Articles on growing alpines

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

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  1. 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!

  2. 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!