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An alpine kitchen sink drama

Pan-fried Sempervivum
Pan-fried Sempervivum

A friend who shall remain nameless once said gardeners start to grow alpines when they get to ‘a certain age’.

Maybe that’s near the mark, but I like to think it’s because you’ve sorted most of the big gardening problems out by then – or want something small, like a trough or sink, to focus your attention on.

Generally, alpines are native to rocky soils and full sun, mostly, but not necessarily, mountainous terrain.

They’re mostly drought tolerant, so are ideal for planting in cracks between paving or walls, stone troughs, sinks and window boxes.

My display has turned into a real kitchen sink drama. I was lucky enough to get a salvaged Belfast sink from a demolition site, which is my main container.

I already had a fair collection of Sempervivum (houseleeks) and Sedum (stonecrops) planted in my mother’s pots, pans, and teapots that were her wedding presents in 1959, so I’ve kept to the fleshy-leaved, succulent type of alpine.

These sinks, or real stone ones, weigh a tonne – put it in its final position before filling.

Cover the drainage holes at the bottom with a layer of crocks to prevent drainage holes becoming clogged up with compost.

Fill the container with free-draining compost to within 12.5cm (5in) of the rim, level, and firm.

Arrange plants, with any trailing plants near the edges. Plant by starting in a corner and working towards the opposite edge. Fill in gaps and firm each plant down.

To finish, topdress with a thin layer of grit to prevent leaves that touch the soil from rotting.

Potted guide: alpinespotted-guide-logo

  • PLANTING TIME: Spring/summer.
  • PLANTING DISTANCE: Allow enough initial space so that plants can knit together gradually.
  • ASPECT AND SOIL: Full sun, gritty, very well-drained. General mix for soil in troughs or sinks: 2 parts John Innes Compost No. 2 or 3; 2 parts composted bark/leafmould; 1 part grit; 1 part sand OR 50 per cent John Innes No. 2 and 50 per cent horticultural grit.
  • HARDINESS: Mostly hardy – but avoid excessive winter wet or plants will rot.
  • DIFFICULTY: Easy-difficult, depending on plant choices.
  • RECOMMENDED EASY VARIETIES: Sempervivum (houseleek); Echeveria (hens and chicks); Saxifraga; Delosperma; Sedum (stonecrop); Lewisia.
  • CARE: Remove fallen leaves and snip off any dead or yellowing foliage. In heavy, persistent rainfall, create a temporary shelter with a sheet of glass/ plastic over the container on bricks, to allow air to circulate. Feed plants with a liquid fertiliser in spring.

Winter care and propagation

Sedum and Sempervivum cuttings in April 2016
Sedum and Sempervivum cuttings in April 2016

Wet winters spell bad news for alpines, who generally must have free-draining soil in the colder months.

Even if you remembered to put a sheet of Perspex over plants such as Sempervivum, the wind’s probably blown it away.

There’s only one thing for it – rescue plants by taking cuttings. Remove rotting leaves to leave a clean rosette, then pot up into modules in a gritty compost.

It’s quite therapeutic and you’ll end up with hundreds if you’re not careful. Place them in an unheated greenhouse and when rooted, harden them off in the spring for planting outdoors.

Harperley Hall Farm Nurseries offer

We’re lucky enough to have one of the country’s best alpine specialist nurseries on our doorstep – Harperley Hall Farm Nurseries, near Stanley, County Durham – and 10 per cent off for https://www.mandycanudigit.com readers.

Multiple RHS Chelsea gold medal winners and honoured by the President’s Award in 2015, it’s a paradise for plant lovers – there’s also specialist collections of shade, bog, and rare perennials, plus specimen plants.

Read all about them here.

If you don’t live in the North East, there’s an online mail order service and they attend all the major plant shows and will bring plants you order to the show, post free.