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  1. Sempervivum - growing and care.

    A work in progress!

    Sempervivum 'Lynn's Choice'Sempervivum calcareum 'Extra'Semeprvivum 'Foxy Lady'Sempervivum 'Boule de Neige'


    • Where to grow them
    • Shapes, sizes, colours and cobwebs
    • Flowering
    • Buying plants
    • Why choose named varieties
    • Why we sell growing plants, still in their pots
    • Potting compost recommendations
    • Our compost recipe - make your own!
    • Planting in containers
    • Labelling your plants
    • Pests and diseases
    • Propagation - increase your stock
    • Winter care

    Sempervivum, or 'Semps' as we call them (or Houseleeks, Hens and Chicks and a host of other names), grow as leaves clustered together in rosettes; each of these rosettes will produce 'baby' rosettes (the chicks huddled around the mother hen) and all will grow together to form handsome clumps. As succulent plants, they excel in hot, dry conditions and need very little in the way of feeding or care - the name Houseleek derives from when they were commonly grown on house roofs when they were believed to ward off evil spirits or as protection from lightning. A collection of different varieties grown together with all their different shapes and colours makes a stunning display.

    Where to grow them

    Sempervivum x barbulatum 'Hookeri' growing on a stone wallSempervivum are natives to the mountains so are tough, undemanding plants and do very well growing on rock gardens and rockeries, on stone walls and on small rock features, stone troughs, shed roofs - practically anywhere sunny with good drainage. They will thrive in many situations where most other plants would fail.

    All Semps will grow supremely well in containers of any type and even large collections can be grown in relatively small spaces. A collection of varieties grown in old clay, terracotta pots is a classic feature. Only a balcony or small yard? No problem! Horrible soil or even no soil - no problem! You love plants but just can't devote a lot of time to growing them? - no problem! Semps need minimal care and very little watering. You can go on holiday for two weeks of a hot summer (doesn't the weather at home often turn nicer when you go away?!) but your Semps will be still be alive and thriving on your return.

    Shapes, sizes, colours and cobwebs

    Semp leaves are ever-changing in colour - some start the year green, become intense red or purple, then change again as winter approaches - these ever-changing colours are a major attraction of houseleeks. Leaf colour not only varies according to season but also with rainfall, amount of light, temperature and nutrition.

    Sempervivum 'Boule de Neige'In some varieties, the rosettes have a covering of fine hairs (cobwebbing) especially in drier conditions and others have fine hairs on the edges or tips of the leaves. These tiny hairs (cilia) can give the leaves silver edges or cover the entire leaf making the entire plant appear silver. Many forms show amazing symmetry in the shape of their rosettes. These plants offer so much!

    As well as ever-changing colors, the plants come in a wide range of shapes and sizes - from large growers with broad leaves, to ones with tiny leaves clustered so tightly they form very neat little mounds. Individual rosettes can be as large as a plate or as small as a finger nail.

    Sempervivum 'Intensity' Some varieties show what are known as water marks - these are horizontal or wavy bands across the leaves as if the leaf tip had been dipped in water dye. Think of the 1970s fashion for tie-dyed clothes. This photo of 'Intensity' shows the water marks especially well on the dark leaves. Not all varieties will show water marks but they are often prized if they do. Water marks only normally appear with summer growth, if they appear at all, but they are an often over-looked attraction. Once you recognise them, you'll start looking for them.



    Sempervivum 'Sunburst' in flower Most Semps will flower at some stage, depending on variety. Some flowers are very beautiful and bright, others are fairly dull and not as pretty as the leaves. The cobwebbed types (or those with cobweb genes in them) are always worth seeing in flower. The flowers are usually pink or some shade of pink to almost red, some are yellow and a few are white.

    It is important to understand about their flowering habits - technically, they are known as monocarpic - they flower and fruit only once, then they die. But only that rosette, not the whole plant! After a year or two, maybe more, a mature rosette (often the central rosette in a clump) will start to change. The colour may change and the rosette will start growing upwards - this is the flower stalk. This early stage is sometimes called 'coning' as the rosette takes on a cone shape. These flowering rosettes don't develop offsets or chicks.

    Sempervivum 'Fuego' in the growing (non-flowering) stage'Fuego' starting to 'cone' - the centre stalks forms a cone that will soon extend into a flowering shoot

    You can see this starting on one of these two images of 'Fuego', both taken in June. The two plants were potted at the same time but obviously the one on the right was a more mature rosette and is starting to flower. You can clearly see the change of colour and the cone shape developing. If you notice on the right picture (at about the 4 o'clock position) there is a non-flowering rosette peaking out. 

