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.
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?!
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.
Updated November 2015 (from January 2015)