In the Alpine House – the best spot to linger on a rainy day at Wisley

As usual, a House of Many Delights, the Alpine display at RHS Wisley; a traditional glasshouse with raised, sand-filled benches and the specimens sunk in their terracotta pots to be viewed at just the right height (though I noticed a folding chair left for visitors this time around). With free entry last Friday and a steady drizzle falling from the heavens, it was a busy spot naturally enough. Still, I had enough uninterrupted room to take these shots.

I always find something to wonder at, with this ever-changing kaleidoscope of strange forms and miniature jewel-like flowers, though I confess not to grow many at home (Pulsatillas, Sempervivums, my Auriculas might fall into the category, miniature bulbs), nor indeed do I know very much about the more unusual specimens that I’m looking at in glasshouses such as this!

I delight nevertheless in the perfect specimens and changing panorama in the Alpine glasshouse at RHS Wisley and the Davies Alpine House at Kew. I should get back to Harlow Carr near Harrogate for they have a huge Alpine House I’ve visited just the once, soon after it was built. Seek them out, these plants and maybe grow a few at home.

Some reading, dear folks, from the dear folks at the Telegraph (superb gardening writing you will find in their pages).


How to grow alpine plants at home

The comings and goings of plants in fashion always fascinate me. One horticultural style that seems to have remained firmly in the land of terminal decline is alpine gardening. As alpine grower Tim Ingrams from Copton Ash Gardens puts it: “Alpine plants do seem to occupy gardening territory that only a few discover”. He blames this on historical associations with the gargantuan rock gardens of the over-indulged, the arcane skills of the exhibitor and the academic bent of many enthusiasts, but he’s convinced alpines deserve a wider fan base.

Of course, alpines are particularly adapted to place and specifically moulded by their climate and geography – above the tree-line in mountainous places – but within those wide open boundaries grows a huge range of small flowering plants, ranging, as Ingrams puts it, “From the blue poppies, primulas and gentians of the Himalayas, to the saxifrages, androsaces and edelweiss closer to home in the Alps, not forgetting plants from the hills and mountains of the Mediterranean, especially Turkey, and those from the North American Rockies and Californian hills”.

An academic, with degrees in plant physiology, Ingrams is an alpine evangelist. Walking round his gardens at Copton Ash, where alpines are grown in lots of different situations, I spotted ways of housing these beautiful plants that would appeal to all sorts of gardeners, including the many who have limited space. The front garden is home to a sand bed perfect for any sloping roadside plot; the house is surrounded with troughs and sinks that could fit on any balcony or terrace; and within the garden proper are raised gravel beds that could take the place of redundant vegetable plots. Some alpines can even be grown at the front edge of a sunny border.

The main priority is that the soil should be dry, gritty and well drained.

To make his sand bed, Ingram dug down a foot, backfilled with sharp sandy grit and planted teucriums, yuccas and small daphnes, thymes and ferny grey Cotula hispida, topped with a small tufa bed filled with silver saxifrage and slow-growing dianthus. The front garden enjoys sun in the morning and afternoon shade.

Ingram’s raised beds are edged with hefty railway sleepers filled with a mixture of compost, grit and sharp sand and, again, mulched with grit. In winter it’s best to protect alpine beds with sheets of rigid transparent corrugated plastic to keep off winter rain, but let air through. Remember, these plants would usually spend their winters snug under a covering of snow.

The bottom of the garden is home to orchards planted by Jack Ingrams, Tim’s father, who was director of nearby Brogdale National Fruit Collection and started the 11/2 acre garden in 1978. Today the fruit trees are underplanted with spring-flowering woodland beauties: hellebores, cyclamen, ferns, arums and violets. The garden also has a good collection of snowdrops, many of which are already in flower.

Pay a visit on one of their alpine open days and allow yourself to be seduced by these tiny plant gems.

Best alpines to plant

Chiastophyllum oppostifolium

Good for dry soil, crevices and between rocks, forming low mounds of succulent leaves and chains of bright yellow spring flowers.


These are hardy, succulent alpines that grow between rocks in the mountains and tolerate extreme temperatures and drought, in a wide range of colours and textures, among them: ‘Purple Dazzler’, ‘Terracotta Baby’ and ‘Brunneifolium’.


