Articles on growing alpines

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

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  1. 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)

  2. 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.