    You may remove a flowering rosette as soon you see it or soon after flowering (my preference) or let nature take its course. Once removed or  flowering has passed, the stalk will leave a gap in the plant, often spoiling a clump of lovely rosettes. Fear not, Semps root easily, so take younger rosettes and simply replant them in the gap - it’s that easy! A small amount of fresh compost or grit might help raise them up and help them grow more quickly. The smaller cobwebbed varieties don't leave gaps, their stems just seem to wither and new rosettes will fill their space. Most flowering Semps set huge amounts of seeds - just be aware that if left alone, random seedlings will appear among your treasured named ones. This is generally a 'bad thing', which is why I recommend removing flower stalks soon after flowering, before seeds set.

    Another very important point about the flowering habits of Semps means you should be wary of buying plants with only a single rosette - if that one flowers, you will be left with nothing. Young rosettes don't flower but older ones might, so be wary when getting single rosettes as there is little you can do to prevent flowering. Any kind of stress can induce flowering, such as being dried out (as they often are before posting), high temperatures and strong sunshine. Like the 'Fuego' on the right above, the flowering rosette will die after flowering but that little one peaking out will continue growing, so you wouldn't lose the whole plant. Losing your only plant of a variety is a collector's worst fear!

    Sempervivum 'Tristesse'Sempervivum 'Tristesse' So what can be done? You can't really stop a plant from flowering but there is one thing you can do. It looks drastic, and it is. But remember the rosette will die after flowering anyway, so what's to lose? On the left is a flowering rosette of 'Tristesse' and on the right, after 'the treatment' - cutting out the flower stalk as low as possible. This only sometimes works, but again, what's to lose?  

    You might be lucky and shock the poor plant into resuming vegetative growth, in which case you may just be rewarded with a new, non-flowering rosette or two, enough to save the plant or variety. You must take out the flower shoot as low as possible though. If you cut it too high you will soon see what look like new rosettes forming - great excitement! Most often these only turn out to be yet more flower shoots - great sadness : (   

    When we send out plants to customers we almost always send out more than one rosette in a pot anyway, often several, except where we are certain it is a young, non-flowering age rosette. This leads us on nicely to buying plants.

    Buying plants

    Sempervivum can be found in many places - garden centres, market stalls, DIY stores, car boot sales and online auction sites to name a few. But because Semps are so easily grown, they do tend to be somewhat abused - grown too quickly, over-protected, over-fed, not given enough light and grown in poor (usually peat-based) compost. They might be named, maybe not, and too often named incorrectly.

    Many places want to sell small plug plants, usually grown too quickly and dubiously named, if named at all. You commonly find plants like this on the auction sites and online market places and often at over-inflated prices. These plants will recover and may well grow away, such is the tolerance of Sempervivums. They could be so much better with only a little extra care and knowledge. But then, I've spent all my adult life growing plants - and a good part of my childhood too! If you are a complete novice and want to start growing some plants, where better to start than with Semps? Hmmm - maybe I shouldn't be so harsh.

    Why choose named varieties?

    Sempervivum collection There is a world of difference between what is commonly offered from the sources mentioned above (often unnamed or incorrectly named) and what specialist growers such as ourselves offer. We only grow named varieties - to be botanically correct, we should call them called cultivars, culti-vated var-ieties, but the terms varieties and cultivars are commonly used interchangeably. These varieties (okay, cultivars!) which have been specially bred and selected for special attributes - colour, shape etc. and then named. We maintain these varieties year after year by propagating the plants from offsets (the babies or chicks) so that they remain true.  Seed raised plants might be attractive enough but every one will be different and comparatively unexciting. If you like them, great, nothing wrong with that, but if you want to enjoy the brighter colours etc., then named varieties are what you want. And to be accurately named they must come from a reliable source - misnamed plants are sadly all too common. If they aren't named, who knows what you are buying? If they are cheap plants it doesn't matter so much, but if you pay good money .....

    Why we like selling growing plants, still in their pots.

    sempervivum rooted offsetSome nurseries offer Sempervivum as dry plants with soil and roots removed - in fact, this is the way most enthusiasts exchange plants so there is nothing really wrong with this. But, the plants do need time to recover and start growing again and they need prompt handling on receipt and some degree of care.

    sempervivum unrootedIt's not uncommon to be offered unrooted rosettes either. These are photos are of actual 'plants' I have bought in the past - I was happy to receive these as they were varieties we really wanted. But they weren't cheap and took a whole season to get to any size. Our plants are usually at least a year old before we sell them. I was 'happy' to take the risk that the single one wouldn't soon run to flower then die. It can be a desparate business building a collection!

    Sempervivum 'Sunset' We prefer to offer properly grown, established plants, showing their best colour and offering the quickest possible growth when planted up. Very often you will receive a good group of several rosettes growing in each pot - depending on variety and season of course - so our plants are fantastic value. We pack our growing plants with extreme care so that they arrive with you in near perfect condition. This is quite time-consuming but we're very well practised, having grown and packed many, many thousands of plants over the years. They should arrive with you just as they are pictured here - plant, pot, label, even the grit should still be in place! And all of our packaging is reused, recyclable or compostable material, not plastic or bubblewrap.

