Easy alpines to grow in the garden
Words: Graham Rice
Some gardeners are discouraged whenever they see the word 'alpine'. They think they’ll have to build a special greenhouse in order to grow alpines or mix up barrow loads of special soil. But that's not always the case.
It’s true, some alpines are very fussy about where they grow. But many of the most colourful are easy to grow and need very little special treatment. I’ve picked out ten of the best here, all winners of the prestigious RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM). Just give them sunshine for most of the day, or preferably all day, and soil which is well-drained and they’ll be fine.
And while some confine their burst of colour to spring, many provide foliage or flower colour all the year round.
Artemisia schmidtiana 'Nana'
Slinky silver foliage all the year round on low spreading plants makes Artemisia schmidtiana 'Nana' invaluable amongst bright spring alpine flowers. Developing into a low, often rather mounded, slowly spreading carpet of dense silver growth, I’ve also seen it looking lovely as a small specimen in a 23cm/9in terracotta pot. You can snip off its undistinguished summer flowers to retain its poise. 8x30cm/3x12in.
Campanula poscharskyana 'Stella'
Tumbling over a low wall or spreading out across the edge of a driveway Campanula poscharskyana 'Stella' is a prolific and colourful plant but it’s also a vigorous one that needs space to run. More restrained neighbours will have trouble holding their own, but in the right place ‘Stella’ provides a long summer season of bright violet flowers and is well worth placing carefully. 15x60cm/6x24in.
Lovely spreading over gravel or falling over a low wall, the succulent evergreen pale blue-grey foliage of Euphorbia myrsinites spirals around fat prostrate stems and is colourful and intriguing all the year round. Then, in March and April, the end of each shoot turns up to display a broad cluster of greenish yellow flowers. Just cut out the old shoots after flowering. 4ix12in/10x30cm.
Geranium (Cinereum Group) ‘Ballerina’
Geranium 'Ballerina' makes a slightly loose mound of grey leaves, each one prettily lobed. In May and June clusters of upward facing, pale lilac flowers appear which are boldly and heavily veined in dark purple, shading to dark magenta purple in the centre. The effect of the dark-veined flowers set against the silvered foliage is lovely. Raised by Alan Bloom almost 40 years ago but still superb. 6x12in/15x30cm.
Helianthemum 'Henfield Brilliant'
Helianthemum 'Henfield Brilliant' is a twiggy little shrub, which tends to become wider than high, combining neat, narrow, evergreen grey-green leaves, with a succession of single, gold-centred, bright brick red flowers starting in May and continuing all summer. It’s wise to trim the plant back after flowering to prevent it becoming too straggly. Best sheltered from strong winds, but otherwise not fussy. 12x15in/30x38cm.
Hypericums are well known for their bold and brilliant sunshine yellow flowers but in this species the whole display, which lasts all summer, is reduced down in scale compared with the more familiar larger shrubs. In summer, the slender slightly greyish foliage makes a perfect background for the unexpectedly large flowers. A small and neat plant with real impact. Clip back in early spring. 10x12in/25x30cm.
Lithodora diffusa 'Heavenly Blue'
Spreading widely in a low, twiggy, dark evergreen mat, from May the rich green foliage of Lithodora diffusa 'Heavenly Blue' is the perfect background for the flared, vivid, deep azure blue flowers which look right up at you. Good as ground cover and also trailing over the edge of a raised bed. Needs acid humus rich soil but otherwise easy going. If necessary, trim and tidy up after flowering. 6x24in/15x60cm.
Our native Pasque flower, Pulsatilla vulgaris, grows naturally on almost solid limestone, but is adaptable in the garden. Flowering through spring above unfurling finely dissected green foliage, silvered underneath, the bold purple bells with their vivid yellow centres are held on strong, upright stems. Making slowly expanding clumps in most well-drained soils, silvery seed heads follow the flowers as the foliage expands into an attractive clump. 8x8in/20x20cm.
Rhodanthemum hosmariense has an extraordinarily long season of cheerful, yellow-eyed, white daisies set against its loose mound of finely dissected, brightly-silvered, evergreen foliage. Flowering all year round in a sheltered place in the garden in the south of the country, it may be less happy in colder or wetter areas but is always worth trying. 8x10in/20x30cm.
Famous for thriving on hot dry tiled roofs, sempervivums are also happy in gravel and in shallow containers. ‘Othello’ has especially well coloured foliage, generally in bluish green with deep red tints in midwinter, then in shades of vivid red in spring, and becoming deeper in colour in autumn. ‘Othello’ is also more vigorous than many, so is best in gravel – or on a green roof. 4x12in/10x30cm.