For over 25 years I have gardened a rockery or rock garden on a triangular patch of poor soil. I progressively scrounged and collected a range of granite, limestone and sandstone rocks and added them piecemeal. I aspired to growing alpine plants and recognised good drainage and shelter from winter wet weather would be key but that is as far as my planning would go. For the first couple of decades I was busy at work and wasn’t able to put in the effort of looking after small but hardy alpines.
One of the consequences of this lack of time was that I took the easy way out and planted ‘Dwarf and slow growing conifers’ that were a popular fad at the time. I also supported many alpine nurseries with my often ill chosen plant selections in attempts to buy a ready made garden feature. Latterly I joined the Alpine Garden Society and took advantage of shows and seed exchanges.
Then a latter stage crept up on me. The 10-20 year old conifers started to take over in scale and dare I say interest. Firstly dwarf can be a misnomer just because a conifer is small when planted it may very well just be a slow grower that has higher ambitions. I true dwarf conifer is a genetic feature of some species and are worth seeking out at the expense of other mass grown shrublets. Over time I dug out the larger and more boring specimens but still the alpines became less significant. I now have 20+ conifers of varying forms, colours and species taking over the alpines. The highest is 6 feet tall and may be the next for the chop one is low growing but spreads 5 feet wide and a favorite on mine is only 9 inches high. The space is still approximately 200 square feet but is extending into and adjacent bed past the crazy paved path.
Yesterday I visited the 2018 alpine event at Harlow Carr. I was very impressed and I am sure the other people who braved the elements were well satisfied. One benefit of alpine gardening is that the cold greenhouse can protect the gardener as well as the alpine plants.
The volunteers at the snack bar were doing a great job dishing out tea and coffee and there was a help yourself table of homemade cakes and scones. I had a piece of ‘Granny’s apple cake’ thinking she would be called Granny Smith.
The next plus was the range and excellent quality of the plants entered in the various show classes. Unfortunately I forgot my camera and note book but remember some of the advice I picked up talking to AGS members.
The attention to detail was noticable and must be a trait of those who show alpines. One room was dedicated to alpines native to other continents and they were well labeled. There was also a note of when a seed had been sown showing the age particularly of various cyclamen.
There were several specialist nurseries selling a good range of alpines. I could have spent lots of cash but would have had problems carrying so many plants. I opted to just buy 3 Dwarf Rhododendrons.
I then went next door to the RHS library and borrowed 3 books including the now out of print Dwarf Rhododendrons by Peter A Cox.
There are enough different saxifraga within the genus to satisfy the most ardent plant collector and breeder.
Saxifraga Karels Carpet
There are over 300 identified species and a great number of hybrids referenced in to sixteen separate sections.
Saxifraga burseriana ‘Sulphur’
Then in addition some of the main sections will hybridise and there are numerous variations to collect.
Kabschias and Englerias are quite similar hybridising like mad. They flower early in pots or tufa crevices. Silver Saxifrages Ligulatae, Dwarf Cushion Porphyrion, London Pride Saxifrages Gymnopera and Mossy Saxifrages are other groups to collect.
National Collections & Societies
The Plant Heritage National Collection of Kabschia Saxifrages is housed at Waterperry. The curator, Adrian Young, says ‘a huge band of followers are attracted by their size and compact habit as well as the beautiful flowers’.
Cambridge University houses the National Collection of European Saxifrage in the Mountains House
The Saxifrage Society membership is a very reasonable at a fee of £10 per annum.
Beginners instructions for building a plunge bed for growing Tete-a-tete narcissus from the Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society. ‘To construct a plunge-bed dig a pit in a well drained piece of ground that will not flood – near a tree or hedge will be fine. A wooden frame, sufficient to hold the pots, on top of the ground will do equally as well. Place the pots in the plunge-bed or frame and cover them with soil/compost/sand to a depth of about 5cm. They can now be forgotten until the spring. A strong cardboard box stored in a dry cold garage or shed will do equally as well. Cover the pots in the same way as above and don’t let them dry out.’
A call this a rock box as it is one way of displaying rockery plants above ground level.
The size of these interesting rock plants allows you to get many species in one small container. This tannalized wooden frame was custom made about 4 feet square and is on display outside the new Alpine house at RHS gardens Harlow Carr. I counted over 30 different species planted in this one container.
Below is a close-up of the Armeria junperfolia from the same display.