    You may be wondering how we can offer superior plants at value prices. We are professional growers - we use our skill and experience to produce the best plants we possibly can and sell them at reasonable prices to make our living. We could charge more - there is at least £12 worth of offsets on this 'Sunset' plant for some people and no doubt we would sell some at that price - but we wouldn't sell enough to make a living, it's as simple as that. We need to grow and sell an awful lot of plants to make any kind of living. Here is just some of our annual output.

    Sempervivum plugs ready to pot in April Newly potted sempervivum in May

    Potting compost recommendations

    Another reason we can offer pot grown plants is because we use the highest quality compost which we insist on making ourselves. Basically, it's a mix of coir, bark, sand, grit and Perlite (an expanded volcanic rock) with added lime and fertilisers. It also contains loam (or soil), the 'magic' ingredient - invented by Mother Nature and used by her the world over! We prepare and sterilise this loam ourselves to make sure it doesn't contain troublesome weeds or harmful diseases. It's hard, heavy work, and slightly unpleasant, but the product would be too expensive to buy - even if we could get the same quality. Is it worth it? Absolutely! Does anyone care? I don't know, a few maybe, but I know in my heart it's the best I can get and offers so much more than some general purpose, peat-based compost most commonly used. 

    So what is wrong with peat compost? Environmental concerns aside, nothing! But it really doesn't suit Sempervivums - it holds too much water and contains too much fertiliser, both major disadvantages. It works supremely well for most other plants though and the peat-free alternatives, whilst good, have similar drawbacks.

    So just how is our compost different? Well, the plants grow differently, slower, more like their true character in colour and shape. The sand, grit and Perlite (and the coir and bark too) all offer good drainage - when you water our plants you will see the water disappears instantly. The compost holds enough to keep the plants growing but not too much, one of the vital 'secrets' to growing Semps well. The loam also allows the plants to grow and obtain nutrition and minerals in the longer term - something peat-based composts are extremely poor at.

    Imagine a pot of peat-based compost planted out in garden soil - it forms a plug of water-retentive peat right at the base of the plant which is often fatal to succulents like Semps. Peat (and even the best of peat substitutes) doesn't blend or associate with the natural soil at all. It's easy to see in a peat-grown plant that they develop a different type of root system to that of a soil-grown plant and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence (if not scientific) for some plants resenting the transition from growing in peat to growing in soil. For many plants such as bedding plants, vigorous shrubs or vegetables, none of this matters and peat composts do have many advantages, but these mixes don't suit Semps. Yes, they will grow in it, but it's just not right or best for them. Those are my beliefs so I'll keep making my own compost. And I'll give you a similar recipe if you would like to use it for planting your own pots or containers.

    Our compost recipe

    Our compost recipe only needs three ingredients. Mix these together using equal amounts of each.

    1. Coarse grit - gives good drainage and stops the compost retaining too much water.
    2. Ready made potting compost which you can buy, not garden compost. We like the  peat-free alternatives.
    3. Good garden soil.

    The ready made compost you can find almost anywhere. The actual type isn't too important as it will be diluted with the other ingredients. The garden soil is the crucial part. Soil can hold nutrients and minerals then release them slowly over an extended period in a way that peat composts simply can't.

    Use the best garden soil you have, as weed-free as possible and certainly with no dandelion roots or stones etc. It will contain weed seeds (unless you can find sterilised topsoil) but they're a minor inconvenience. If your soil happens to be heavy clay, increase the grit content/reduce the soil. If your soil is very rich in organic matter, reduce the compost etc. Adding extra grit is always better - it's easy to add water or feed to compost but we can't remove excess water - more grit means better drainage.

    You won't need to add fertiliser to your new mix as there will be sufficient in the soil and the ready made compost to last the plants into the following year. Don't get too hung-up about lime and pH or it being too acidic as Sempervivum are quite tolerant. If you already know your garden soil tends to be acidic, by all means add some garden lime when mixing.

    Sharp, angular grit is best, not rounded particles, and the size isn't too important. 5 to 6mm (¼") grit is a good size. Builders' merchants are often a good source, as are DIY places and in the USA, chicken grit is often used. Small gravel (less than 10mm) will do, but not pea gravel as that is too rounded. Coarse sand will do too but often has too many fine particles among the coarser ones. 

    Perlite, as I mentioned before, is an expanded volcanic rock produced under high temperatures. This makes it totally sterile and it's pH neutral (neither acid or alkaline) but it does have very useful physical properties. Perlite holds some water in its tiny pores but it also holds a high proportion of air, even when saturated. For Sempervivum, this gives compost that won't hold as much water and also holds a lot of air (roots need to breathe too).

    Perlite is also very lightweight so that means a compost containing Perlite won't be so heavy for moving pots around. It's a magical, wonder-material! But you'll have guessed the drawback - it costs much, much more than grit. However, a small percentage in a compost mix can go a long way. It comes in various grades but we use the coarse size (3 to 6mm particles) for maximum effect. Lots of places sell it online in small packs, as well as garden centres etc., but if you can take a 100 litre bag, then specialist horticultural suppliers offer the best deals. You can replace whatever percentage of grit you want to in your own compost mix if you wish. But grit does the job for good drainage too ....

