Articles on growing alpines

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

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  1. 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!

  2. 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! 

  3. Weeds

    The gardeners' enemy - and the growers'. Alpine plants can suffer more from weeds than other, larger plants. Tiny cushion plants can become almost smothered with weeds and if weed seeds lodge among the leaves they are almost impossible to remove. And weeds never look pretty.

    How do we as growers control weeds in the pots we sell you? Well, I don't know about other growers, but we operate on a policy of Zero Tolerance. We constantly keep them in check - entirely by pulling them out when we see them. It's not easy, but it works for us.

    Does it matter if an alpine in a pot has a few weed? I think it does. I have visited nurseries which were jumping with weeds and even though I knew I would regret it later, have bought plants. Some weeds can just infest small alpines - there is no other word for it. Weeds seeds can get into the heart of the plant and are there forever. We avoid this on our nursery and won't send out weed-infested plants.

    These are my top three weeds - the ones that would cause us most concern.

    bittercress Hairy Bittercress liverwort Liverwort pearlwort Pearlwort

    Hairy Bittercress, also known as Snap weed or Pop weed is common on most nurseries. Its seed capsules have an exploding mechanism which catapult the seed far and wide. And within a few weeks those same seeds will have grown and be ready to produce the next crop so we must be vigilant. What really annoys me with Bittercress is that some growers will weed their plants before dispatch but within a few days of purchase you suddenly realise what else you have bought. Grrr!

    Liverwort is a strange, primitive plant and another troublesome one. It thrives in moist, damp conditions, just like we have on our nursery. It grows over the surface of compost and can smother very small alpines. See those little cup-shaped bits on the leaves? - they are filled with minute pieces of plant that are dispersed when rain or irrigation water splashes them around. In dry conditions they won't survive but with over-watering (or a Scottish winter, or a Scottish summer!) they can spread rapidly. Liverwort also produces 'seeds' (actually spores) that can germinate too, and are produced from angular capsules on short stems. The best control is dry conditions.

    Pearlwort is a common weed that produces masses of tiny seed. These can be especially troublesome on smaller alpines and like Liverwort, is most annoying if you grow alpines in troughs or in pots.

    So there you have them - my top three weeds to avoid in alpines. Be vigilant!

  4. We thought you might like to meet our staff. Eagle-eyed readers will be clicking back to re-read our About Us page - didn't they say they did all the work themselves? Well, some jobs just can't be done properly by a human.

    Meet Kiki,

    Main duties - night-time security and rodent pest control. Kiki came to us as a stray. She was homeless and rough sleeping in the freezing temperatures of December a couple of years ago and was looking for work, so we took her on. Two and a half years later and we would be lost without her.

    kiki potting
     
     [ edit, Sept 2015]  I have some awful news. Our beloved Kiki died recently. Actually, she was killed or at least died of fright. Nicola called me one evening, distraught that a fox had attacked our hens in the garden. I rushed down from the nursery and saw what looked like a white polythene bag lying beneath our car on the driveway - it was poor Kiki, already dead. There were signs of a scuffle on the gravel beside the car by not a mark on Kiki. She was the happiest, most contented cat we have ever had, always pleased to see us home. Given her unknown background and what she was like when she arrived here, she took to us and home life immediately, and us to her of course. Even writing this a few months later, I can hardly believe it. Poor Kiki, but other than her last few seconds of life, her time here was happy. 
     
    Meet Nell,
     
    Main duties? Nell is only 13 weeks old (pictured here at 11 weeks) and we have still to find a role for her. For now, her only task seems be preventing us from working too quickly. She gets her nose into everything and because she is so small, her body can follow. Let us just say - the nursery has been reorganised somewhat.
     
    nell puppy face
     
    Little Nell was one of natures' 'happy accidents'  - mum is a small Jack Russell Terrier and dad a working sheepdog - a Border Collie. She seems at this stage to be a bit of both; part terrier, part collie. And she really does have the 'cute puppy' factor. Coming from two working parents, she is probably very intelligent. She already knows some words - walkies, biscuits and bed - all the essentials! As soon as she learns, 'Don't eat the plants!' we will find a proper role for her.
     
    [edit Sept 2015] Nothing wrong with Nell! She is a constant source of entertainment, sometimes even when she is sleeping! Despite her undoubted intelligence, we still haven't found a useful role for Nell, but she keeps us amused and is a relaxing distraction when we're working hard. She spends as much time on the nursery as we do and is always boisterously eager to get up there in the mornings - just like me! Eh??!
     
  5. Well, here we go ....

    The website is published at last! It has been a long, hard task and it's not finished yet - far from it.

    They say that everyone has a book in them; well, creating a plant catalogue is a lot like writing a book, except there is no plot, the characters have all been written about before and the only 'start, middle and end' is an A to Z. OK, so it's nothing like writing a proper book at all but it's probably as close as I will ever come.

    One thing I have had to do in common with authors, is research. Many of the plants we hope to offer for sale have been grown by us for years, others are recent newcomers to the nursery, but they all need describing accurately - height, soil preference, flower colour and time of year, other preferences, hints and tips, etc., etc.

    I like to think that I know my plants quite well but where I have really struggled is in describing colours. A red flower - or is it crimson, claret, pillar-box red or ruby-red?  Or my favourite - vermillion! I love the word vermillion but I'm not even sure if I have dared use it because I'm not entirely sure how it compares to other shades of red.

    I hope to have every plant we offer shown in a photograph but often the camera cannot quite catch the exact colour. Maybe it's the camera or the quality of the light - or, more likely, the fact that I have never been 'into' photograph. Many of my photographs are ..... let me be honest - rubbish! But they will have to do for now. Better a poor photo' than no photo'?