Alpine plants have contributed to miniature landscapes for years and they’re having a revival says Adrienne Wild
The majority of alpine enthusiasts use rock gardens replicating their natural habitats to grow these mini mountain plants. Since the 1980s rockeries have been out of favour with less committed gardeners, as they have gained a reputation of being fussy and old-fashioned.
But as gardens are getting even smaller, it could be time to take a fresh look at this past trend and take inspiration from the alpine landscape.
Given the right setting and some creative thought a rockery can become your garden’s most stunning feature. A free-draining site and sunny aspect is best for most alpine plants, so a south- or west-facing site that is well clear of overhanging trees is ideal, as well as a slope if you want to create a hillside effect.
Use local stone or a soft, porous rock, such as limestone or sandstone, as over time these rocks will weather into interesting shapes and resemble the sorts of rocky outcrops found in nature. Select rocks carefully, looking for flat, rough-shaped ones.
It’s best to use large rocks as ones that are too small ruin the effect and can make a soil mound look like a plum pudding!
To construct, start off by forming an irregular-shaped base line of the largest rocks and as you build try to keep all of the ‘strata’ or grain going roughly the same way. Most large rocks look better partially submerged, with the area around each stone packed with gritty compost.
Always leave gaps for planting, ensuring some are sheltered by rocks where sun-sensitive and frost-vulnerable plants will thrive.
Easy alpines can be acquired from garden centres and the most popular ones include primulas, thymes, saxifrage, pulsatilla, sedums, campanulas and the dainty maiden pink Dianthus deltoides. Shrubby alpines like Daphne alpina and Hebe buchananii can be used to add height.
Other dwarf plants, such as miniature spring bulbs and conifers, like the grey-green-leaved Juniperus communis ‘Compressa’ as well as sun-loving rock roses or helianthemum, which produce crumpled single and double blooms in shades of pink, yellow and white, will keep your rockery bright and colourful all year round.
When arranging plants, choose taller plants for the back of the rockery, scaling down in size to smaller at the front. After planting, top dress bare soil between the rocks with a layer of grit or fine gravel.
This trick will help keep rain from washing muddy soil on to the plants and will prevent tiny plants from rotting around the crown.
You can grow alpines without a rock garden. Year-round interest can be obtained with alpines planted in a sink or trough placed on a patio or planted in a raised bed filled with imported soil or in the crevices between rocks in a dry-stone wall. Plants with a cascading habit, such as arabis, aubrieta and the creeping phlox, Phlox stolonifera, work best in walls.
Ground- hugging and cushion plants like saxifrages, dianthus and sempervivums are especially useful for bringing a gravel bed to life, and can be used to turn a boring paved patio slab into a stylish feature.
Look to the stony scree slopes at the bottom of mountains for inspiration.
Create the look with rivers of cobbles dotted with giant boulders and planted with alpine plants like saxifrages, lewisias and sedums. To transform an existing patio start by taking off the square edges and extending the paved area with slate, shale or pea gravel to create a softer edge.
To add to the effect, break up a large expanse of paving by removing the odd slab and replace with plants and add a few rocks. As the aggregate is to support plants, it’s essential to prepare the soil beneath well by digging in well-rotted garden compost and grit to improve drainage.
Where the soil is limy, use limestone gravel and avoid using acid-loving plants.
Miniature landscapes can also be made in sinks and troughs, which look great in groups of contrasting sizes raised up on stone piers at differing heights. Traditional stone troughs are not always easy to come by, but you can create a similar effect in timber boxes or by building a tabletop mountain on top of a paving slab, which is elevated on brick plinths.
Wide shallow terracotta pots are also great for showing off alpines. Simply top dress the compost with grit and add pieces of rock to enhance the effect.
For a more contemporary look, consider using brightly coloured bowls and top dress with coloured aggregate. Zinc planters are effective, too, and especially when planted with silver woolly leaved plants, like matt forming Saxifraga aizoon, Artemisia and helichrysum.
It’s important containers have plenty of drainage holes. To ensure good drainage, use half and half horticultural grit and peat-free potting compost.
Finally, children will love to join in if you kindle their imagination. Broken pots can be transformed into fairy pots with tiny plants spilling from the cracks and woodland plants, like anemones, Cyclamen hederifolium and primroses are a good choice for combining with logs in a shady pot.