    Planting in containers

    Growing in pots is an excellent way to grow Semps - some collectors keep huge collections entirely in pots. They look fantastic in old terracotta clay pots especially when grouped together but note that most terracotta will crack in hard frost, so take care in winter unless the pots are sold as Frost Resistant. Any type, size or shape of pot or container can be used as long as there is a hole (or holes) to allow water to drain out. We like a pot at least 13cm (or 5”) in diameter (assuming it’s round, it needn’t be!) for each plant. Or about 1 litre of compost which is an easier measure. We only sell plants which are already growing in their little pots so they should start growing soon after planting.

    Always fill pots to the brim - I am on a one-man crusade to eliminate the sight of plants sitting half-sunk below the pot rim. Plant them high and proud, people, high and proud! Try it and see. And if you don't like it, you are a bad person and not a real gardener!!

    Labelling your plants

    Please note - this is a long section. The shorter version - label your plants and keep them labelled! You may scroll down to the next section if you wish.

    Why is labelling important? Well, it’s not, if you only want a few plants to enhance your garden or to fill a few pots. However, if you start a collection, no matter how small you begin, then the correct naming and labeling of the plants is crucial. You might just become a collector without realising it at first! There are numerous cases of misnamed and misidentified plants circulating in the trade and between enthusiasts and we really don’t need any more. A name must refer to only one plant variety (correctly, a cultivar or cult ivated var iety).

    In America, they have a useful term - unnamed or unidentified plants are called NOIDs, or No ID, no identification. There is nothing to prevent you growing a NOID or even a selection of NOIDs (most people start this way before they get hooked) but please don’t try to affirm names to them. There are nearly 5,000 named cultivars now and so many are as near identical to others it is impossible to tell them apart. Some varieties are so distinctive they couldn’t really be anything but themselves, but it takes experience to be sure, even when referenced with a huge collection. Even the best experts will struggle to correctly identify a given plant, especially as Semps change so much through a growing season and with environmental changes, as I explained earlier. Anyone (and everyone) growing named Sempervivums needs reliable labels.

    label exampleSo how best to label your plants?  We insert a fresh plastic label with every plant we sell, printed with the correct name, naturally. These labels are made from plastic and whilst fairly robust and durable, they will go yellow and become brittle with exposure to sunlight as plastics do. They can last 3 or 4 years before they need replacing, depending on exposure, but the print will last longer than the label itself.

    A new plastic label clearly handwritten in hard black pencil will last quite well too. Some nurseries, even the best, only write small paper slips as identifiers when they sell plants, so finding a label becomes urgent. The best labels we have found are made from thin aluminium sheet written on with pencil or inscribed with a sharp tool. These last almost indefinitely and are as good as your handwriting. The colour doesn’t offend the eye as much as white plastic either and birds seem less attracted to them. It’s no surprise this is the most expensive solution but these labels can be found at favourable prices on eBay. One interesting tip is that old-style Venetian window blinds are made from aluminium and names scratched into the 'paint' with a sharp tool will last a very long time. Newer blinds tend to be plastic though.

    Be creative! I have seen ideas online and thought, ‘that’s clever’. One was the name written on a rounded pebble (about hen egg sized, but flatter) and placed next to the plant. It looked very good and was unobtrusive. You could do the same with small pieces of slate. These labels will last a million years! But you still won't be able to read them once your paint, pen or pencil wear off .....

    A good tip for stick-in labels - push the label well down into the pot or the soil around the plant. An old knife makes a good tool for creating a slit to allow the label in past stones etc. When the labels are pushed down well they are less intrusive, harder to dislodge and so less likely to go missing. You will see from the example label above that we have also printed the name near the bottom of the label - if the top of the label goes brittle and gets broken off, becomes illegible etc., you can still find the cultivar name buried down the edge of the pot. It's two labels in one! And if you don't want the labels on show you can cut off the top part (and file it away in your records - we're getting too serious now!!!) and just use the bottom part. 

    It is best to write the full cultivar name on a label. Abbreviations can be replicated, wrongly. Another thing to be wary of is deliberately translating the name into English from the original language. So 'Rosa Mädchen' (German) becomes 'Pink Girl' in English. This often happens when viewing plants online using a translator - like Google Translate. Sometimes they will show the name correctly, but on the same page translate the name into English. So 'Schwarze Rose' becomes 'Black Rose', then the name 'Black Rose' gets wrongly perpetuated and we soon end up with two identical plants circulating with different names. Worse still, 'Merkur' from Martin Haberer translates as 'Mercury' - but we already have a 'Mercury' from Edward Skrocki. Some names are very similar too - 'Kimble' and 'Kimba', 'Indra' and 'Indre', 'Teddy Bear' and the Dutch version 'Teddy Beer'. It's all just attention to detail.

