Articles on growing alpines

Occasional articles on various aspects of nursery life, growing plants and running a small business.

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  1. Planting alpines in winter 

    Plant now, or wait until spring? 

    We are often asked - Is it better to plant now or wait 'til spring?  That is a difficult question to answer for so many reasons but I'll do my best. Much depends on the gardener's experience, which part of the country they garden in, the type of plant, local conditions like soil, micro-climate, etc. Weather conditions are possibly the most important factor and, as we all know, they change suddenly in our wonderful climate. Most alpines can be surprisingly tough and will survive extreme conditions. But surviving and thriving aren't the same things - we want our plants to thrive and grow, not simply cling to life.

    Let me start by saying that most plants are better in the ground, i.e. plant soon after you receive them. We only dispatch well-established plants so they do have more resilience than a quickly grown plant. All our plants are quite hardy, many spend the winter outside, completely unprotected as you can see here.  

    Plants under snow, January 2015

    There are plants under that snow, we just have to remember what ones are where!  

    Not every plant enjoys these conditions so we overwinter many of our plants in open, well ventilated polythene tunnels. Such plants simply look better with a little protection from the snow and rain. Even under tunnels, all our plants endure temperatures of several degrees below freezing -  it's a relatively 'dry' cold.



    Saxifraga Doctor Clay being dug out from under snow for a customer's order. Completely frozen at about minus 8C  but still protected by the snow.

    Some of the plants that will emerge from under snow like this will be some of the very best we offer.

    Once slowly thawed out, these plants will look remarkably fresh. Isn't nature wonderful?!

    Saxfiraga Doctor Clay under snow, January 2015

    Obviously, you wouldn't be able to plant anything if your conditions were as extreme as this. Many gardeners are concerned by frost, especially newer gardeners. That shouldn't be a concern for most alpines - yes, I have seen frost damage on alpines, but it's 'passing damage', seldom serious. And it usually happens in spring, not winter, a sudden sharp frost after a warm spell, nipping the edges of the leaves on the softest of alpines but killing off those early planted bedding plants! So unless severe frost is current, then it would generally be safe to plant.

    Extreme winter wetness is a problem for some alpines. The plants pictured above, although frozen solid, are also very dry. They will cope with a sudden spell of wetness (such as when the snow melts) but prolonged wetness can be a problem. Much of the problem is our maritime climate - frequently wet and mild. This actually prevents plants from becoming naturally 'hard' and able to resist more extreme weather. And don't we all just feel 'beaten' by constant rain? If you garden in an area of very high rainfall then spring planting might be better. Some plants won't mind the rain but others might - why take the risk? We want you to be happy with the plants you might buy from us and getting them off to a good start is sound advice.

    Finally, to answer the question 'Plant or wait?'. So long as the ground isn't frozen, then you may safely plant. Just be aware that if subsequent hard frost lifts plants from the ground then you might need to gently re-firm the plants into the soil. Firm planting in the first place can help prevent this. 

    Planting or preparing wet, sodden soil is never good. If you garden in a less favoured area then it might be best to wait until spring - there isn't much to be gained by planting early. Of course you may keep your plants in the pots they will arrive in but ensure the roots don't become very dry - those little pots don't hold a large volume of compost and it's surprising how things dry out after a spell of sunny, frosty weather.

    If you have some kind of protection (a greenhouse, cold frame, cold porch etc.) then the plants can be tended here but keep it cool (cold) and ensure good ventilation. A simple covering sheet of glass or Perspex outside will do just as well. You could also pot up your plants - we prefer a John Innes, loam based compost but most types of pre-prepared potting medium will do if mixed with about one third of gritty sand. Don’t use overly large pots - an inch (or 2cm) of fresh compost all around will be plenty. Plants which have been potted up can be held until spring and this is a good way of helping those special little gems get the best start. 

    We include a sheet with every order offering tips on how to treat your plants on arrival. It includes most of the information contained here.

    Happy Gardening!


    Updated November 2015 (from January 2015)

  2. Helianthemums 

    Bright flowers and easy to grow!  One of our specialities.

