How would you like to add a new feature to your landscape certain to get the attention of your neighbors?
Let’s talk about alpine gardening. Alpine gardening generally refers to gardening in high-altitude, mountainous regions like the Alps, Rocky Mountains and Himalayas. It generally means planting in rocky, sunny terrain, but I’m here to tell you this style of gardening isn’t just for dirt lovers in high places!
Another name for an alpine garden is "alpinum." The term rock garden also represents this style of gardening. We have all heard that term over the years. A rock garden, to me, has always conjured the visualization of small pebbles with big rocks strewn about, as if they were growing out of the ground. Well, guess what? That is basically what it is, only with plants placed here and there.
The landscape for naturally-occurring alpine is sometimes described as a moraine. Moraines are formed by the accumulation of soil and rock left behind by melted glaciers or icebergs. Think of a moraine forming in much the same way as stones miraculously appearing on the surface of your garden after a hard freeze. It is a geological phenomenon.
In the high-altitude mountains, plants might be somewhat sparse due to lack of regular rainfall, cold temperatures and/or snow staying around for months at a time, or formerly glaciated regions. Plants that live and die make ground litter that turns into soil. This organic matter collects in between rocks and in crevices, and, coincidently, becomes a playground and nursery for Mother Nature’s seeds blown about by the winds. Plants living in those conditions have to be as tough as those living in the dry, low-altitude desert lands.
Alpine gardens and rock gardens do not have to be in high elevations to represent their namesake. You can create one in your own yard by using your imagination. Just follow a few simple rules.
First, decide where you would like the display. It is best to choose a sunny location, because very few alpine garden plants will thrive in the shade. Your plants should get at least eight hours of direct sunlight per day. We’ll talk later about the plants to choose.
Take measurements of the area of your garden then design it on paper.
Prepare the site for your garden. Excavate the site to remove all vegetation and some soil down to about 10". Replace the soil with sandstone or limestone gravel. For a more natural appearance, don’t use screened gravel – use assorted sizes. You will want it to look consistently inconsistent. Place larger rocks in a natural array and use even larger boulders, too. Consult the Internet for images of natural alpines to find ideas on how you want your stones to be placed.
Next, fill in all of the areas you will be planting with a good soil that drains well, yet has moisture-retentive properties. I use a combination of milled peat moss, composted pine bark soil conditioner, general compost from my compost heap and a dash of perlite. Alpine gardens feature plants growing from between rocks and in rock crevasses as well as the occasional plant cropping up from nowhere near a boulder. Remember when filling your planting holes that you will be adding a plant, so don’t overfill the hole. You will add more soil when you set your plants.
Once you have your garden designed and in place, it’s time to select plants. When selecting your plants, be sure to take into account the location of the planting, the size of the plant at maturity, its water requirements and the room needed for root growth. Also, remember a lot of the plants on an alpine garden plants list may not be suitable for all elevations and climates. Investigate the plant’s growth requirements before you buy the plant. Some of the plants can be difficult to locate, so I suggest you consult your local independent retail nursery for what will work in your alpine garden. Holly at Andy’s Creekside Nursery in Hoover is the expert I call on from time to time. She knows alpines as well as anybody in Alabama and she can offer tips on creating your garden. Dave’s Garden is another good resource for locating plants. Go to www.davesgarden.com then type in the name of the plant you are looking for.
Now, the plants (short list). Dwarf evergreen shrubbery like the mugo pine (Pinus mugo) or dwarf Canadian hemlock (Tsuga canadensis minima) will add height and some shade for those plants that can’t handle the hot, afternoon, summer sun. An alpine garden is a great place to show off bonsai specimens, too.
There are some low-growing rues (Thalictrum sp.) with happy blooms ranging from white to lavender and even yellow. Speaking of lavender, how about lavender (Lavendula sp.)? Although it is primarily a lowlands meadow plant, it has just the right growth habit to sustain itself in an alpine garden. Lavender grows well in poor soil.
Yarrow (Achillea sp.) and butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) are also flowers that do well in poor soil and hot sun.
Basically, most plants from the Aster family will do well in your garden. Phlox, Lithospermum, Osteospermum, Calendula, Brachycome and thousands of other plants are available from your local nursery or Quality Co-op. All you have to do is choose your colors!
Alpine gardens are not limited to large areas in your yard either. Many folks create them on a much smaller scale. Plant a miniature alpine garden in a hypertufa trough. Use plants from the family Crassulaceae like Sempervivum, Sedum, Kalanchoe and Echeveria to create a portable garden with color and interest.
Plant your alpinarium and enjoy the beauty for years to come.
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