about this plant and try to write something serious about it. But first, here’s the time lapse:

16th May 2013

16th May 2013



19th May 2013


22nd May 2013

22nd May 2013

Let’s get the botanical stuff out of the way: Glaucidium palmatum is a native of the northern Japanese islands and is a rhizomatous herbaceoous perennial, first described in 1845. It’s in a genus of its own, with only the one species, and there are still arguments about which family it belongs to. So, botanically, it’s a bit of an outlier.

I acquired my plant two years ago, by which time it was probably two years old, and this chimes with the web-based advice that it takes about four years to establish itself and flower. It can take a lot longer, apparently. By sheer chance, I seem to have given it conditions that suit it – humous-rich damp soil with a bit of shade (it’s a woodlander, after all). I’m growing it in a bed beside the old mill – and there’s a good deal of brick fragment and lime mortar in the soil, though whether that is good or bad, I don’t know.

One of the reasons that the (few) nurseries offering it describe it as ‘rare’ would seem to be that it’s not at all easy to reproduce. Apparently it hates being disturbed (though I dug mine up by mistake, and it seems to have forgiven me) and its woody rhizomes don’t take kindly to being sliced up into separate plants. So it’s seeds or nothing. If you are going to try growing it from seed (I’m not – I’m useless where seeds are concerned), this discussion on the Scottish Rock Garden Club forum makes a good starting point. Take note of the wise words of Ian Christie, who runs one of the best gentian nurseries in Scotland, and knows all there is to know about raising things from seed.

Equally, you should take a look at this post by Jim Jermyn, whose retirement from Edrom nurseries I have long regretted, as he’s one of the best primula growers and experts around.

And finally, take a virtual trip to Japan and have a look at the wood poppy in its native setting.

I can’t yet add anything to the wisdom of the experts, as it’s early days for me with this plant. I did note somewhere that rabbits are partial to a snack of Glaucidium – that thought fills me with horror.

Green at last

It’s still cold at nights, but It must be spring: everybody’s either nesting:P1010562

or unfurling:P1010569

These  are the emerging leaves of glaucidium palmatum, the Japanese wood poppy. I thought I’d lost it, but I’d just forgotten where I’d put it until  I dug it up by mistake while forking over the iris border behind the ruin. It has yet to flower with me, but these unfolding leaves dragging themselves out of the cold soil into the sun, I find attractive enough to be going on with.

In a late year, such as this one, the altitude I garden at is driven home to me. Down at sea level, people have been mowing their lawns and looking at the blossoming hawthorn. Here, at 600 feet, even the birch trees are not yet in full leaf. But there are the beginnings of colour:P1010575

The problem with marsh marigolds, is that they look wonderful at this time of year, but exceedingly ugly once they have finished flowering. I usually cut them right back, and they don’t seem to mind, but it is a task which involves clambering around in the mud. Speaking of which, I contemplate the pond weed with dread. It is time to clamber into the water and haul it out. I keep putting it off, hoping the pond will warm up a bit….but it will have to be done soon. There’s no escape. The older I grow, the less I look forward to it…

The scree garden is coming to life. The late snow and frost has not done anything to improve the shape of the plants, such as silene acaulis, which are supposed to grow into neat cushions. They now look like cushions that several mice and the family dog have played with. But here’s a gem:P1010572

Vitaliana primuliflora, an alpine native to the Pyrenees, should cover itself in yellow at this time of year. Mine doesn’t; in fact it has failed to flower for several years. But I read somewhere that it prefers really poor soil, so I dug it out of the nice fertile clay, and gave it pure grit to feed on. And it’s working..

Another rock plant I struggle with is this: androsace primuloides. The androsache family are marginal, at best, in this climate – and even in my scree border, it is too wet (as you can see by the infiltrating moss. But I love its strangely mechanical growth habit: flowers – straight up; new rosettes rigidly out at right angles into each quadrant. I really ought to find  it a dry, gritty slope.  I don’t have one. But I have ideas….