    The plant trade is a guilty as anyone of perpetuating incorrect names, possibly more than any amateur. Some nurseries are very guilty of substituting one variety for another and blatantly sending out plants with a known, incorrect name. Don't think it doesn't happen! And I'll hold my hand up here - it's easy to receive a plant, propagate and innocently distribute it with an incorrect name on the label, even when it comes from a 'reliable' source. And at the end of the day (as they say), we're all human, and genuine mistakes will happen. Can you tell that incorrectly named and labelled plants is a bugbear of mine?! 

    One final plea - please don’t write labels ‘upsidedown’. With a normal stick-in label, the writing should start by the square end of the label, not at the pointy end. This way, you can read the top of the label or enough letters to jog your memory without needing to pull it out. They never go back in the same, do they?  Written the other way (the wrong, up-side-down way) you must pull the label out to read it. Not everyone agrees with me on this, but this is another bugbear of mine from a working life spent among plants. I have a lot of bugbears! Please keep your plants correctly named and labelled. End of sermon.

    Pests, diseases and other ailments.

    Pests and disease only trouble Semps occasionally. Aphids sometimes attack but a quick spray will see to them - chemical bug sprays if you want but the more natural based sprays will work too. Bottles of 'ready to use' in the squirty trigger guns are ideal. Some people find their plants troubled by root aphids (seen under their wooly covering when repotting plants) but we have never seen them here.

    Vine weevil. I can barely type their name! Little, dark grey, beetle-like creatures that lay eggs around all manner of plants, their eggs hatch into little grubs that gnaw at the plants’ roots. Crescent shaped, creamy white in colour with dark heads, the first signs of attack are often of a plant doing poorly. They might have slightly soft or wrinkled leaves (not fat and juicy as normal), especially in hot weather as the chewed roots mean the leaves can't draw moisture from the soil. Then, upon inspection, the whole plant often comes away from its roots.The adult weevils may chew conspicuous notches in the leaves too - a sure sign that they are at least present. The adults only come out at darkness to feed, so go looking at night.

    You must destroy the roots and the soil or compost, along with the little offenders too, obviously, but the plant may be rescued (details below). Varieties with large, smooth leaves always seem more prone to attack, the hairy-leaved, cobwebbed ones much less so. Vine weevils are well distributed around the countryside and I've found them on native plants a long way from any garden source. Other types of plants are more prone to attack - grape vines (hence the name), Primulas, Saxifrages and their relatives like Heuchera and Astilbe, strawberries and many others. Chemical controls are available (for now) but are more effective when used as a preventative. Biological controls are available too and these work well but only in the right conditions - they don't work well in cold temperatures. I should say that we don’t currently use any controls for vine weevil but we're ever-vigilant. Or foolhardy! I believe that vine weevils are much more likely to attack (and attack badly) plants grown in peat-base composts. Soil and sand seem to deter them. Thankfully, Sempervivum can at least be rescued in most cases.

    Very few diseases will trouble Sempervivum. The usual one (that will attack almost any plant if the conditions suit) is the common Grey Mould or Botrytis. It likes cool, humid conditions but is rarely a problem on outdoor plants where air can circulate. Botrytis is more of a problem with plants grown inside and the 'cure' or prevention is good air circulation. Try not to water over-wintered plants on their leaves, if you water at all. And removing any soft, mushy and discoloured basal leaves can help but you must remove them completely, leaving a piece attached to encourage rot is pointless.

    Fungicides are available but I doubt their efficacy, even commercial strength ones are of little use as they can't really reach the heart of the problem, right underneath a clump of rosettes. Good air flow and keep them dry. Another disadvantage of fungicides is that they can mark the leaves terribly - even their residues. I remember when I bought 'Royal Ruby' many years ago (from a garden centre, strangely enough) it was so coated in something, presumably fungicide/pesticide, that I was reluctant to even touch it.

    Increasing your stock

    Propagating Sempervivum is very easy as I have already mentioned. You may want to rescue a damaged plant (as above), increase you stock of plants or just as backup - a spare plant in a pot can save the disaster of losing a treasured beauty. Semps are fun to share too, and they make lovely gifts even for non-gardeners, especially if you are a bit creative with a nice or novel container. It's not in my interest to say it, but exchanging plants you have propagated yourself with other enthusiasts is a good way to obtain new cultivars. Finding fellow enthusiasts might be harder than finding new plants though - we're very niche!  I don't know what happens on Facebook though as I don't go there, but I believe there are groups for everything. It may be there are Semp growers too, tucked away in a quiet corner ......

