Hints, tips and advice on growing alpine plants.
As the title says, but aimed more at those who are new or relatively new to the wonderful world of growing alpine plants.
- What exactly is an alpine plant?
- How to use alpines in your garden.
- Growing conditions, soil, etc.
- Where to find further advice.
What exactly is an alpine plant?
Good question! There is no definitive description but basically it is a plant which grows in alpine regions of the world, i.e., at elevation, on or around mountains. To withstand the conditions found in such regions - cold, wind, snow cover etc., the plants have become adapted to suit their environment. Typically, they are slow-growing, long-lived, short in stature and may have small, hard or downy leaves to resist the cold. Many have a short but abundant flowering period as typified by this picture of Saxifraga oppositifolia which can even be found growing on the mountains of Britain.
|So an alpine is a mountain plant? Well, not always, as some beautiful alpines grow on cliffs by the sea, such as our native Sea Thrift or armeria like this Armeria maritima 'Dusseldorfer Stolz' seen growing happily in a large pot. Other alpines may even grow right on the beach among the shingle - hardly a mountain plant! And yet, the plants still have to endure a harsh environment, especially wind, and the beach could be in Alaska or other cold place but the plants survive in their stony surroundings. Some prefer the term 'rock plant' as many alpines associate so well with rocks and stones.
To summarise, the term 'alpine plant' is a catch-all term and whatever your own growing conditions might be - wet, dry, sunny or shady, with careful selection you will find a low-growing, spreading plant that needs minimal care to fill that spot. And that will be an alpine. Or a rock plant ....
How to use alpine plants in you garden.
Well, the obvious answer would be, "On your rock garden", but not many people can afford or have space for such a feature. Many more people have a 'rockery' - a mounded or sloping area with a few stones dotted about - and alpines can thrive here - but they are by no means essential. Many alpines look stunning planted in an old stone sink or trough (again, it's the association with stone) but the same effect can be had with artificial stone replicas. Some are even made from polystyrene so weigh very little and could even be placed on a balcony. You don't even need a garden as such to grow and enjoy alpines. A group of any type of containers, stone, plastic or whatever planted with alpines will make a charming feature and be attractive in all seasons.
Continuing the stone association, many of the low, spreading alpines look good when planted near paving, their natural, informal shapes relieving the hard feature of paving slabs. Likewise in and around gravel areas where the gravel mimics the plants domain in nature, such as the Geranium 'Laurence Flatman' seen here sprawling over a gravel path and softening those hard edges.
You must have seen the (usually purple) aubretia hanging from walls in the spring - an alpine type plant being used in a situation that mimics nature. Many alpines will spread and cover walls as long as their roots can reach the soil within or behind the structure.
Growing conditions, soil, etc.
A quick word about drainage - we often use the terms 'free-draining', 'needs good drainage', etc. What does this mean? All it means is that water cannot rest around the plant or its roots. If one thing most alpines do not like it is water around them - any excess must drain away quickly. This is helped by having (or making) a gritty or sandy soil and by placing grit or small gravel around (and under the leaves) of the plants.
If you have read from the top of this page you will now know that alpines are a very varied lot, but for the majority, their requirements are a sunny site not overhung by trees, a fairly 'poor' soil in so far as not being well fed or manured and if the soil is slightly sandy or gritty (or can made so) then so much the better. Such condtions will satisfy a huge range of diverse and interesting plants providing lasting colour, shape and interest all year - and for years to come.
There are two major clubs in the UK (and world-wide) for alpine plants - one is the Alpine Garden Society (AGS), the other, the Scottish Rock Garden Club (SRGC). Each of their websites is well worth a look. The SRGC also has an online forum - someone on there knows the answer to your question, they are very helpful and friendly and beginners are welcomed. The Royal Horticultural Society also has an excellent website, packed full of useful and interesting information.
One book I would recommend would be, 'Alpines: An Essential Guide' by Michael Mitchell (Crowood Press). Written by an experienced alpine grower and nurseryman, it covers just about every question you might have about alpines and how to grow them.
Our online Plant Shop offers a huge range of plants for you to choose from and gives some guidance on what conditions many of the plants prefer. If you can't decide what to order, or are unsure if you are selecting the best plants, then our special Collections are a simple solution and ideal for the beginner or someone needing to fill a large area at reduced cost.
Happy (alpine) gardening.