    Helianthemums flower

    • Enjoy sunshine
    • Easy in most soils
    • Low maintenance
    • Range of bright colours

    The Helianthemums or 'Rock Roses' are some of the most popular plants we sell and for good reason. They grow quickly even in less than ideal soil, flower profusely, come in a wide range of colours and the foliage is often attractive in low, spreading mounds. They are low-maintenance plants that will fit in so many places in the garden like over walls, path edges and in mixed borders - not only rockeries.

    Helianthemums are hardy, low, spreading bushes that flower in late spring/early summer. Each flower only lasts a day or two but they are produced in such quantity that the show lasts a few weeks and many plants will flower a second time. It's a good idea to trim off the faded flower shoots as this helps to keep the plant neat and tidy and will encourage the plant to produce another crop of flowers later in summer. If the plants do get old and woody and perhaps too untidy then they may be pruned back. Pruning is best done in early spring but is possible at any time during the growing season. That is the only maintenance the plants should need.

    The Rock Roses have only two basic needs - sunshine and a free-draining soil. They will survive, or even thrive, in poor, sandy soils as the plants are very drought tolerant. They sometimes have a reputation as being short-lived but this isn't necessarily true. If totally neglected, then yes, they will become woody and bare-stemmed but the simple pruning treatment mentioned above should prevent that. I heard from one customer who had a plant growing happily in the same position for nearly 40 years!

    There are hundreds of Helianthemum varieties (cultivars) to choose from and we offer an excellent range with flowers spanning the colour spectrum from white to yellow, through paler pinks and apricots, to vibrant pinks and reds with some orange and some flowers have contrasting central eyes. We also have a few double-flowered varieties ('double' flowers have many petals clustered into a bud, like a rose flower).

    Helianthemum 'Wisley Primrose'Helianthemum 'Red Dragon'Helianthemum 'Rhodanthe Carneum'

    Helianthemums are evergreen or almost so; they may lose leaves in a hard winter or exposed position but soon recover in spring. The foliage of many varieties is an attractive silvery grey colour, covered with minute hairs. Those grey-leaved ones look especially good in bright sunshine but the smooth, dark-leaved varieties are also attractive and help contrast with the brightly coloured flowers.

    A special note about the 'Ben' Helianthemums - Ben Fhada, Ben Hope, Ben Ledi and Ben More (there exist a few more Bens). These were bred by an amateur grower, John Nicoll of Monifieth, in the east of Scotland and all named after Scottish hills. It is a marvel that the selfless work of an amateur, maybe one hundred years ago (Mr Nicoll died in 1926) continues to be grown today. Ben Fhada, for example, is still as good a variety as anything more modern and retains good vigour. Not many people know of Mr Nicoll but his achievements live on.

    We are big fans of Rock Roses - they are ideal for new gardens and new gardeners, for any sunny place and can even look good planted in a large pot or container. They are not for planting near all those special little alpine gems but for so many other situations they are the number one choice. Our collection of 8 Helianthemum plants is an excellent introduction for trying these wonderful plants in your garden.

  3. Compost for alpine plants.

    Dishing the dirt - our thoughts on compost.

     loam mixed

    I am often asked what compost I use for growing our plants and I usually reply, 'Oh, it's a secret recipe!' And so it is.

    I can tell you the basic ingredients (and will do later) but for now it's a John Innes type compost or soil-based compost. With added ingredients. One of those is Perlite (the white granules you can see here), more about that later.

    This is a very expensive mixture and no large-scale producer could contemplate using it but we are only small-scale. Price isn't a consideration for us - we want to grow the best plants we can and we can't do do that by penny-pinching, especially on such a basic thing as what sustains the plants.

    First, a bit of history. Back in the day, last century and before, loam was what growers used as a base for their composts. Loam is basically soil and they 'improved' it with various additions - peat, leaf-mould, sand, grit, cow manure, crushed (clay) pots - in fact a long list of things, each added to hopefully give the grower the results he or she desired. There was no standard recipe to follow, each grower concocted their own recipe.