    Anyway, how to propagate. It's very simple - take off a young rosette (a 'baby' or chick) from the outside of the mother plant and place it on some good soil or compost. This is best done in late spring, summer, or through to early autumn at the latest. You may well find some fresh little roots already formed when you pluck the rosette from its mother so it's guaranteed to grow already. Some people say remove the stalk from the rosette so that new roots come directly from the base - I'm not convinced it matters much. Water it gently and keep it out of strong sunshine. And that's it! If you planted the rosette in a small pot, don't over-water it, try to let it dry out between waterings. Older rosettes can be used if you really must, but fresh, young rosettes have more natural vigour and make better plants. And if the plant has a name - label it!

    Winter care

    There is one golden rule here - Semps don't like excessive wetness. Rain won't harm them but excessive rain and/or humid conditions might. I don't want to exaggerate this point as these are mountain plants, perfectly hardy and generally tough, but in our lowland gardens, dampness is something to look out for. We can grow Sempervivums outside here in cold, wet Scotland, but we need to be careful with some varieties in some conditions. A foggy, damp November is a time of worry! Areas having very high rainfall are always more challenging.

    The natural growth sequence of a rosette is to swell and grow over spring and summer. As autumn progresses, the lower, outer leaves may start to yellow and die and the inner leaves may tend to curl in on themselves. The whole plant might appear to shrink but that's just what happens. The only thing to be aware of is that - again, under moist conditions - the dying leaves might start to rot. Various fungal diseases thrive in humid conditions, Botrytis or Grey Mould being the most common. This is a special danger of over-protecting the plants.The plants need the wind around them to help them dry off between the rainy days and to keep the leaves hard and tough so they don't attract disease in the first place. The final point I'm going to make here is that it sometimes helps to keep the plants 'clean' - carefully remove those dying leaves from the bottom of the plants, especially if the leaves tend to be mushy. If they are hard and crispy - great! - leave them alone.

    Bear in mind our experience is of growing plants to sell - we want (need) them to look good when you receive them, not just alive and clinging to life. Protected plants always look more appealing early in the season. Most people probably have no trouble with any of their plants, but the further north and/or west you live means you might need to take more care. Proper soil preparation, grit around the plants and good compost all become more important.

    When planted in the garden you will have already chosen a sunny, free-draining spot so the plants will take their chance and should be fine. Many enthusiasts will move pot-grown plants somewhere drier for winter, even the relative shelter of the house wall can help keep off the worst of the rain. But the plants still need air around them and the best light, this is vital. Even the most severe cold and frost won’t harm them though, so long as they aren’t too wet.

    One thing that can harm Semps is hail and a 60 second hail shower can render plant leaves pock-marked with brown spots. It's unsightly, but it will pass. Large-leaved, smooth varieties are more prone to hail marking, the furry-leaved, cobwebbed ones rarely suffer as the tiny hairs cushion or protect the plants. Strangely enough, watering your plants as soon as hail starts can reduce the damage as the droplets or film of water can offer just enough protection. Summer hail is less common but more damaging than winter or early spring hail as the plants are naturally softer in summer.

    Some lucky enthusiasts have a greenhouse where they can enjoy their plants but that is a luxury, not a necessity. Maximum ventilation is essential at all times (especially in winter) so Semps don't share well with other plants in a greenhouse. A simple old-fashioned cold frame does the same job as a glasshouse for the plants, if not for the human. A cold porch could be used or even a pane of glass or Perspex angled against a wall to shed the worst of the rain. In all cases, ensure good ventilation. Poly tunnels are the poor person’s greenhouse (we use them!) but maximum ventilation is even more crucial to prevent any build-up of humidity. This is the major disadvantage of polythene and the dripping condensation that often occurs. Your little treasures will turn to a furry, mouldy mess in no time if they get too humid, especially over winter. No heating is needed anywhere, ever - keep them cold. We have had -20°C here several times in the past, and lower.

    It is always a good idea to take a rosette or two from treasured plants in late summer and pot them up as insurance against losing them completely - whether through weather, pests or accidents. It is so easy to do and takes up so little space, it seems foolhardy not to. With minimal attention you could easily keep your Sempervivum collection for the rest of your life. And all from a plant that costs the same as a takeaway coffee! What amazing plants! What amazing value!!



    jovibarba globiferumWhat are Jovibarba? Jovibarba - or Jovi's - are plants closely related to Sempervivum. In fact, the botanists now insist that they are a species of Sempervivum, but old names die slowly and gardeners, growers and publications take time to catch up. There are two common species of Jovibarba (now Sempervivum). The first is Jovibarba globiferum, and these are commonly known as 'rollers'. They look much like any Sempervivum but the young offsets are only carried on very weak shoots (or stolons). The young offsets break off easily and roll away, hence 'rollers', like the red ones on this photo. There are many natural forms of this species and all are easy to grow.

