The name Alpine is given to a huge range of small herbaceous plants, which were originally collected from the mountainous regions of the world. Alpines are generally low growing and extremely hardy plants with a passion for sun and gritty, free draining soil and are adept at forming small compact clumps.
Alpines make up the majority of plants that you would need to build a rock garden, which when used in conjunction with carefully positioned rockery stones provides an attractive feature, which is intended to give a feel of the plants in their normal natural environment. The building of a rock garden or rockery in your own garden can be quite a large project, because it will take time and effort to build. The most important factor before you even lay the first stone is to ensure that the soil and drainage conditions are just right for your plants, as they require an extremely well drained and fertile soil.
However, you do not need a rockery to fully appreciate and grow a small selection of alpine plants in your own garden, as they can be grown in small raised beds or even planted in walls. Alpines are perfect for growing in the smallest of gardens, or for planting in containers and are ideal for balconies or window boxes. In these circumstances Alpines are on the whole easy to grow, provided you give them the right compost, full sun and protect them from heavy amounts of rain during the winter.
My own favourite way to grow alpines is in old stone troughs and glazed sinks, as using a container enables the plants to be positioned anywhere in my garden. Also, as the plants are raised to a higher level, this makes it easier for me to appreciate the plants fine detail.
As well as pots and containers, all sorts of novelty items can be used to grow alpines, including clay drainage pipes and chimney pots. If growing alpines in containers, ensure you have sufficient drainage holes in the base and place a layer of coarse grit in the bottom of the container before adding your compost. The compost needs to be a either a specialist alpine formula, which can be readily purchased or by mixing one part John Innes No.2 compost with one part grit. When planting, you can choose from a wide selection of plants available from garden centres.
Good popular choices include Aubretia, Dianthus, Helianthemum, Phlox, Saxifraga (pictured) and Sedum to name but a few. After planting, you can place small rocks, pebbles or slate between the plants to add interest, before placing a thin layer of grit over the surface of the soil and around the plants to emphasise your garden and to show off their delicate foliage and flowers.
Dwarf conifers can be used to add a feature if required, as well as bulbs such as dwarf Narcissi, specie Crocus and dwarf Iris.
Maintaining an alpine planter is fairly easy. Feed once a year with a general-purpose fertiliser, water in very dry periods and weed between young plants until they become established. In winter ensure you protect your plants from heavy rain, as this can cause problems.