    Lawrence and Newell, two helpful chaps who worked at the John Innes Research Institute, decided to research compost mixes. Their research ended with them producing a standard compost recipe which could be followed by any grower and give good results for a wide range of crops. And so we have John Innes composts, normally abbreviated to J.I. no.1, J.I. no 2 and J.I. no. 3, the numbers referring only to the level of fertilisers contained in each. And still today, decades after their introduction, we refer to those mixes.

    You may be thinking that we use a John Innes compost - wrong! For our conditions and the alpines we grow, a standard compost is unsuitable - not free draining enough, wrong fertiliser content etc., etc. We grow so many different plants from different parts of the world and in conditions that probably aren't ideal. Growing plants in pots is fairly artificial after all and when J.I. mixes were developed everyone used terracotta clay plant pots (which were porous and 'breathed'), not plastic pots. Another reason we reject J.I. is the variability of the loam used. Traditionally, the loam (or soil) was turves of grass cut from a meadow, stacked in layers with layers of manure and left for several months or more before use. That was wonderful stuff - full of fibres from decayed grass roots, naturally rich in almost all the nutrient plants require and with a 'crumb' structure that allowed good drainage. Now, it is more likely to be top soil of possibly indifferent quality stripped from land destined for house building.

    Loam (or soil) obviously varies from area to area - you can probably tell that from your own garden. The original J.I. requirements were for a medium clay loam, stripped from grass ley (established pasture). Now, I suspect that most manufacturers use a sandier soil, but clay is the magic ingredient. It is mainly the clay fraction that provides and holds on to nutrients and retains water. But clay is heavy (gardeners talk about a heavy clay soil and it is physically heavier) and can be difficult to handle, especially if it's wet. Loam requires to be sifted before use to remove stones etc. and wet clay is impossible to sieve.

    loam handful

    So, what do we use at Craigiehall Nursery? Well, we do use loam as a base for our composts. And here it is - in its raw state after being riddled (sieved).

    This is marvellous stuff and I produce it myself - my hand inside that glove! .

    The loam is dug up and stacked. Later it is chopped up, riddled (sieved) into a wheelbarrow then shovelled into our soil steriliser where the heat kills any weed seeds and anything harmful. Once cooled, it is bagged up for later use. It's hard work! But I can do most of it during the winter months when we are less busy.

    That is a lot of manual handling and like I say, it's hard work. Why do I do it, especially when alternatives are widely available? Well, we simply can't buy material like this and it is such wonderful stuff that we prefer not to compromise on how we grow our plants. Proper, sterilised loam makes such a difference to how plants grow, how they keep growing and how they establish in the garden once planted.  

    Used on it's own, loam would be totally unsuitable for growing in pots - much too dense, it would 'slump' or compact in the pot, excluding the air that plants roots need. So we add things to the loam to give us the desired results we need. The John Innes recipe called for sphagnum moss peat but we prefer not to use peat. Its use is controversial to say the least and, rightly or wrongly, environmentalists will lobby government to ban its use all together. That process has started already and is well under way. So, instead of peat we use a peat-free compost. It is actually manufactured by one of the large commercial compost manufacturers and is based on coir (coconut husks), recycled wood waste and composted bark. We have tried it on its own but results were poor results although others report excellent success with it.

    So, we have loam and green compost. Together these provide nutrients and water-holding whilst still being reasonable free-draining. But alpine plants like good drainage so we add coarse sand to the mix. And grit. We also add Perlite, a form of volcanic rock that is heated and forms small white granules - you can see these in the top image above. These hold some water but even when saturated they also hold a high proportion of air. Finally, we add lime (to neutralise acidity) and nutrients to suit the plants' needs. Part of the fertiliser is a long-life, slow release fertiliser that will last the plants for over a year from potting. Everything gets thoroughly mixed together in our compost mixer, the only mechanised part of the whole process. Like I say in our About Us section of our website, everything we do is hand crafted, including our compost mix. It's not just one mix of course, we vary the proportions and fertilisers according to plant need.

