Scree gardening

Taking inspiration from the alpine landscape, the perfect scree garden offer plants adequate moisture in summer along with good drainage and protection from damp in winter. These are the ideal conditions to display choice plants.

<EM>Aster alpinus</EM> in a scree bed
Aster alpinus in a scree bed

Quick facts

Top five plants for scree gardens:


In the garden, a scree bed tries to emulate nature. Screes occur in mountainous areas where rock faces disintegrate due to freeze-thaw action. Rock particles and loose stones travel down the slope and reduce the angle of steepness. Streams bring stones of varying sizes. Melting snow in the summer provides water, and in winter a blanket of snow protects plants from frost and desiccating winds.

Practical considerations

To make your scree garden, choose a sunny site that is well lit even in winter, and away from trees and their leaf fall. Then;

  • Clear all perennial weeds
  • Dig out about 75cm (30in) of soil from the site, making the base slope gently towards the bottom. Enough slope is needed to allow excess moisture to drain away, without the upper part becoming over-dry in summer
  • Cover the base of the area with about 15cm (6in) of rubble
  • Place another 15cm (6in) layer of small stones about 2.5cm (1in) diameter on top of the rubble
  • Fill up the hollow with a mixture of stone chips and gravel
  • Lay a layer of about 7.5cm (3in) depth of free draining soil mix of one part loam or good top soil, 1 part leaf mould, or peat substitute and 2 parts grit by volume
  • Top off with a 5cm (2in) layer of gravel. Limestone chips are used for alpines from chalk or limestone areas and shingle, washed gravel or granite chippings for those from neutral or acid soils. Avoid flint chips as they do not conserve moisture
  • Try to add some larger stones to add character to the site, and create some protection for plants. Just a few will do, but they are useful as stepping-stones when weeding, as well as for aesthetic reasons. Large stones should match chippings

Care of scree plants

Plants with leaves covered with fluff or down need winter protection from drying winds and damp. In their native habitat snow protects them. From October to March, suspend a sheet of acrylic or polycarbonate over the plants using corner supports.

Water well in dry spells during the growing season. In well-constructed screes plants are deep-rooting, as in natural screes, but may need extra water.

Lightly top-dress in May with the compost mixture used in the original construction, with added fertiliser. This will wash down deep into the scree bed, providing nutrition for searching roots.

Suitable plants

Cushion plants and those that are mat-forming are ideal for scree gardens. Try to avoid rampant growers, tall plants or those with large foliage.

Spring-flowering (April-June) up to 15cm (6in) in height

Androsace sarmentosa
Draba aizoides
Gentiana verna, Gentiana verna
Geum montanum AGM (through to October)
Lychnis alpina
Petrocallis pyrenaica
(Kabschia Group) e.g. S. burseriana, S. 'Gregor Mendel' AGM
Soldanella alpina, S. montana

Spring-flowering up to 30cm (1ft) in height

Alyssum montanum
Aurinia saxatilis
Saxifraga oppositifolia, S. oppositifolia subsp. latina, S. retusa

Summer-flowering (June-October) up to 15cm (6in) in height

Acantholimon venustum
Androsace lanuginosa
Anthyllis montana ‘Rubra’ AGM
Aquilegia saximontana
Armeria juniperifolia
Asperula gussonei
Aster alpinus
Campanula pulla, C. raineri AGM
Cyananthus lobatus AGM, C. microphyllus AGM
Dianthus alpinus AGM, D. freynii, D. pavonius
Dryas octopetala
‘Minor’ AGM
Edraianthus pumilio AGM, E. serpyllifolius
Erinus alpinus
Gentiana saxosa
(Cinereum Group) 'Ballerina' AGM, G. subcaulescens ‘Guiseppi’ AGM
Hypericum coris
Lewisia cotyledon
AGM, L. oppositifolia, L. rediviva
Linaria alpina
Oxalis enneaphylla
Petrorhagia saxifraga
Potentilla nitida, P. nitida
Silene acaulis
Vitaliana primuliflora

Summer-flowering up to 30cm (1ft) in height

Aethionema grandiflorum AGM
Geranium sanguineum, G. sanguineum ‘Album’ AGM
Papaver alpinum, P. triniifolium

Plants suitable for partial shade

Androsace laevigata
Aquilegia saximontana
Cyananthus lobatus
AGM, C. microphyllus AGM
Primula auricula

Dwarf shrubs and conifers

Betula nana
Daphne blagayana
Daphne cneorum ‘Eximia’ AGM

Abies balsamea Hudsonia Group
Cedrus deodara ‘Pygmy’
Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana’ AGM
Cryptomeria japonica ‘Nana’
Cryptomeria japonica ‘Vilmoriniana’ AGM
Pinus mugo ‘Mops’ AGM

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