Here is a top tip for gardeners with small gardens or nothing but a balcony: grow small plants. It sounds obvious, but few do it. Small plants are rewarding, a world in a handful of grit.
The supreme small plants are alpines from the high altitudes of the world’s mountains. They are having a tough time. In their mountain homes they are being unsettled by the changing climate. In 2019, before the years of intermittent lockdowns, I visited one of Europe’s great alpine plant stations, Germany’s Schachen garden in the Bavarian Alps beyond Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
High altitude alpines have been grown up in this outpost of Munich’s famous botanical garden for more than a century and as a result excellent records have been kept. The curator, Jenny Wainwright-Klein, explained to me on site that the snows now come later and melt sooner and the summer sun is more intense.
Up in the front line of change she notices how once-contented plants have begun to struggle, from blue-flowered Himalayan poppies to tightly leaved cushion plants. If you are still denying climate change, look into the records and the research on alpine plants, much of it by botanists in Swiss universities. You have to accept that the alpine world is not what it once was.
I returned from this heavenly outing with a new energy. I too grow alpine plants, my life-long love, and so I gave my work a mission statement. I opted for Beauty, Biodiversity and a Global Haven: like most such statements, it arose in the wake of the work it purported to represent. The biodiversity in it does not imply favour for slugs, voracious enemies of alpine plants. It encompasses blue-flowered gentians, androsaces and high alpine plants such as the challenging Campanula raineri, which is a slug’s favourite dinner.
I cast myself as their haven but I am now not so sure. I wish I could say I am making life better for them, my alpine refugees. Sometimes I am, sometimes I am not. Their enemy is climate change at lower altitudes, evident in the wet weeks of recently warmed British winters. Alpines in captivity love snow and hate winter wet. In this recent wet winter I have lost good verbascums, hairy-leaved onosmas and two androsaces, or rock jasmines, which had been happy for the previous six years. Is an open flower bed no longer the best place for them?
Here, gardeners in confined spaces come into their own. Most so-called rock plants do not need rocks in order to flourish. They are happy enough in the controllable environment of a broad pan or a clay pot, even on a balcony. They are even happier if it is made into a safe haven which can be sheltered from weeks of heavy winter rain. In pots my primulas and silvery-leaved helichrysums are safe and happy. In unsheltered flower beds they have usually died off. Take the hint and grow them, potted, in the safety of your balcony or little courtyard.
To see, and perhaps buy, some possibilities go to darcyeverest.co.uk and click on the section headed Alpine Bowls. The nursery grows all its own plants near Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire and has made a fine mark as an RHS exhibitor and gold-winner at Chelsea Flower Show. It offers a proper clay bowl, suitable compost, sharp chippings, mini-rocks and an array of preselected plants for a mini garden of your own.
Here is how to spend it: a 78cm bowl starts at around £550 with 18 selected plants. A 100cm bowl goes up to £600 with 30 selected plants and all the necessary extras, including oak feet.
Maybe you want to devise a bowl of your own which will work out more cheaply, but even then, the style and range of the listed plants in these prototypes will help you on your independent way. If you buy a pre-designed package, the results are impressive. They transform what a courtyard or balcony can grow, especially if you are able to move the bowl into half-shade in very hot summers and protect it with a wrap in the worst of a wet winter. It is fun to devise your own but pre-designed bowls remove most of the stress. Unlike summer petunias, they last for years.
Other suppliers of small hardy plants and alpines include pottertons.co.uk, a family-run business in Lincolnshire that has been a lifeline to many of us during the lockdowns. On May 29 the nursery has an excellent Open Day, held with nine other specialist alpine nurseries, all with stock to sell: cream teas are on offer too and a bedrock of alpine expertise.
In Derbyshire, alpineplantcentre.co.uk is another good stop along with Hartside Nursery Garden near Penrith in Cumbria at plantswithaltitude.co.uk and slacktopnurseries.co.uk in the Pennines. Kevock Garden Plants has had regular applause from me at recent Chelsea Shows and is a first-class supplier, at kevockgarden.co.uk.
These nurseries (with the exception of Alpine Plant Centre) all supply by post and their packaging and delivery are excellent. Since Brexit they no longer supply to the EU or, in some cases, Northern Ireland.
Here are some potted pleasures. From Pottertons, especially, I have built up some good pulsatillas in recent years, pinks, reds, whites and lavender blues. They are not high alpines and they will resist wet winters outdoors but they are also excellent in pots, first for flowers in April and early May, then for fluffy seed heads and thereafter for carroty leaves that do not become a mess.
As company, I have learnt to grow selected primulas in smaller nearby pots, as they are so much happier in a controllable site, in a clay pot with the spongy compost they mostly prefer. The pots should remain in semi-shade all summer. Forms of Primula marginata are all excellent, with many of the auriculas and others that suit your lime-free soil.
For slight height in a small landscape, I like silvery Euryops acraeus, about a foot high and wide with yellow daisy flowers in summer: it is happy to be pruned in spring. I also much like slow-growing Daphne retusa, evergreen with scented pink-white flowers. The aethionemas have no scent but grow faster, Warley Rose being a classic choice, but Warley Ruber being more special and a darker shade of pink.
In June and July, campanulas are essential. They love life in pots as they are safer from slugs, which tend to exterminate them in open ground. All the carpatica forms are good, but Blue Uniform is specially good in half-shade and Blue Clips flowers profusely. If you can provide lime-free soil and lime-free rainwater, autumn gentians are the best of all, denied to me in open ground because of too much lime. Up in Berwickshire in Scotland, edrom-nurseries.co.uk will spoil you for choice.
In smaller spaces, you can control conditions for smaller plants, for silvery saxifrages, spring gentians and refined little aquilegias. I have directed you to good suppliers and will leave you the fun of choosing what to risk. The suppliers will gladly advise you if in doubt: whatever you end up growing, enjoy thinking that you are growing it in a safer haven than my open garden provides. Mission statements are seldom the whole truth.
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