    Jovibarba heuffelii 'Bora'The other common species is Jovibarba (Sempervivum) heuffelii - pronounced hoo-fell-eh-aye with the stress on 'fell'. They are known as 'heuffs' by collectors and are commonly thought of as the elite of the Sempervivum world. They too are similar to normal Semp cultivars but they increase differently - the clumps of rosettes divide themselves, not by sending out babies or offsets on shoots like most Semps do. To propagate these Jovi's, we must physically cut the clumps apart with a sharp knife and separate each rosette from its neighbours, then encourage it to make roots. With this plant of 'Bora' pictured here, it would probably split into 6 or 7 new plants but the original has taken at least 3 years to get to this size. The chances of infection (and failure) are obviously much higher and It's not as quick or easy as plucking off a rosette from a normal Semp. These things only increase their rarity value.

    The growth of 'heuffs' makes them very desirable too. They are very compact and slow-growing and generally more weather resistant than most Semps. There are many named cultivars and they come with leaves in every shade of green, red, pink, purple and almost black, much like Semp cultivars. And then there are the silver edged leaves, contrasting colours and shapes etc. Their flowers are attractive too, more bell-like than the starry flowers of Semps and most commonly yellow. The 'heuffs' are often thought of as only for the conoisseur, and yet they needn't be, as they are very easy to grow with the same needs as any Semp. Finding them may not be easy though. We have a small range we hope to offer in the future. 

    Companion Plants and other succulents

    The growing conditions enjoyed by Semps are also loved by their relations, mainly those from the Crassula family, but other succulent and drought-resistant plants too. (to complete)

    Sedums are one the largest groups although the botanists have renamed many of those too (now Hylotelephium). 

    Delosperma, Ectotropis, Lewisia, Crassula, Rhodiola, Mesembryanthemum .....


    Recommended books

    There aren't many books specifically on Sempervivum although they usually get a short mention in general books on alpine plants. A few books were published many years ago, now out of print, but may still be available second hand. 

    The best and most up to date reference is a 2018 book by American breeder Kevin C. Vaughn, Sempervivum - A Gardener's Perspective of the Not-so-Humble Hens-and Chicks. I thoroughly recommend it. However, there is also a wealth of information online that will be published in print so here follows some of my favourite sites.

    Links to other websites  This is the probably the most important site for Sempervivum and Jovibarba in Europe. Crammed full of information and pictures, and most importantly, a de-facto compendium of all known cultivars.

    The National Gardening Association (of America) has this wonderful resource, similar in many ways to the above but with an North AMerican slant. It's often worth searching for information on varieties that were bred or are popular stateside. They also have an active Hens and Chooks forum with some very knowledgable experts contributing.

    The nursery website of Erwin Geiger in Germany. Drool away!  Tip - use Google translate (or similar), just be aware that it may also translate plant cultivar names into English which is not a good thing.

    Volkmar Schara's nursery website. Another talented German breeder.

    Beatrix Bodmeier has this attractive site (in German again)

    Kallima Gardens at A nice site from Slovakia with good images. With translate, look for Rock Roses. Not what we might call Rock Roses (Helianthemum) but that's what you need to look for.

    Here is a link to fascinating website by an enthusiast who has compiled so much information. You must watch the video (YouTube link) about Semp breeder Ed Skrocki! This was taken from when he appeared on the US tv show 'A Gardener's Diary'.

    Here is an article in Cactus and Succulent Review, March 2021. The link takes you to a PDF download.



    Georg Arends first started specifically breeding Sempervivum nearly 100 years ago in Germany and many developments have taken place. Every breeder who establishes a new cultivar then potentially provides a base for further breeding so a plant with a black tint to the leaves becomes darker and darker with each attempt. Well, in theory - you have to kiss a lot of frogs!  We now have several wonderful cultivars that anyone would say are as close to black as we may get. But black isn't everyone's thing, so we have (and had) breeders who favour red leaves, or cobwebs, yellow leaves or nothing in particular, always looking for the different and the unusual.

    It is incredibly difficult to select a few breeders from a huge list but here are some of my favourites.

    Sue Thomas is a UK breeder who, since around 1999, has given us many wonderful cultivars and her plants are in great demand, especially in Europe. Sue seems able to create varieties that offer just that something different. Some of her stand out varieties for me are the black 'Intensity', the multi-coloured delight, 'Foxy Lady' and the little 'Sea Coral'.

    André Smits from Belgium is an incredibly prolific breeder - he must have raised many hundreds of varieties. He gave us the wonderful cobwebbed 'Koko Flanel' and 'Boule de Neige'. 'Terracotta Baby', 'Aladdin' and 'Tip Top' are also his and we do very well them. André has so many varieties that some are still little known - plants like 'Harriet', 'Albisoca' and 'Mavina'.

    Volkmar Schara is relatively young but has already named over a hundred varieties. All of his plants are good but some are outstanding. 'Leopold' (named for his son) is a fantastic plant with large black leaves and 'Dr. Fritz Köhlein', a gorgeous red and creamy-yellow bicolor. Volkmar runs a successful Sempervivum nursery in Germany.