    So there we have it - a unique product. It has taken us a long time to arrive at this point. Furthermore, I think it is sustainable. Whether it is 'green' or environmentally sound is debatable. Grit and sand need to be quarried. Loam is a finite resource but we are very small scale and have supplies to last us a century! Perlite is mined too and what's more the production of it requires heating the rock to very high temperatures which must use huge amounts of energy. I am told that there are unlimited supplies of coir in the world but it all requires shipping from abroad. What doesn't these days? Scottish grown alpine plants!

  4. Regulations.

    Changes to the Distance Selling Regulations came into effect today and these will affect us, like every online business. The DSRs are now replaced by the Consumer Contract Regulations. We believe our website is already largely compliant but one or two new changes have been needed. We must now tell customers how they can cancel an order, so we have added a section to our 'Thank You for Your Order' email customers receive after ordering explaining that.

    The updated regulations give new rights to consumers buying online, especially regarding returning unwanted goods - you can now return goods up to 14 days from when you receive them, even if you simply change your mind. That's a major obligation on businesses. You won't find many online businesses discussing this topic - and for good reason! This is a very grey area for us, but we believe we can be excluded from this part of the legislation if plants are considered perishable - don't water the pots for 14 days and you will see just how perishable! We're not trying to duck out of our obligations in any way - far from it - we're simply trying to comply as best we can to the letter (and the spirit) of the law. And that's not easy, especially when HM government's own website gives contradictory advice on how we should comply. We might have to contact Trading Standards for advice but I'm somehow doubtful that even they will have a definitive answer. 

    We always try to be very fair and open with our customers, and really, we have had very few problems. Sure, we have had disgruntled customers contact us to say their plants haven't arrived - and nothing makes my heart sink more than those emails! We have left plants out of a customer's order by mistake and we have mis-labelled a plant or two, but we resolve those problems. We are hoping to side-step any bigger problems - not by avoiding legislation but simply by doing good business. And we will be using the same set of regulations as our customers!

    I expect we will all be reading more about the effects of the new Consumer Contact Regulations in the days and months to come.


    I am often asked, "What's your favourite plant?". We have over 500 plants different plants on the nursery and we try to offer about 300 most of the time, so I have plenty to choose from. But of course, it's an unaswerable question. You could ask me in the middle of May when the Geraniums are coming into bloom and I would say, "Oh, it would have to be a Geranium!". A week later and a Phlox would claim the prize. That's one of the enticing things about growing plants - constant change, moving with the seasons, always the prospect of something 'new' coming along to show us its beauty.

    I tried to make a Top Ten but time and space only allow for a Top Five. So, in Johnnie Walker style (the radio presenter, not the whisky!) Dah, dah, dah, dud dud, dahh .... in at number ten five......

     campanula blue gown 13


     Campanula poscharskyana 'Blue Gown'


    A beautiful plant that is easy to grow, flowers over a long season, not too fussy about soil and will tolerate some light shade - an excellent plant. But those weren't my only reasons for choosing it - 'Blue Gown' has a delicate, 'airy' quality to it that appeals to me. It isn't widely grown or offered for sale but I think it deserves to be.


     heli beechpark red


    Helianthemum 'Beechpark Red'


    I really must have a Helianthemum in any list of favourites - they are amongst our best sellers - but which to choose? I have settled on 'Beechpark Red'. It is one of the smaller, more compact varieties, making a fairly dense, neat mound of silvery grey leaves with bright red flowers. It's a slightly muted red though that blends well with other plants. 

     sax wetterhorn pot flower


    Saxifraga oppositifolia 'Wetterhorn'


    I had to include one Sax. oppositifolia, so why not one of the most desirable? Tight mats of silvery leaves covered with deep pink, almost red flowers, it's one of the glories of a spring alpine garden. The Sax. oppositifolias aren't always the easiest plants to grow well, especially in the south or where it is hot and dry, but if you can get them right, they really are stars. They do well here - cool, and moist.

