How to grow alpines

Alpines are plants found in high, mountainous areas generally above the natural tree line. They are usually exposed to wide temperature ranges: very freely draining low-nutrient soils, strong winds and high light levels. To survive these conditions they have evolved a number of defences making them low-growing, mat or cushion-forming plants. As such they are protected against harsh winds and cold, are dormant under snow, have extensive root systems to seek out moisture and nutrients, and often have spiny growths to deter grazing animals. The conditions they are designed to withstand are different to those in a typical British winter, but provided you bear in mind their natural growing conditions, you can grow them quite successfully

Rock garden plants

Rock garden plants consist of any slow-growing small or miniature forms of perennials, conifers, shrubs and bulbs. While they do not necessarily come from alpine regions, they also need free-draining soil and are ideal companions for true alpine plants.

How to grow alpines

These dwarf plants offer a huge choice of flower colour, and also of shape, foliage and diversity of usage.

Used in a rockery, spectacular displays can be achieved with the colour and form of the plants complementing the rocks.

They also make good container plants on patios and are good in old sinks and troughs and raised beds.

Some will grow well in hanging baskets and in crevices in walls or paving stones.

Types such as thyme can be planted en masse to give a colourful and scented carpet.

Growing alpines in containers

Alpines can live in containers for many years and dwarf types especially benefit from being displayed in raised sinks or troughs so that their minute detail can be better appreciated. Smaller containers will need holes in the bottom to let excess water drain off.

Always put a layer of broken crocks in the bottom to help with drainage and ensure the roots never sit in water. Provide a planting mix of 30% general purpose compost, 30% leaf mould or garden compost and 40% added grit. Top dress with gravel and place in a sunny location. Water regularly but not excessively. Keep alpines drier in winter, but do not allow them to dry out. Feed with a general fertiliser at just one quarter of the manufacturer’s recommended strength for other plants in mid-spring.

Keep free from weeds and pick off any dead leaves and prune as needed. Move pots into a cool well-ventilated greenhouse in winter.

Create a rockery

A rockery is intended to give the appearance of a rock outcrop mound in a mountainous region.

The site is important and a bank is ideal, as building on a level surface seldom achieves a natural effect. The use of a natural or imitation rock stone rather than broken concrete or old bricks is preferable. It is best to use one type of rock, choosing the largest pieces you can comfortably handle, although using some smaller pieces will help give a natural effect.

When positioning your plants consider how they would appear in nature; try to copy this natural look when building your rockery. Create pockets of suitable planting soil for the plants. To add interest, vary the soil space between the rocks. Bury the base of rocks and slope them back to help direct the rain into the pockets. Most alpines will tolerate any type of soil, providing it is well drained.

Once the rockery is planted, cover the soil surface with small gauge gravel or shingle to enhance the natural look and keep the soil cool. Although many alpines grow on very poor soils, always water after planting and in very dry spells. Feed in spring with a general fertiliser at a quarter of the strength used on other plants to ensure best results.

Recommended alpine plants

There is an enormous choice of alpine plants, and there are types available for most soil types.

  • Andromeda: evergreen dwarf shrub with narrow blue-grey leaves and small pink flowers
  • Cassiope ericaceous evergreen with delicate white bells in May
  • Chionohebe pulvinaris: tiny stemless flowers
  • Daphne retusa: dwarf evergreen with scented flowers in spring and orange autumn berries
  • Draba: yellow or white flowers
  • Gentiana: trumpet shaped
  • Primula: sweetly scented in a range of colours
  • Saxifraga (silver cushion): pink flowers in May/June. Silver foliage.
  • Sempervivum: coloured rosettes of foliage and dainty pink, white or yellow flowers.

What will I need to grow alpines?

  • Fork and spade
  • Trowel
  • Secateurs
  • Alpine plants
  • General fertiliser
  • Grit, sand, pea shingle,
  • Rock chips or sharp sand

For the rockery

  • Barrow or truck to move stones
  • Gloves
  • Gravel or shingle
  • Rocks