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June 2012

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Alpine scree, flooded tulips and dwarf rhododendrons

For a long time I have been attempting scree gardening but, much as I hate to admit this, I now have to concede defeat. Nearly thirty years ago I made a garden in the old stackyard. In the days when this was a working farm, the stackyard was where stacks of grain were kept, on raised circles of stones, prior to threshing. One of the beds in it was supposed to be a scree bed where I could grow alpines that needed sharp drainage. I had some boulders from the nearby quarry strategically placed so that they looked as if they had always been there: no currants-on-a-cake style of rock gardening for me!  

I made this in 1984 when we had a rare good summer. It was also the year of Liverpool Garden Festival from which I brought back a whole collection of alpines some of which were very expensive and very choice. These were planted in the warm sunshine of August. Everything looked lovely and I was pleased.

Alas, as so often happens in my gardening endeavours, pride comes before a fall. A winter with much heavy rain, frost, snow and high winds followed and, at Easter 1985, I had to remove three quarters of the plants because they were dead. I decided then that anything planted in this ersatz scree would be tough. This idea was fine for a while but, after visiting gardens belonging to people in the Alpine Garden Society and seeing how it should be done, I became discontented with my own feeble effort and very ordinary plants.

A friend in Coleraine, who had an impressive scree, advised me to use copious quantities of grit which I did. All might have been well if it hadn't been for two factors. Firstly, the water table seems to have risen, especially in this area which has higher rainfall than most. Between 2007 and 2011 inclusive, we've had five miserable, rain-sodden summers. The ‘scree' slopes gently from west to east and I have often seen water cascading down it and depositing grit at the lowest end. Only the very toughest plants have withstood these deluges. Last autumn I wrote optimistically about planting small species tulips in grit. Only five - yes five! - tulips survived the flooding; the rest rotted in the ground. Between early October and late December much of the stackyard lay under water.

Secondly there was the scutchgrass - an utterly damnable, pernicious weed with long white roots that entangle themselves in the roots of every decent plant. I have no idea where it came from because the stackyard used to be scutchgrass-free. Hand-weeding was useless and poisoning just the scutchgrass was nearly impossible. Every plant had to be lifted and then, because it was too difficult to extricate the weed, I had to dump most of them. Such a waste. The whole bed was then sprayed with glyphosate and for a second time a month later - just to be sure to be sure.

At the moment the bed is empty. Andy, who does the heavy work here and has some good ideas, would like to make it into a pool, but I am bothered enough with duckweed in the other two pools in the garden without having to net it from a third.

I do have a collection of dwarf species rhododendrons which were moved to the scree for a couple of years but they didn't like the grit which probably contained lime. Moreover they just didn't look right surrounded by it. Once all the grit is removed and the meagre soil of the bed is supplemented with good, peaty topsoil - there's plenty of that around - the little rhododendrons will be moved back. They've always been high on the list of my favourite plants so I don't know why I didn't use them in the first place.



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