‘Eva Constance’. Long-lived in deep gritty scree, tolerant of drought, and good on chalk, like the rare native pasque flower.

Veronica thymoides

This forms a dense mat of grey-green hairy leaves with tiny deep blue flowers in early summer.

Campanula garganica ‘Dickson’s Gold’

Star-like bright blue bellflowers on clumps of golden green foliage – a good form of a versatile perennial that stays evergreen in milder areas.

Eryngium bourgatii or Mediterranean sea holly

This is a stunning tall perennial with veined leaves, purple stems and cone-like blue/purple flowers from the Pyrenees.


Also from the pages of the Telegraph

Unfairly pigeon holed as difficult to grow and the preserve of hort-geeks, alpines deserve our consideration for the joy they bring to beginner gardeners. D’Arcy Everest specialist nursery shares their top tips:


• Mix John Innes No 1 compost with a multi-purpose compost 50/50. Add a little grit to help drainage.

• Make sure the trough has plenty of holes in the bottom. If using a sink with only one hole put a layer of gravel in the base at least an inch deep, more if you have room, to allow water to seep away. Place a layer between gravel and compost, e.g. an old towel.

• With shallow troughs, use old crocks over the drainage holes to allow water to escape.

Suitable plants

• Use compatible varieties of alpines, with similar growth rates and soil preferences.

• Aim for year-round colour. Add some dwarf bulbs (such as hoop petticoat daffodil) but not varieties that become too leafy once flowering has finished. Cyclamen coum and C. hederifolium are ideal. Choose mostly evergreen varieties with contrasting foliage for year-round interest.

• With alpines, use rocks (as lumps or slices) to create a small rocky landscape.

• Top dressing helps to keep compost moist in summer and suppresses weeds. Use fine gravel or grit to complement any rocks. Rinse gravel well, as sediment can mark plants.

• Our guide to making teeny-tiny container gardens

Pick the right site

• Find a spot in morning sun and afternoon shade.

• In a sunny south-facing position, troughs heat up quickly on hot days. Use tolerant plants such as sempervivums and sedums.

• Troughs look fine not only on their own but as a group of three or more.

• Placing a trough on feet allows water to drain away quickly and also deters ants from moving in.

For a range of alpines to buy, visit the D’Arcy Everest website.


and another article …

At 17,769ft, the Thorong La Pass at the northern tip of the Annapurna Sanctuary in Nepal is one of the highest points accessible in the country before you need crampons and an ice pick. On my way there, walking through the tiny Himalayan kingdom one springtime in the Eighties, I was one minute revelling in the overwhelming scent given off by thick groves of Daphne bholua and the next stopped in my tracks by huge stands of the brilliant red Rhododendron arboreum.

But right at the top of the Thorong La, where no trees grow, I came across a tiny plant that moved me as much as the great shrubs that I knew from home.

It was a stunning little poppy, Meconopsis horridula. With almost no leaves and a sparkling powder-blue flower tight to the ground, it left me breathless. There is not much air anyway at that altitude but being suddenly faced with a sea of these exquisite treasures protruding from every crack in the rocks made me gasp. Such was its beauty it put the plants of the Himalayas in a different light and “alpines” suddenly took on a new meaning for me.

It is a mystery why the cultivation of alpine plants is now so far removed from the mainstream to be almost unrecognisable. And a great shame too, because if you are batty about plants and you only have a small space in which to garden you can have a lot of fun with them.

The idea that alpines and their fanciers are “fuddy duddy”, as put forward recently by a well-known television presenter, is wide of the mark. Some of our best-known horticulturists, past and present, started out with alpines. Like many plants, they may be best viewed in their natural environment but that does not mean that they should be ignored by gardeners.

• Visiting the Schachen Alpine Garden

Helen Dillon, whose garden in Dublin is one of the finest anywhere, planted her first alpine garden in Scotland at the age of nine. On moving to London she won enough money playing poker to expand her collection, only to find they suffered, until she moved them back to Scotland where they thrived.

