Tortworth Plants’ Top Alpines for the Spring
Tim Hancock and Rebecca Flint, from Tortworth Plants, with suggestions for choice alpines for Spring colour. - 03 April 2016
People often consider alpines to be temperamental and difficult to grow, but this is really not the case. There are some varieties that do need special treatment and an alpine house to grow well, but there is also a vast range that can be grown in a variety of situations, with very little care and attention required. The plants that we have featured here are all easy to grow, and suitable for rockeries, the front of a border, pots, troughs and walls. There is also the added bonus that their dwarf stature allows more plants to be grown in a small space. Many varieties are evergreen and there is an amazing variation in flower and leaf colour and type. In general, alpines prefer a sunny position, with well-drained soil, although there are some that can be grown in shade.
We grow a wide range of alpines and herbaceous perennials, with up to 1000 varieties throughout the year. Spring is the time when the alpines take centre stage, so below we have chosen some of our favourite alpines, which we will be bringing to the Rare Plant Fair at The Old Rectory, Quenington.
Armeria pseudarmeria ‘Ballerina Red’ is a fairly new introduction, which is an unusual colour variation on the ordinary sea thrift (Armeria maritima). It has striking rosy red drumstick flowers, in abundance, from early spring, throughout the summer, reaching about 25cm in height. It is slightly larger in stature than the sea thrift, with broader leaves, producing evergreen mounds of grassy foliage. This can be grown either in a pot, the front of a border or in a rockery, and requires a sunny, well-drained site. It will also tolerate poor, dry soils.
A variation on the ever-popular Aubrieta, 'Swan Red' has rich purple-red flowers in spring and attractive, evergreen cream-variegated foliage, providing year-round interest. Ideal for rockeries, walls, troughs or the front of a border, it has a trailing, mat-forming habit, and stays low to the ground, up to 10cm in height. It is best in full sun, with a gritty, well-drained soil.
We grow wide range of Dianthus, but one of our favourites is Dianthus 'Coconut Sundae', which has a lovely compact, upright habit, up to 20cm high. It produces mounds of silvery-grey foliage, topped with masses of semi-double white flowers, with serrated edges, and deep wine red centres, in late spring and early summer. It is beautifully scented, and excellent for growing in pots, as well as in the border or rockery, in sun or part shade, with well-drained soil.
Unlike many alpines, Dodecatheon meadia f. album requires a shady spot, with humus-rich soil. The common name of Shooting Stars describes the flowers perfectly. It has clusters of pure white, cyclamen-like flowers, with golden yellow central markings, in spring, held on 20cm stems above rosettes of large, bright green leaves.
Another variety that is happy in the shade, and will tolerate dry conditions is Chiastophyllum oppositifolium. It has fleshy, dark green, mat-forming leaf rosettes, which are evergreen, topped with arching plumes of lemon yellow flowers in spring, up to 20cm high.
Erodium pelargoniiflorum is an interesting plant, which is not always widely available, but is an excellent variety, which produces masses of white flowers, with pink veins and central markings, over clumps of soft, scented leaves. It has a tidy habit, reaching about 25cm in height, and will self-seed in paths, walls and gravel. It is best in a sunny location, with well-drained soil. It is also tolerant of poor, dry conditions.
Iberis ‘Pink Ice’ is a new colour form of the traditional white perennial candytuft. It has abundant clusters of pale pink flowers in spring, over dark, glossy evergreen foliage. It grows to about 20cm in height, and is mat-forming. It is best in full sun and with reasonably well-drained soil.
Another popular alpine is Primula auricula. They have a reputation for being difficult to grow, but we have a selection of the more hardy, garden varieties, which are easy to care for providing a few conditions are met. The main requirement is for a gritty, free-draining soil, as they particularly dislike winter wet. Planting on a slight angle, so that the water drains off and does not sit in the crown of the plant can also help. Alternatively, they can be grown in a gritty compost in pots, and moved into a cold greenhouse or sheltered spot for the winter. They also require a sunny position. A couple of our favourites are ‘Purple Pip’ and ‘Lunar Eclipse’. These produce clusters of beautiful double flowers, in rich, deep purple, and dark coppery orange respectively, up to 15cm in height.
Primula auricula 'Purple Pip'
Primula auricula 'Lunar Eclipse'
Another plant that requires a very well drained compost and full sun is Saxifraga 'Southside Seedling'. It is a hardy plant, with attractive evergreen, silver-edged leaf rosettes, which are topped with long sprays of white flowers, up to 30cm long, with deep red markings on each petal, in spring. This variety is ideal for pots, rockeries and alpine houses. As with the Primula auricula, it will often benefit from planting on an angle to improve drainage.
A plant grown more for its foliage than its flowers, and a useful addition to a rockery or container is Santolina rosmarinifolia ‘Lemon Fizz’. With its evergreen, vivid golden yellow, aromatic foliage, it adds light, contrast and year-round interest. It is best in a sheltered spot, with full sun and well-drained soil. It makes a tidy mound, reaching about 25cm in height.
Finally, another favourite of ours is Lonicera crassifolia ‘Little Honey’. This is a fairly new introduction and is an unusual creeping form of honeysuckle. It has apricot-yellow flowers in early summer, and will often flower again later in the season. The dark glossy green, rounded leaves will turn rich red in autumn and winter, providing year-round interest. It reaches about 10cm in height and makes excellent ground cover, or will trail over the edge of a pot, trough or wall. Happy in either sun or part shade, it likes a reasonably well-drained soil.
Tortworth Plants, based near Wootton-under-Edge in Gloucestershire, is owned and run by Tim Hancock and Rebecca Flint. They are keen plantspeople, with a passion for horticulture. The nursery produces a range of more unusual alpines and herbaceous perennials, while still stocking a good selection of classic favourite garden plants.