Considering modern trends what do we think of? Garden rooms, sustainability, green walls, urban greening. The idea of an ‘alpine rockery’ is not one that brings contemporary design to mind. For many of us, the design style of rockeries feels firmly lodged in the style of 1960’s to 1980’s when they featured heavily in show garden circuit and played a strong role in setting garden trends. Often used as a back up for tricky areas in the garden, they have long been added in as a ‘fixer’ to hide unsightly mounds of forgotten rocks left over from the build or to fill areas that serve no purpose, almost as an afterthought.
It is for these reasons that many of us do not feel rockeries belong in the modern garden but the versatility of alpine plants makes them well worth reconsidering for the modern garden. First of all, consider these hardy little plants and their benefit to gardens that have poor soil and are exposed to the elements. Where some perennials may struggle to grow, these Alpines, which naturally grow on very high elevations, thrive and will often flower well before many other perennials show their heads.
So what exactly classifies as an alpine? In the beginners book ‘Alpines’ by Michael Mitchell they are described as follows: ‘An alpine plant is any plant suitable for growing on some form of rock garden, be it raised bed, scree, sink, container or rockery. What this means in practice is a plant that is hardy, relatively small and has its origins in mountainous areas of the world.’
This description shows that really, the term Alpine is a very broad term and can be applied to many lovely plants available in our garden centres today. This ease of availability and growing makes them very rewarding plants both for the rockery garden as well as smaller pots or containers.
When it comes to choosing plants one of my all time favourites is the ever rewarding Aubretia. No other plant I know flowers so prolifically with masses of blue, pink and purple cushions of colour in the Spring garden. It is no wonder it is a favourite choice for the gardens on the Super garden show on RTE which we are currently filming. It’s one of these plants that just keeps giving- flowering for a long time and really not needing much tlc at all. One thing to consider is that, being an alpine, it favours well drained gritty soil and full sun to do well. Too much moisture will rot the roots of this evergreen perennial.
Another great choice in the same colour palette as the Aubretia is Arabis blepharophylla, or rock cress, which also form masses of flowers born on slightly longer stems than the Aubretia. This variety is called ‘Rose Delight’ and is a really cheerful bright pink which goes perfectly with the pink Aubretia. I think choosing the same colours in different plants makes for quite a modern and old display with strong colour impact-taking the scheme nicely into the current time.
If you want to lengthen the flooring time of this particular combination then consider adding some Mexican fleabane-Erigeron karvinskianus. This little plant will flower even when the other two run out of steam, ensuring the flower seasons is lengthened and adds some lovely lighter pink to the scheme.
Whether for larger gardens or smaller schemes, there is no reason why we cannot re-invent the rockery alpine garden idea a little and bring it into the modern garden. For larger schemes why not take some inspiration from the modern rock trends at Chelsea flower show and bring large chunky slabs of stone into the garden? Andy Sturgeons garden at Chelsea last year had an almost pre-historic feel to it and this is a perfect and bold base for a rockery scheme. Beautifully shapes rocks are a great starting point which you can bleed the plants around.
Not everyone has a large garden to play with but there is absolutely no reason why rockery plants can’t be brought into even the tightest balcony space. I love the idea of using a terracotta pot -quite a traditional rockery material- and customising it to reflect modern design trends. In the pot here I have combined the aforementioned Aubretia and Arabis to create an edgy and modern take on a terracotta rockery container.
So: be selective, be bold and have fun- whether you have a small space or a larger garden, it’s well worth giving the Alpine rockery another chance.
Tips for creating a successful rockery
Mimic Natural rock strata
When considering a larger scale alpine rockery garden arrangement of rocks is as important as the placing of plants. Rather than randomly scattering leftover builder rocks-this is where it often starts going wrong- consider mimicking the strata of natural rock. Place the rocks in an angle in the soil, the will all create great growing conditions for the plants-allowing the based of the plant to sit out of the deepest parts of the soil and the roots to grow deep into the ground where required.
Be selective with your Rocks
Using beautiful rocks will give you a head start in creating a beautiful scheme. Don’t use rocks from here there and anywhere all thrown together-again this will feel like the builder rubble that you’re trying to avoid. Rather, choose carefully and go for a look-whether slabs of rough limestone or a more rounded beach pebble look, make sure they follow a similar feel.