A very slow spring

It’s still cold. Nine to eleven degrees, and a chill wind from the north-west. We’re at least four weeks later than last year (which was a disaster anyway, with its vicious late frosts).

As I’ve said before, I’m not unhappy. With everything held back, I’ve got on with a lot of things without the usual rush to clear weeds and mow grass. Turned the compost heap, dug new drains in an effort to make the bog garden less of a swamp, cleaned out the strawberries, manured the raspberries. And re-soiled the blue poppy beds, lifted and split their inhabitants. They are looking much happier than they were last year:P1010553

The early primulas are in full flower: Primula rosea enjoys having its roots in running water, but is equally happy in a damp bedP1010550.

I’m especially pleased that my primula melanantha survived the winter. I’ve kept it in its pot (I don’t normally like doing this) and sunk it into a fairly shady spot. It spent the months from September to March in the greenhouse, with only a tiny drip of water once a fortnight. Now it’s pushing out its velvety-black flowersP1010538.

On the subject of black, about five years ago, I stuck a black hellebore (helleborus niger) into the remains of a rotten tree stump under beech trees. The odd leaf appeared, but little else, and I wrote it off as a stupid error. But, lo and behold, the Christmas rose, flowering in May!P1010556

The not a tulip show

On the outskirts of Brussels, there’s a seventeenth-century castle made of brick and spiky things, where each year Dutch and Belgian growers show off their tulip collections.P1010511

I’m not a great fan of tulips laid out in beds according to variety. But tulips, after the breeders have had their way with them, can be weird and wonderful things, especially parrot tulips, so I went along. But this year has been so cold, there wasn’t a tulip to be seen. Actually, there was one, flowering all on its own: tulipa fosteriana ‘Pirand’. And that was itP1010505.

Instead of the tulips, the earlier spring bulbs, which should have been over, were in full flower under the trees. I think I prefer them to tulips. There were some clever colour combinations. P1010499

P1010501But what I found most interesting was that the bulbs were growing through a few of inches of coarse sand. I imagine this is because the sand warms faster than the cold clay beneath and encourages the bulb into growth. I must try it in my own inhospitable climate.

To make up for not having any tulips to look at, everyone packed into the covered display area, where there were some truly bizarre things to be seen. Someone had wasted packets of dye and endless time,  to produce this:P1010509

The ‘Rainbow rose’. Not fabric. I wish it had been. I could indulge in a little rant here about squandered human ingenuity. But I won’t;  I’ll pass on to another monstrosity, which is what happens when plant breeders get so carried away by their own genius, that they entirely forget about aesthetics. Would you really want this apology for a daffodill leering at you from your flowerbeds?

An alpine spring

A couple of posts ago, I wrote that snow in March never lasts long. I was wrong. Slowly, slowly, it is now starting to melt, but is still a foot or so deep in the shady parts of the garden where it drifted in the strong easterly wind.P1010496

Where the daffodils break through the snow, the sun-warmed air reaches into the hole they have made and melts the snow round each plant. Spiky bulb leaves do this, but flatter slow growing plants, such as cushion saxifrages, must wait. My scree bed lies under a cold blanket, except where a rabbit has passed – the sun widening out its tracks, so that it looks as if a gigantic Easter bunny has visitedP1010495.

Since I constantly moan about warm, wet, winters and premature warmth in March, I’m actually happy with all this. It’s exactly what alpine plants need. Of course it is frustrating not to be barrowing compost and splitting blue poppy plants and all the other jobs that are now queuing up, but because of the cold and the snow, it’s less likely that May frosts will wipe out all the young growth, as happened last year.

And, where the snow melts, the early primulas rush into flower. Here is p.sonchifolia, breaking out of its resting bud and eagerly putting out its blooms before bothering to grow a stemP1010485. As you see, the leaves have suffered badly from frost. It’s an irony that many high-altitude primulas can be easily frost-damaged – the snow cover in their native mountains normally keeps them safe. Unfortunately, in Scotland the snow melted before the frosts were past. Such is life.