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Alpines & Rock Gardens
Alpines grow at high altitudes and are usually very small plants that are used to growing in extreme temperatures. They are usually hardy and may be evergreen woody plants, deciduous or herbaceous.
They can grow from tubers, corms or bulbs and there are almost no annuals. In the wild alpines survive cold climates by using their size to their advantage.
Because they are so small the wind barely touches them and they are able to carry the heavy weight of snow without being damaged. Where hot sun is present their small hairy or leathery leaves protect them from losing water. Not many alpines can thrive in constantly wet conditions. They prefer their roots to be dry as in the wild they grow in poor thin soil that has excellent drainage. This soil lacks in nutrients and water retention and therefore the alpines extend their roots seeking out these essentials.

A rock garden, complete with running stream and flowering plants

A rock garden, complete with running stream and flowering plants

Alpines can be used in so many gardens as their size and compatibility with our climate makes them fit in so well.

When growing alpines always check if the species is garden tolerant or specialist as they will require different treatments and conditions. Garden tolerant species are generally undemanding and provide an array of displays from showy flowers, spreading mound and mat formers to gentle edging of beds. Specialist alpines require extremely free draining soil and guarding from excessive wet winter weather. Keep their roots cool and ensure plenty of sun is received. Moist, acid soil in the shade, raised treated and controlled beds or rock gardens are the best types of environments for these species. By raising the alpines you can lift them from the underlying soil and planted with gritty compost. Using rock gardens or stone walls to grow alpines is a great way of replicating their natural habitat.
Rock Gardens
When building rock gardens ensure your soil is dry as rocks and constant walking on will compact wet soil thus making it harder for plants to grow there. Drainage and roots mobility will be hindered by this process. Construct your rock garden south or south-west facing if possible and on a slope. Always remove all weeds and debris before starting as they will penetrate your rock garden at a later date. Best to spray the site a few weeks before beginning the work or if your going organic start pulling them out ensuring to get as much of the stem and roots that you can. Keep going back to watch for any new shoots before you start as it is extremely difficult to pull out persistent weeds once the rock garden is finished. On sloping sites the drainage is usually substantial, if building your rock garden on a level you must ensure adequate drainage is in place. A drainage system may be needed or simply raising your garden above ground level may also help. If your site already has adequate drainage then you may just dig it over, gently tread it over to avoid sinkage then fork the surface.

Rock garden

It may be handy to design where you will put your rocks before actually placing them in. Do this on paper, computer or by making a miniature model of the site. Aim for it to look as natural as where the alpines usually grow. Pictures from reference books or online sites will enable you to see their habitat.
Build the base first by putting in a layer of coarse materials such as stones, broken bricks and gravel. Place a sheet of polypropylene sheet over the top and punch in holes to aid drainage. Use topsoil or weed free soil as your surface layer. Using protective gear place your rocks into position. Place enough in the site for it to look like a realistic rocky setting but leave space for planting. Bury the rocks to a third of their size and tip backwards to enable water to run off. Ensure they are stable. Before planting pack in sharply drained compost where you will be putting your plants. Alpines purchased as pot plants can be planted at any time of the year but avoid doing it when the soil is wet or frozen, or very warm. Water first and allow to drain.
Read all labels before planting so that you know which species prefer more sun or shade, which will grow fastest, or which will last longest. Position around the site in pots first to gauge an idea what the end product will look like. Remove the plants from their pots and loosen the roots. Make a hole in the compost large enough for the roots to slot in. Water in and top dress with gravel. Keep them all moist until new growth appears.
Planting in crevices uses the same techniques although the root ball may need to be trimmed to fit in the hole. Using small stones as support is a good idea to stop your plant from falling out, also compact around the plant with compost. Birds will attempt to eat your alpines so the use of netting may be needed whilst they getting established.

Planting alpines in crevices

Alpine Houses
An alpine house is simply an unheated greenhouse with raised shelves designed for growing and displaying. During the winter many alpines use the snow covering as insulation and protection from the elements. In our everyday gardens this may not be practical or plausible. Sometimes a simple blanket of mesh or fleece may be sufficient but in some cases an alpine house should be used.
Using alpine houses enables the most daring of gardeners to try their hand at tending some of the more exotic alpines. Species that simply cannot handle our climate conditions will bloom and flourish in an alpine house and even those species that may be coping alright with the weather can be brought in for display.


Alpine houses not only protect from the weather they also guard against pests and diseases. Displays of these fascinating plants are wide and varied and open to your imagination. Simply arrange your potted alpines on the shelving and let their magnificent beauty speak for itself, or plunge the pots into a large tray of sand. This helps to keep the roots moist and cool and allows for fuss free watering. Incorporate mini rock gardens into your alpine house.

Alpine House

Alpines in Pots

Display alpines may look more striking when in clay pots as they have that rustic, authentic edge to them, however nowadays there are some fantastic clay replica plastic pots that do the exact same as clay for water retention. Place a layer of free draining material in the bottom, grit for plastic pots and broken plates or pots in the clay pots. Then a layer of compost, equal parts grit and loam based.

Plant the pots and top dress with a material that is suitable to the plants needs. Limestone for lime lovers, granitic grit for lime haters etc. Plastic pots retain their moisture more so do not overwater. Repot when needed taking care to not disturb the root ball.

Alpines in Pots

Alpine Care
Ventilation in alpine houses is a must. Doors can be left open, except in high winds or heavy rain, to maximise air circulation. Temperature also needs to be regulated. Shading may be required in hot weather but ensure to not completely black them out as the plants will grow towards the next available light source and may end up misshapen. Gently mist plants to maintain humidity. Heating may be required in extreme cold weather as they will not have the snow blanket to protect them. Check your plants for dead foliage and remove. Treat all outbreaks of pests and diseases effectively and swiftly. When watering try to water the base of the plants as they do not like overhead watering. Ensure that the compost is always damp to touch, never dry or wet. Attempt to top dress your show or display alpines with materials that are appropriate to where they come from to aid in authenticity.
Plants available online..
Alpine Rock Garden - 6 Jumbo Ready Plants Alpine Rock Garden - 6 Jumbo Ready Plants
A range of alpine plants from mountainous regions. Great for rock gardens.
Collection Varieties: Delosperma Yellow Ice, Iberis Snowflake, Phlox Candy Stripes, Sedum Dragon's Blood, Mazus Reptans and Veronica Christy.
Available online from: Jersey Plants Direct
Sempervivum - houseleeks
Sempervivums, or houseleeks, are hardy, succulent, alpine plants that grow in the wild between rocks in mountainous regions. Sempervivum species are commonly grown in containers, but they can thrive in bricks, driftwood and tufa rock, because of their ability to grow in very little compost. South-facing rockeries, gravel gardens and vertical walls also make good habitats. They perform best in a sunny, outdoor position, in a well-drained compost, such as John Innes No.1 or No.2, with 25% sharp horticultural grit for added drainage. A layer of grit or gravel should be added to the surface of the compost to further aid drainage and prevent damp.
Available online from: Gardening Shop UK



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