    Martin Haberer was at his most prolific in the 1970s and 80s but continued into the 2000s and only gave up his collection in March 2018 (I presume) due to old age. Martin gave us 'Bronco', probably one of the best Semps ever and it has won many awards. Many of his plants are little known in the UK but 'Cono', 'Aline', 'El Misti' and 'Irazu' show us some of the depth of his breeding and the award-winning 'Fuego', 'Reinhard' and 'Sioux' the quality.

    David T. Ford (UK) was a true Semp enthusiast and breeder who left us so many varieties that we feel are as good as any, old or new - 'Red Spider', 'Dyke, 'Black Mini', 'Red Ace', 'Corsair', 'Gay Jester' and 'Hart' to name a few. Howard Wills of Fernwood Nursery wrote a fine obituary for David. It's not easily found so here is the link - David T. Ford (from Fernwood Nursery website).

    Erwin Geiger is another German nurseryman who is still relatively young. I like his plants very much - I love his 'Papucchini', the name, and the plant; his 'Goldmarie' was Sempervivum of the Year in 2014. I'm sure we have more to come from Erwin.

    Edward Skrocki from the USA was busy back in the 1970s and 80s. 'Marmalade' is one of his and a favourite of mine, 'Hurricane' we have grown for years. Ed was in regular contact with David Ford and they exchanged plants. 

    Gary Gossett. Another American grower who gave us his 'Pacific' series - all his vareities were prefixed 'Pacific' so we have 'Pacific Dawn', 'Pacific Thunder' etc. It does make them easy to find in a list! The whole series is well-regarded.

    Others. There have been so many enthusiasts and growers who have named Semps over the years it seems unfair to only pick a few. I could easily have included Gaston Wuyts and Gustaaf ven der Steen, both Belgian; Kevin C. Vaughn, Polly Bishop, Sandy Mac Pherson and Helen E. Payne from America: Ernest Hepworth, Enid Milton and Howard Wills from the UK. And let us not forget the 'One hit wonders' (or nearly so) who maybe only gave us one or two varieties, but some amazing plants that we still grow many years after their introduction.


     Writing and images are copyright of Craigiehall Nursery.

    © Craigiehall Nursery 2018 - 2020

  2. We have two articles on Sempervivum 

    • Basic Care - below is what we send to customers buying our Sempervivum Collections

    • We have a longer article here -  buying, growing, compost, propagation, winter care, breeding etc.


    Thank you for buying our Sempervivum - we hope you enjoy these fascinating plants.

    Some of our customers are new to Semp growing so here are a few tips to start you off. Sempervivum are generally very easy to grow, but like all plants, they have their likes and dislikes.

    Basic needs. Semps like open, exposed spaces, love sunshine and tolerate drought. They must have very free-draining soil or compost and not too much feeding or too much water. They shrug off extreme cold having evolved to survive in the high mountains of Europe, so don’t treat them as house plants or over-protect them.

    Changing colours. One of the fascinations of Sempervivum is how they change leaf colour through the seasons, so don’t worry if your plants aren’t the colour you expected as they will certainly change. Colour, size and shape are all affected by how the plants are grown - the best colours show when they get maximum light, not too much water and just a little feeding to keep them growing.

    Planting in the garden. Choose a suitable spot as above - avoid shady places, over-hanging trees and poorly draining soil. It helps to mix some grit with the soil. Don’t plant too deeply, keep the plant slightly above the surrounding soil and finish off with a good layer of grit or gravel spread around and under the plants. Remember to label the plants or record the names!

    Growing in containers. Sempervivum will thrive in pots and containers of every kind but they must have drainage holes to let water out the bottom. Tubs, troughs, planters, old boots, hollowed-out logs, teapots - use anything that has a drain hole and will hold about 1 litre or more of compost.

    Compost for containers. We recommend you make your own compost as nothing you can buy is really suitable and it’s easy to do if you have (or can get) garden soil. The soil is the ‘magic’ ingredient. Make a mixture of good garden soil, any good ready-made compost (we like the peat-free alternatives) and coarse grit, equal measures of all three. Any weeds that come up from the soil are easily plucked out when small. You may add a sprinkling of ground lime or limestone chippings if you know your soil is acidic but don’t fret needlessly about acidity or exact pH etc., Sempervivum are quite tolerant.

    Aftercare. Very little! Keep the plants free from weeds or fallen leaves. Greenfly rarely attack but soapy water will see those off. If a plant flowers, remove the faded flower stalk at ground level soon after it fades to prevent random seedlings popping up around your named varieties. Fill the space by detaching a rosette or two and replanting them in the gap. A little fresh soil mix will help the new starts to root and raise them level with the group. Plants are easy to increase - pull of a young rosette and place it onto fresh soil or compost. And that’s it - so easy, a child could do it. In fact, every child should do it - it introduces them to growing and caring for a living thing and that is a basic life skill.

  3. 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)

  4. 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.

  5. 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!

  6. 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! 

  8. 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!

  9. 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.

  10. 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).