    Named after where the plant was orignally found, on the Wetterhorn in the Swiss alps.

     phlox crackerjack pots

    Phlox douglasii 'Crackerjack'


    I fell in love with these dwarf Phlox from seeing a photograph in a book, long before I ever saw an actual plant. True love endures and I have gone on to build a collection of Phlox. 'Crackerjack' has made the list because it's everything a good Phlox and a good alpine should be - masses of flowers, easily grown, compact, adaptable and hardy.

    Raised in Scotland probably 40 years ago it has stood the test of time. It's a shame to not honour it stablemates - 'Eva' is an outstanding plant, and 'Kelly's Eye'. In a 'count the flowers' competition they would all win.

     geranium laurence flatman 13

    Geranium cinereum 'Laurence Flatman'


    Ok, number one. If I had to choose just one plant, this could be it. Or its sister, 'Ballerina'. I often recommend this plant for non-gardeners who want colour through the summer, easy care (i.e no care, chuck 'em in and hope they survive!) situations. These dwarf geraniums are tough but classy. They flower from mid May here (earlier elsewhere) with a surge of flowers then continue to produce flowers well into autumn. 'Laurence Flatman' (who was my boss years ago and who the plant was named for) is perhaps just too bright and showy for some palettes but Ballerina is paler. So really, it's joint first place for these two. I knew I would never be able to decide! 

  6. Packing Plants

    Since we started selling plants online, many people have asked us how we pack our plants. "Do you just stick them in a box and label them 'DO NOT SHAKE' ? ". The strange thing is - some of them are serious! If only it were that simple.

    There are many different ways to pack plants. Some nurseries remove the plants from their pots and some of the compost as well. It does save  weight, obviously, but I don't like it. It leaves the plant exposed around the neck and the customer is forced to deal with the plant immediately on receipt (plant it).

    The modern way is to use blister packs - moulded plastic bubbles with preformed niches that hold a specific size of pot (and the plant) securely. They are amazing - and costly, and we don't like costly! They only work if your plants conform to the dimensions of the pack. All the big growers use them for mail order; nurseries who produce a limited range of uniform products by the thousand. That's not us!

    When I worked for a large retail nursery many years ago, they wrapped plants in paper or shrink-wrap but packed them into boxes using straw as a cheap and readily available packing material. And it worked very well - unless you suffered from hay fever. Straw, especially if it has been baled ever so slightly damp, is full of dust and fungal spores. It's not nice to handle close up.

    So, what do we use, if not plastic blister packs and not straw? Here we show you how .....

    order wrapping 1 

    An early spring order ready for packing. The plants have been picked out, labelled and cleaned over to remove any dead leaves etc.

    Then we double-check the plants against the printed order. And check the box label matches the delivery address.

    Then we start wrapping. 



     order wrapping heli 1 Here is a Helianthemum ready for wrapping - not from the above order, obviously, but a good example to use.Next we show you how we wrap the plant so that it will arrive with the customer looking (almost) as good as it does here.   


     order wrapping heli 2 We take a sheet of newspaper and carefully wrap it around the neck of the plant. 

    This keeps the grit and compost in the pot but more importantly, it protects the base of the plant.We secure the wrapping with elastic bands. When unwrapping, please be sure to remove the wrapping very carefully - it is often tucked right into and under the plant.

     order wrapping heli 3 A final outer wrapping of a single sheet of newspaper helps protect the top parts and is again secured with a rubber band.It wouldn't matter too much if these stems were snapped off but we like you to receive as nice a plant as we can. Yes, we do use a lot of newspaper! But it can all be recycled or composted. 
     order wrapping box The wrapped plants are laid into a strong cardboard box lined with crumpled newspaper. Any gaps - like corners and between each pot - are packed with yet more paper. It's vital that the plants can't move in the box. Before sealing up the box we include a copy of your order and a few notes on how to care for your plants upon receipt.We often add a business card - for when you need to tell a friend .....  ; )

    This is a slow process - well, it is if you take care of plants the way we like to. Monday and Tuesday mornings are spent packing plants (it's a 6am start when we are busy) and I like to be prepared well before - orders printed, plants lifted and prep'd, boxes selected, courier booked and labels printed. All set for a busy morning with no interruptions - sometimes!

