Saturday, 24 March 2007



Last Monday saw the first evening of the Swilly Gardening Club in Buncrana. I went along to listen to John Toland from Limavady, talk about spring flowers in the garden. He brought his slide projector and over 100 pictures of his beautiful, 1/3-acre garden. John used to be a traditional gardener but things changed for him about 10 years ago after he joined the Alpine Society. Being involved in the worldwide organisation has turned John into a bit of a specialist in the subject of alpines and he is starting to win competitions around the country showing some rare and unusual specimens. John is now always on the lookout for collectable alpine plants and all of these go straight into his garden.
He particularly likes to collect primulas and some of his favourites were bred in Northern Ireland. The Boyne Valley primula and the Red Paddy come from Newry. Older varieties have been traced back to the 14th and 15th century when herbalists used to use them in medicines. The biggest problem that John faces when growing these plants outside is that vine weevil and leatherjackets love to eat the roots. When this happens, the plant just blows away. Blackbirds are a bit of a nuisance too as they sometimes pick the flowers off his plants the day before a show. It sounded impressive when he told us that he has 26 different types of snowdrops in his garden, but he dismissed this as very little, as there are over 600 types in the snowdrop family.
All these plants like our climate and can cope with the wet ground but for the alpines John makes special beds and rockeries. The soil for these has to be very free draining and contain lots of sand. His plants were all protected from the soil surface by a layer of grit and John keeps the beds clean of debris (such as fallen leaves and twigs) to reduce the chance of the plants rotting. Most of the work is done in spring and he leaves the summer for relaxing, (wise man).
When it comes to propagating any of the rare plants he has, he gives them all the same treatment. He is a big believer that the seed should be fresh as then the germination rate is much higher. As the plants produce seed he puts them straight into pots with a 50/50 mix of sand and soil. Labels are then put on and the pots are covered lightly with grit. These are then left outside in a sheltered spot where nature does the rest. This idea does away with the need for a greenhouse. Sometimes he has to be really patient as a few varieties of seed take about three years to germinate. At times he has had to wait five years! As a backdrop to some of the beds John uses early flowering plants such as Aquilegia, Thalictrum and Rhododendrons. To increase the stock of Rhododendrons he pins the bottom branches to the ground after putting a nick in the stem that touches the ground. In a few months the cutting has rooted and can be cut away from the parent plant.

John had a very memorable alpine planter in his garden. Every so often a terracotta pot gets broken and instead of throwing it away he collects the pieces and creates a planter. It doesn’t really matter what size the pots are as you judge the amount of plants according to the size of pot. Fill the base of pot with a 50/50 sand soil mix then add the broken pieces of the pot and plant around them. You can get pleasing results by planting in other containers as well. Try planting in an old shoe or old pieces of wood. Anything goes as long as there is good drainage. Choose the plants carefully though and pick ones that will grow happily together as some alpines are very invasive once they get going and could swamp the other slower growing varieties. Most alpines take very easily from either cuttings or division if you want to increase your stock. It doesn’t really matter if they have flowers on them either, just pich them off.


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