Head up into the mountains and you’ll see a completely different palette of plants and flowers to what you see at lower altitudes.
An alpine garden is a special type of garden designed to replicate these mountainous growing conditions as closely as possible, giving this captivating set of plants an opportunity to thrive in your very own backyard.
Whether you’ve heard about alpine gardens and you’re looking to make your own, or you’re completely new to the concept and stumbled upon this article by mistake, it’s our hope that after reading you’ll be equipped with the knowledge you need to get one started.
What is an alpine garden?
To expand on the brief introduction above, an alpine garden is one specifically designed to simulate the conditions and replicate the flora that grows naturally at high altitudes. This is achieved through several means, one example of which is switching out regular garden soil for sandier, well-drained soils, along with gravel and rocks to align more closely with the stark and barren mountaintop conditions.
With these changes, it becomes possible to grow a set of plants that might not otherwise thrive at lower altitudes, and to bring their aesthetic from the far reaches of a mountain range to the comfort of your back garden.
The first alpine garden is attributed to Anton Joseph Kerner, a renowned Austrian botanist. The concept has since spread far and wide, garnering enthusiasm from gardeners around the world.
So popular are alpine gardens, in fact, that the Alpine Garden Society (AGS) was formed in 1929 to support any gardener looking to learn more about this type of gardening.
What plants might you find in an alpine garden?
As well as sedum, pictured above, there are plenty of exciting and attractive plants that feature frequently in alpine gardens. In this section we’ll showcase a few to give you a feel for what you could be working with.
Rock cress / Arabis alpina
This flowering Brassicaceae boasts delicate white flowers, above a tuft of rugged leaves. Hailing from only a few places on the Isle of Skye, it’s a tricky plant to find in the wild. This goes some way to explaining its appeal to alpine gardeners, who can, with care, bring something quite rare to their garden.
Pasque flower / Pulsatilla vulgaria
With bright purple petals surrounding a sumptuous yellow centre, the pasque flower brings a bold splash of colour to any alpine garden. The plant is related to the buttercup family, and is found naturally in various parts of Europe.
Yellow helmet flower / Scutellaria orientalis
Comfortable growing in the harsh alpine tundra, the yellow helmet flower features small tubular flowers (no points for guessing which colour they are), alongside deep green, ridged leaves. Seeing this plant, it’s obvious immediately that it cut its teeth somewhere harsh and unforgiving.
Cranesbill / Geranium dalaticum
This Geranium has received the Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society, indicating its suitability for growth in UK gardens – one of the few plants you’ll find regularly in alpine gardens to do so.
Its bouquet of gentle pink flowers, above bright green leaves which share their distinctive shape, is eye-catching and attractive.
Candytuft / Iberis sempervirens
Bunches of white petals dancing aloft from the ground, the candytuft lives up to its light and airy name. Ranging all over Europe, parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, this plant hails from far and wide. Its attractive bloom makes it a popular and viable addition to any alpine garden.
How to make an alpine garden
Hopefully by now you’re inspired to begin turning your backyard (or at least a section of it!) into an alpine garden. Here’s how to do it
1. Decide where your alpine garden will go
So far in this article we’ve alluded to alpine gardens as fairly big undertakings, prone to make use of a large portion of your outdoor space. This doesn’t have to be the case, however. Alpine gardens can range in size from a full backyard, right down to a trough or even a flower pot.
2. Make sure the spot simulates the desired conditions
Whichever size alpine garden you go for, keep in mind that you’re aiming to recreate mountain conditions as closely as possible. This means lots of exposure, no shelter from the wind, and less moisture than you’d usually find in your garden.
Unless you’re working with a particularly large garden, it’s not unusual at this stage to struggle to find the right spot. Most of us will have gardens without a spot that’s shade free all day. If this is the case, look for the spot that gets the most sunlight compared to everywhere else.
Avoid a spot near buildings, trees, and other tall plants. Ideally it will be as open as possible from all sides, letting the air circulate undisturbed.
3. Try to position your alpine garden against a natural background
When you’re up a mountain, it’s unlikely that the splendorous plants and their bright flowers will be set against a brick wall, a wooden fence, or some similar man-made backdrop.
Whilst we appreciate that space may be a limiting factor here, we do advise trying to find as natural a background as possible. Something that gives you and your guests an opportunity to suspend disbelief, and imagine themselves atop a mountain peak somewhere in Europe, rather than being sat in a British back garden.
4. Remove the weeds
This is good advice for any area of your garden, really, but it’s especially important for an alpine garden. For two reasons:
- Weeds will break the illusion by mixing two distinct aesthetics.
- Alpine plants are susceptible to being damaged by weeds.
For best results, take special care to remove all weeds from your alpine garden spot before planting anything, then remain extra vigilant and quickly remove any industrious weeds that break cover.
5. Ensure good drainage
This is of paramount importance. Alpine plants require far less moisture to thrive, and will suffer if left standing in moist soil for too long. Choose sandy soil or gravel to allow water to drain away quickly and easily from your alpine garden.
If you’re working with a spot that currently has regular soil, we recommend working grit or sand (or both!) into it to bring it in line with what these plants need.
6. Add rocks
If you’re working with a space big enough to allow it, incorporating large rocks is a fantastic way to cultivate the alpine garden aesthetic. You can buy stones from garden centres and outdoor shops, or go straight to the source and approach stone merchants directly.
Limestone is often found in natural mountainous conditions, and makes a popular addition to home alpine gardens.
Try not to get to hung up on the exact size and shape of the stones you buy, instead accepting that a rugged and unplanned selection will probably end up looking better than rocks fastidiously chosen to match each other.
7. Plant your garden
Once everything is ready, it’s time to start planting out your alpines. You have a lot of options here, so let’s take a look at a few:
- Buy mature alpine plants from a garden centre. This is a great way to get your garden looking alive from the outset, which is motivating and encouraging. Choose a few plants you like, double check that their needs align with your conditions, then take them home and plant them out.
- Grow alpine plants from seed. Each plant has different requirements so we won’t go into all of them here, but it’s possible to grow a range of alpines from seed. Check out the RHS website to find out more about the specific plant(s) you’re interested in.
- Participate in the AGS seed exchange. Each year the Alpine Garden Society run a seed exchange where alpine gardeners – from amateurs through to seasoned vets – can find unusual seeds they may struggle to find elsewhere.
Whichever combination of options you choose, planting things out into your alpine garden is probably the most exciting step. This is when your plans and potentially hard labour morph into a tangible medley of beautiful plants.
8. Other tips
We highly recommend checking out the AGS website, along with other resources designed to help budding alpine gardeners find their feet. Like many niche types of gardening, alpine gardeners are a vibrant and enthusiastic community ready and willing to help newbies get acquainted with the technique.
There are plenty of books about alpine gardens, too: Great if you’d like to delve a little deeper into the area, and to bolster your understanding even more before setting out on your very own project.
Ain’t no mountain high enough
Whatever your alpine garden plans, we hope this guide has helped to clarify concepts and point you in the right direction. It’s our belief that every gardener has the potential to create an alpine garden, even if they’re working with very restrictive spaces. While it may not be possible to build a large one suitable for strolling through, all of us can at the very least create an alpine planter, rich in exotic and intriguing plants that will delight and dazzle.
Happy alpine gardening!