  7. As spring starts to make us think it is almost here, we are starting to get more orders through (thank you!) but we have noticed something odd. When a customer places an order on the website we offer a box for them to add comments and most of those comments apply to delivery instructions. All well and good - but puzzling too, at times.

    Most of our plant deliveries will require a signature when they arrive at your home. Our couriers, like most others, only deliver to an address, not the person, so (in theory) anyone could sign. It could be you, your partner (even a wife or husband!) or perhaps a friendly neighbour will take the parcel for you and sign for it. But some of the instructions we have noticed recently have made us wonder. For example:

    "Do not leave at no. 22" (next door) - an unfriendly neighbour, perhaps?

    "Leave in greenhouse at bottom of garden, place in blue box" - poor delivery driver, hikes down the garden then remembers he is colour blind and can't decide which box is red!

    "Leave concealed at back of house" - have you ever put something of your own in a 'safe place', but can't find it later? I do.

    "Leave on front step" - if it wasn't for 'Elfin Safety' you might fall over it!

    Some of these instructions are, I admit, slightly embellished but they are not far off the truth. But do the delivery drivers take any notice? - that will depend on each driver and what rules are imposed on them, I suppose. So, continue adding your Special Instructions but please be brief - we can only squeeze a few words on each label.

  8. How do we decide what plants to grow?  Well, it's not easy, that's for sure. Some plants are universally popular and always in demand so we try to keep a good stock of those. Occasionally things can go wrong - some years a plant just 'won't do' and we end up with hardly any or none to sell. Some plants are just difficult or just difficult for us in our climate or in our way of growing. Sometimes we persist in the hope of one day having enough to sell, with others we bow out gracefully. We can't grow everything. And if you read earlier about our disaster with mice eating most of our carefully built-up stock of Oxalis depressa ..... I'm still sulking over that!

    Most of these difficulties are just the vagaries of nature or horticulture. When things do get exasperating though, is when we grow lovely plants that no-one wants to buy - what do we do then? No doubt there will be reasons behind that lack of demand but it is never obvious and leaves us, as growers, with our greatest dilemmas. Do we persevere with that plant or give up? If we do give up, the danger is that we might lose the plant entirely and may struggle to get it back if we ever wanted to grow it again. Most plants need to be propagated regularly just to keep the stock fresh and vigorous - although, a few years' rest can help some things too. 

    Fashion plays it's part too, like so much in modern life. We used to grow a nice range of autumn flowering Gentians but gave them up several years ago as we just couldn't sell them (this was wholesale, before we started this website). We could have nice green plants (not as easy as it sounds with Gentians!) covered in beautiful blue flowers in September but at that time of year garden centres were less busy, demand was low and the weather less conducive to 'Joe Public' taking to their gardens. So, sadly, we couldn't waste time growing Gentians and we no longer have autumn Gentians on the nursery. But fashion changes and one nursery had a terrific display of Gentians at the Autumn Show in Harrogate last year and will no doubt be taking orders.

    As I have just said, we no longer have autumn Gentians on the nursery, but we do have lots of other plants. Some will remain popular, some will drop off our list. New plants occasionally appear and they always attract interest. Other 'new' plants will reappear - then the older gardeners and enthusiasts will tell us how they used to grow that plant 40 years ago! As long as we manage to sell enough of something, we will get by.

    If you are interested in the preservation of garden plants, please take a look at the website of Plant Heritage, formerly The National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens (NCCPG).

  9. Running a nursery doesn't allow us much time off; there is always too much needing done. It shouldn't be this way, of course, but it is, so we just get on with it. We did take a holiday once - I think it was 1995 - but we haven't felt the need for another one! We take a day here and a day there as our workload and the weather allow. To most people - those who are employed - this may seem very odd, especially if they only work a 39 hour week, every weekend off, get public holidays, statutory holidays, paid sick leave etc., but people who run small businesses and care for plants or animals need to live to a different rhythm.

