On a recent visit to the garden center I was drawn in by a deliciously sweet scent of clove emanating from a cluster of small plants. They were dwarf garden pinks – ‘Pink Kisses’ – only a few inches tall but full of personality and they got me thinking about the beauty of small alpine plants and how to incorporate them into a garden.
grew up in the rock garden era: when two garden walls met, the residue of garden creations – rubble, subsoil – inevitably piled into a corner, and ornate stones – often borrowed from the landscape, some covered with moss – were arranged around to form a naturalistic feature.
In the cracks all things would be little planted. Alpine plants thrive in situations where the soil is freely draining and the surrounding rocks retain heat from the sun. Cushions made of saxifrage, delicate campanula balls and supposed dwarf conifers would combine to form mountainous backdrops and bring the rural idyll to many a suburban property.
The term “alpine plants” refers to those species that grow in high mountain regions above the tree line, often on rocky sites. And that’s the key point to successfully growing alpine plants – they don’t like wet soil. In addition to the rock garden, gardeners have traditionally liked to grow them in stone troughs or pools; Elevating these on bricks is a good idea to bring the plants closer to eye level so their delicate beauty can be more easily admired.
This also makes their scent easier to spot and helps with drainage. Due to their drought tolerance, many alpine flowers also like to grow between cracks in walls or paving and in gravel gardens. Some will tolerate some degree of shade but prefer an open, sunny spot.
To achieve a free-draining medium, mix a clay-based compost or garden soil with about 50% horticultural gravel. Make sure the trough has drainage holes and cover the bottom with either gravel or pots – broken terracotta pots. Many alpine plants are slow-growing creepers, so leave enough space between plantings to allow each specimen to stretch outward. Top dressing with gravel, pea clapboards or chunks of slate to complete the look.
After that, maintenance is pretty low as they tend to grow slowly. Remove yellow or dead foliage, prune after flowering and fertilize lightly (they are happy in poor soil) and you might consider protecting them from winter rain by building a polythene canopy but still allowing air circulation to permit.
There is a wide range of alpine plants suited to our climate – plant a mix of evergreens such as sedums and those that bloom at different times of the year to extend interest beyond the seasons. Now is a good time to plant as the soil is warming but still moist.
For the novice alpine climber, the following are some of the easiest to grow:
Aubrieta: A familiar sight across the country, this cheerful little plant will colonize the smallest crack in a wall or sidewalk. Flowers come in white, pink, red, or purple.
sempervivum: Houseleek likes it hot and dry because its thick, succulent leaves can store water. Comes in a range of colors from green to purple.
Delosperma nubigena: A South African succulent with bright yellow flowers that remain for a long time.
Campanula cochlearifolia: Also known as Fairy Foxglove, this Campanula is better behaved than some of the other Campanulas, with pretty pale blue nodding flowers.
Sisyrinchium ‘EK Balls’: Mauve flowers with yellow eyes on iris-like foliage – simply gorgeous.
Erinus alpinus: Fairy Foxglove is an enchanting plant with pink inflorescences in late spring and early summer.
Zauschneria californica: A touch of California sun in the garden with sparkling orange-red flowers in late summer/early fall.
plant of the week
Exochorda ‘The Bride’
Exochorda, or the pearl bush, is a beautiful spring flowering shrub. With pearly white buds opening to masses of pure white flowers on arching stems, ‘The Bride’ is a stunner. But this shrub is no Bridezilla — it’s a low-maintenance shrub that will benefit from annual pruning. Cut back flowering stems after they have finished flowering, not before or you will lose flowers for that year. Grow in the sun for best results. Tolerates most soils except very calcareous.
Reader Questions and Answers
Some of my daffodils have not bloomed – I planted them last year. Will they bloom or should I plant them somewhere else? — Margaret
Daffodils that don’t bloom are called “blind.” Newly planted daffodils should always flower in their first year – in later years blindness can result from overcrowding, drought or poor nutrition. However, a possible cause of blindness in the first year is that you didn’t plant them deep enough to begin with.
If you suspect this, I would recommend digging up the other daffodils after flowering and planting them two to three times as deep.
Another possible cause is that you planted them too late: they should be in the ground by the end of September. If so, leave them alone and see what happens next year.
It’s possible you only got a few daffodils – try planting a few more daffodils this fall for a better display next year. I would recommend ‘Tête-à-tête’ if you like small daffodils, or ‘Jenny’ is very reliable and spreads easily.
Send your gardening questions to Diarmuid via his Instagram @diarmuidgavin using the hashtag #weekendgarden
https://www.independent.ie/life/home-garden/gardens/diarmuid-gavin-on-how-to-add-a-little-alpine-elegance-to-your-garden-41550898.html Diarmuid Gavin explains how to add a little alpine elegance to your garden