Vita Sackville-West said on the subject: “They make little tufts and squabs and cushions and pools of colour when in flower, and neat tight bumps of grey or green when the flowers have gone over. I would not restrict it only to the rugs and mats and pillows, but would break its level with some inches of flower stalks so that a ribbon of colour no more than 12in wide might well wend its flat way beside a path in even the most conventional garden.”

As for Valerie Finnis VMH, of the Waterperry Horticultural School for Women, she photographed the Collins Guide to Alpines (1964) among many other works concerning alpine plants.


Plenty of myths that surround alpines should be immediately dispelled so that we can get on with growing these wonderful plants in our gardens again. As passionate as I am about edibles, it is proper horticulture that we are concerned with here and I challenge anyone to say that there is a better way to capture the imagination of a child than by starting them off with as outstanding a plant as the silver Saxifraga ‘Tumbling Waters’.

To begin with there is no need for an Alpine House unless you want to keep winter rain away from a collection of plants in pots (though the Davies Alpine House at Kew is deeply impressive). Nor a rockery, nor a great deal of expertise.

As with any form of gardening, the main requirement is the knowledge of how the plants grow. The greatest myth of all is that alpines are difficult – they are not.

David Hatchett, a former alpine nurseryman, has an outstanding garden full of them at Lydford in north Devon. He says: “Once you grasp the basics you cannot go wrong. They like to be free of weeds and they must have good drainage. After that you need to know whether they like alkaline or acid conditions, full sun or partial shade. Eighty-five per cent are lime lovers, which makes things easier. Lime lovers will tolerate acid conditions but not the other way around.”

• Our guide to testing your garden’s soil

He counsels against buying from garden centres because there is rarely enough information about the plants on their labels. “Some groups of saxifrages, for example, will burn up in the sun, but put them in shade and they make wonderful plants.” In terms of flower display, a group of dwarf origanum, phlox, primula and veronica will keep you interested from spring through to autumn.

It was on one of many trips to Ireland in the late Nineties with my wife, Melanie Eclare, when she was writing and photographing her book Glorious Gardens of Ireland, that alpines became further embedded in my consciousness. Melanie had already been to David Shackleton’s Beech Park and seen his incredible collection of the New Zealand mountain daisy, celmisia, which numbered some 30-odd species. It was on another of those journeys that we came across the astonishing garden of the late Prof Keith Lamb at Woodfield in County Offaly.

Tucked away behind the house in the old kennel yard was a row of raised beds in which were housed a collection of plants that looked to me like something out of a fairy kingdom. Specimens such as the tiny Primula muscarioides with its blue flutes of flower and a rare, yellow monkey musk Mimulus primuloides. I also recall clumps of the very pale blue pulsatilla ‘Budapest’.

Alpines are not limited to plants that grow above the tree line. The group extends to anything that is small, hardy and perennial. This therefore includes dwarf rhododendrons, conifers, cacti, woodland plants such as trilliums, and bulbs. I have a burgeoning collection of Narcissus bulbocodium, the very pale yellow hoop-petticoat daffodil thriving in my thin, poor acidic soil in Devon.

• The best bulbs for spring

Chris McGregor of the Alpine Garden Society says a recent upsurge in interest in alpine plants has come through what is known as “crevice gardening”. Stones are placed on edge and the gaps in between filled with gritty compost suitable for the desired plant. A crevice garden, built four years ago, stands next to the Alpine House at RHS Wisley.

For those wanting to grow alpines, getting started is very simple. A stone trough, or a large container built of hypertufa, will suffice. Thereafter the pH of what must always be a free-draining compost mix is dependent on what you want to grow. Good drainage is also essential for the winter if you are growing alpines in the open ground, as most will go fully dormant.

• Our guide to growing alpines in a trough

There are many ways to introduce beginners to the joys of gardening and there is something about a raised bed or trough of alpines that lifts the heart. Getting close to the plants and caring for something so delicate as a dwarf iris such as I. bucharica is a joy for a child. It is surely time for alpines to return.

For alpine news, visit the Scottish Rock Garden Club website or follow on Twitter.

For alpine shows and further information: visit Alpine Garden Society website (01386 554790).


and finally some useful links

from my pages –

How to Plant Troughs

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