    Anyway, I was forced into taking a few days off last week. One day, I needed to take my father to hospital for his check-up. Another, I went to a local trade show. Then I had a migraine followed by the cold (not a good combination - if you suffer from migraine, you'll know what I mean!). So, over a few days I didn't really get much done on the nursery and we were really just seeing to the basics. Cuttings OK, no plants dried out, nothing blown away, no sign of rabbits etc., etc.

    Sometimes, this can be a good thing. When I spend all day looking at the same plants, day in, day out, they never seem to grow much. They are growing, but just too slowly for me to register. But take a day off, especially during the active growing season and I return to a nursery full of Triffids!

    oxalis depressa thumb   oxalis mouse theft

    Occasionally, plants can disappear too. This pretty little pink and yellow flower is Oxalis depressa, a nice little alpine which grows from little underground 'bulbs'. And mice like them! Well, they have this year - every pot has a neat little hole excavated where the mice have dug for their dinners. I had a good stock of these too (about 100 plants) which I have been slowly building for the last few years; they don't multiply quickly. Ah well, win some, lose some - or in this case, lose all. I will be surprised if there are any are left but we do have a large pot set aside which may, rodents allowing, let us offer a few Oxails depressa for sale next summer.

    Time off? It's just not worth the risk!

  10. The use of peat in horticulture has become a hot topic in recent years. Apparently, peat harvesting releases carbon dioxide and it's killing polar bears. And spiders and little mosses nearer home. It's all bad news and the 'government' (whoever and wherever they are) has set targets for us all to reduce or stop using peat.

    I haven't explored the arguments too thoroughly, surprisingly, given that my living has depended on the use of peat. But I agree generally with the whole 'reduce,reuse, recycle' ethos and we try to follow those principles when we can - so we have tried to reduce our peat use, with some success. But not complete success.

    Cost, as ever, quickly becomes a major consideration but even that is not straightforward. Peat prices have rocketed in recent years - high demand, poor harvests due to wetter summers, the cost of fuel for harvesting and transporting, unavailability of new sites for harvesting etc. And very suddenly we have reached a point where once-expensive peat-free alternatives start to become financially viable.

    Here at Craigiehall Nursery we mix our own potting compost to our own recipes. Alpines can be quite fussy about compost, especially in the unnatural confines of a small plant pot, and with so many varieties grown we need various potting mixes to keep everything happy. Recently we have been using an entirely peat-free commercial compost as our base and adding loam, grit etc. and fertiliser as required. We have grown some wonderful plants this year - but not everything is happy.

    Look at these pictures - these are plants (Phlox) we have grown in larger pots for our garden centre customers. The small ones on the left are grown in 100% peat-free, commercial compost with identical fertiliser to those on the right, grown in our own commercial mix based on peat. (N.B These are very different to the mixes we have used for all the plants available in our Plant Shop - thank goodness!). It's a poor sight, isn't it?

     peat free x 12 peat free x 2

    Adding additional fertiliser has improved the stunted plants a little since these shots were taken but they still aren't happy and it's impossible for me to tell what is wrong. Physically, the compost looks and feels good - that much I can tell - and it's very free-draining. But chemically, the balance is off. Too much of one substance makes another unavailable, too much acidity does likewise. One of the wonders of peat is that it hardly varies and offers the grower a basic ingredient to which is added precise amounts of lime and fertilisers according to plant need - just like a baker adds things to flour to create a loaf, the same flour can also be used to bake a cake, just by adding different ingredients.

    Most of the plants we offer in our Plant Shop have been (almost) entirely grown without any peat using a mix based on the above peat-free compost but (thankfully) the addition of loam and grit etc. has been enough to transform it into an excellent growing medium. Unfortunately, these additions make it too expensive for large scale production.

    The peat-use debate is huge and complicated and I'll probably come back to the subject in the future. But whether we continue to use peat on our nursery or adopt alternatives full-scale - I honestly don't know. There is a lot of science involved in growing plants commercially but also (for me) a fair bit of intuition, superstition and blind faith and sometimes I am just reluctant to change what works. But I'll be asking this compost manufacturer for some comments!