Growing advice


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  1. 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.

  2. 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!