Alpine plants enjoyed a huge heyday during the late 70s and early 80s but, along with heathers and conifers, they went out of fashion. There were still enthusiasts who avidly expanded their collections and nurtured these tiny plants, but you had to know who to ask if you wanted something other than the standard low-growing plants on offer in the garden centre. So it’s nice to see these little plants making a return to popularity because, in many ways, they are ideally suited to today’s small gardens. You can have a whole border of plants in a single container.
At most garden centres, the range is likely to be limited, but you will find trailing phlox and forms of saxifrage that will help pad out a container. For the really choice plants, you need to find an alpine specialist. The best place to work out which ones you want to look for is by visiting a collection to see them growing. The RHS gardens have Alpine Houses where you can see an ever-changing display of plants and miniature bulbs, and many other large gardens also have displays.
The key to success is to remember where a lot of these plants originated. They may look like their larger counterparts, but they have adapted over countless years to grow in the less hospitable mountainous areas where the winters are cold, but the plants remain beneath the snow, wrapped in natural insulation. Summers may be short, but they are usually quite dry and, above all in these regions, the drainage is very fast.
The one thing that will always see off your alpine plants is being too wet and they will rot off at the “collar”, where the stem joins the roots. Some are more susceptible to this than others and a species like Lewisia is actually better planted in a gap in a wall, where it is at 90 degrees to the ground, rather than in a bed or container. Always use a fast-draining planting medium for alpines, such as John Innes no1 (or 2 as they get older) mixed 50:50 with grit, or else use a multipurpose compost and put a thick layer of drainage material in the base of the container. Apply grit around the plants on the surface of the compost to keep the leaves and stem drier. Where you can, protect the plants from excess rain by erecting a cover over the top and try to keep them in full sun.
Keep your plants watered, feed them in spring and be prepared to split them up if one begins to take over, as it will gradually crowd out the other, smaller ones. These are just general guidelines, because different plants have different needs, but alpines will reward you with amazing displays of colour, even if they are tiny.
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