Alpine Gardens

by Paola Tavoletti, Artist-Writer

The mountain environment is tough and hard: steep slopes, abrupt changes in climate, and violent natural atmospheric phenomena. Alpine gardens are a challenge for even the most passionate and adept gardeners.

Ideas for Your Alpine Garden

Steep slopes
You will have to shape terraces, and to create stairs that allow for an interesting transition between terraces. In this way you can organize, stabilize and develop a garden in even a very steep terrain. Always, keep the original configuration of your terrain: follow Nature! So, if you already have terraces in your garden , make sure to keep them! The Alps have a history of terraces used as ‘fields’ to grow cereals and grapes so you will be preserving the ancient tradition of alpine mountain villages.

It is better to have many little terraces rather than just one large one, which would diminish the solidity of the garden soil. Terraces with smooth inclinations can easily be stabilized utilizing the roots of some grasses - like the Trisetum distichophyllum (Oat grass) which stabilizes the soil with  its strong, dense root system - and shrubs, like the Juniperus communis (Common Juniper).

Walls should be made of interesting stones, not bricks. Walls made of dry stone will give an authentic feel to your alpine garden - looking like, and merging into, the surrounding landscape. Walls constructed in dry stone are strongly linked to the life of people of the Alps, in Italy, Switzerland and France. Farmers build stone fences to keep their animals together, to protect their fields from wild animals, and to delineate the boundaries of their properties. In alpine vineyards, dry walls are used to tame steep slopes, to support embankments at different levels and to stabilize terraces. These ancient stone walls keep the soil firmly, and prevent erosion and landslides after heavy rains. In your alpine garden stone walls can stabilize slopes, keep embankments and flank steps while dividing the garden into different planting areas.

In the alpine villages and along alpine roads, the dry stone wall construction is an ancient technique utilizing local stones. To imitate these walls just start hiking the mountains looking for beautiful dry stone walls which you might try to emulate back home. I love the black granite stones of the Italian Western Alps! Of course, stone walls can take many shapes. You should consult the numerous websites on building drystone walls.      

Plants for Stone Walls
For the stone walls of your alpine garden choose plants which grow best in the shade with root systems thriving in fresh air in highly drained environments. Suggestions for plants which grow in the interstices between stones: Lewisia cotyledon, Campanula barbata, Saponaria ocymoides, Sedum acre, Sempervivum montanum,Gypsophila repens and Saxifraga bryoides. For shadowed walls, try: Asplenium trichomanes, Corydalis flexuosa e lutea, Arenaria montana and Isis crestata. Also, you might add the following rock plants to grow between the stones of your walls: Primula glutinosa, Eryngium alpinum and Aster alpinum.

Stairs may be either wood or drystone. For wood stairs use crude pine, acacia, fir, chestnut, or hazel. For dry stone stairs: use thick heavy local stones for the treads - that should be scarified - and rough stones like schists or limestone for the risers.

Plants for Stairs
Plant shrubs and groundcover along the edge of the stone or wood steps of your alpine garden: Hebe, Lonicera nitida, Abelia grandiflora and Deutzia are all lovely. To prevent weeds from growing among your shrubs, plant Bergenia cordifolia, Euphorbia, Thymus, Salvia officinalis, Erigeron alpinus or Vinca minor - these plants hold the soil well and their density and thickness preserve the humidity and prevent weed growth.

Another option is to add aromatic plants and flowers all around - try Echinacea, Geranium, Lentopodium alpinum, Papaver, Aster, Cosmos and Sedem telephium. For north facing slopes: Rhododendron, Azalea and Hydrangea are all suitable.

Stairs in rounded wood add a rustic feel to your alpine garden, and are enhanced by edging them with herbs and with plants typical of the underwood, which give a natural feel - especially ferns (Pteridophyta), Lysimachia, Pulmonaria, Astrantia, Hosta, and creepers such as ivy. These plants also grow well in the shade.

To accentuate verticality of your alpine garden you might plant tall plants like Delphinium and Aconitum on the highest embankment.

And of course, no alpine garden should be without grasses!

Poa alpina (alpine bluegrass) - young plants are able to form in the inflorescence: blossoms of the parent plants are red, while new plants that will drop and take roots are green.

Festuca amethystina (tufted fescue) - this hardy Poacea is a small, narrow leaved fescue from the Alps, with grey-green leaves and purplish flowers. It grows in a well-drained soil in full sun. Tolerant of poor, sandy or stony soils.

Fun facts about alpine plants
Sempervivum Montanum (Crassulaceae) - Houseleek/Roof Houseleek
Evergreen- Low water needed - Sun or shade - Protected species.

Its leaves are covered with white woolen-like hair, and is found in altitudes up to 3000mt! Flowering from June to September, the houseleek was planted on roofs and walls to protect against lightening causing thatched roofs to catch on fire. It was Carlo Magno who wanted the houseleek to be planted on the roofs of all the imperial properties. The houseleek is considered to be a symbol of immortality. Thanks to its dense epidermis the houseleek’s embedded water tissue makes evaporation difficult.

It forms tight rosettes with mid-green colored fleshy leaves and clusters of reddish-purple star-shaped flowers rise up on short stalks in early summer. A great plant in rock crevices, it can stand temperatures below 0°. This plant is native to mountainous areas of southern Europe (Pyrenees, Alps, Carpathian Mountains, Corsica). The name for the genus comes from the Latin words 'semper' meaning "always" and 'vivus' meaning "living".

This low, often prostrate ground-hugging spreading shrub is found in exposed locations such as subarctic areas and high altitude alpine zones in temperate areas. The plant is very aromatic, containing essential oils, and its berry is as well - just think of juniper schnapps (or gin!)! They are berrylike cones made of seed scales; the seeds are extremely hard and need to be digested by birds like the fieldfare and the black grouse so that they can germinate.

The most famous plant of the Alps! Like other plants originally of  the mountains of central Asia, Edelweiss colonized the Alps after the last major glacial retreats, 10.000 years ago. Mr. Rico, from Edelweiss restaurant in Zermatt (Switzerland) says: “My Edelweiss have a crawling habit and grow every year more and more, if the roaming ibex don’t eat them!” In fact, the Leontopodium alpinum has a mat-forming habit that makes it well-suited as a ground cover plant.