ags logo

Alpine Gardening in a Small Space

June 27, 2020
Content Sidebar

This article describes my alpine gardening adventures in a small space. I ‘found’ alpines at the start of married life some 40+ years ago. My wife, Linda, purchased a 10’x8’ aluminium greenhouse for our first wedding anniversary.  I looked around for plants to grow throughout the year without heat, settling on alpines. Bulbs arrived a few years later as a result of gaining knowledge and experience of growing.

We live in a South Yorkshire village, at about 90m in altitude. This puts us in the ‘eastern rain shadow’of The Southern Pennines, meaning we don’t get much rain and have to collect it.

In 2006 we built our house in my in-laws’ garden. Our house dominates the plot, leaving not a lot of garden.

My alpine/bulb area of 30’x23’, has every plant in a pot, except a few orchids and snowdrops. It’s adjacent to my front garden area paved for parking, all unseen from the road, behind a 2m high wall facing west on its roadside.

alpine gardening in a small space

Chris Lilley's house behind a wall

I took a photo of my alpine/bulb area from my roof ridge whilst DIY-ing in the ‘lockdown’ spring of 2020. North is the opposite end to the door of the shaded greenhouse.  My boundary is immediately behind the shaded greenhouse. A planning condition stipulated we had to provide a tree and shrub planting plan together with a maintenance scheme. We thought about this, returning to the planner saying we grow all plants in pots so can we disregard this condition? The planner smiled and agreed!

alpine gardening in a small space

Garden seen from above

So, why do I grow alpines and bulbs?

Listed below are my thoughts.

  • Enjoyment of growing plants by seed, exchange, gift or purchase
  • Growing plants suitable to my location and weather
  • Meeting other like-minded people, especially via AGS/SRGC
  • Visiting areas in UK and abroad to find and photograph alpines and bulbs (generally all plants)
  • Creating a garden plant display throughout the year, especially those liked by my wife
  • Designing raised beds to suit my growing conditions
  • A pastime for life in the open air
  • Selecting good plant forms and attempts at hybridisation (often by chance!)
  • Showing plants at AGS Shows
  • Challenge of growing difficult species
  • Learning about plant origins and diversity

Originally my plants were grown in plastic and terracotta pots and plunged in sand, either in raised benches in the greenhouse or on ground level in outside frames. My original outside frames were freely obtained wooden boxes used to transport cutlery made in Asia to Sheffield for finishing with curved glass coverings from former motor coach roofs. Children could safely clamber on these!

Learning to Grow Alpines

Books on alpines and bulbs were easy Christmas and birthday choices, in pre-computer days. I still enjoy referring to the 1981 edition of Collector’s Alpines by Royton E. Heath. Our home design includes a ‘snug’ room for winter with two walls lined with bookshelves, where I can sit alongside and have at hand most reference books without getting out of my chair and nowadays using a computer.

I came to the AGS via The Sheffield Rock Garden Club in the 1980s. There were no nearby AGS groups at that time. Here I met Val Lee (past AGS President), Jim McGregor, Geoff Mawson and Clare Brightman. We tried to get this group to affiliate to the AGS, without success. I began learning how to grow and show. I am still learning, more importantly encouraging others to participate. I also love to guide new members and those new to showing around the display benches.

Referring to the photo of my growing area, I will guide you around my plot, talking about the positioning of greenhouses and raised frames, also growing techniques and of course the plants.

Display area in rear garden

I grow alpines and bulbs in pots to show, also to create a display viewed from a kitchen window, so plants are continually being moved around to achieve the best effect. I also grow plants in my narrow (60cm) rear garden raised beds.

We have a small east facing shaded sitting area in front of this display with bonsai trees, some gifted by the widow of Geoff Davies, who regularly accompanied me to AGS Shows. You may wonder why I have a grey bag attached to the barge boarding? It’s a ‘waspinator’ deterring wasps from nesting. It works!


I no longer plunge plants in sand. Pots in the greenhouses or raised frames sit on plastic trays filled with about 1cm of horticultural grit, ideally kept damp throughout the growing seasons, apart from my 6 hardy cacti, mentioned later.

My small 8’x6’ aluminium greenhouse is positioned almost on a north/south line, with 55cm square plastic trays on each side resting on wooden bearers lying on top on breeze blocks. Nothing is fixed. I grow mostly cushion type plants, such as Draba, Androsace, Lewisia, Saxifraga, also Primula, Campanula, Viola, Phlox, in the trays. Underneath on ground levels are slabs where I grow Cyclamen, Haberlea, Ramonda, Asiatic Primula and other plants requiring shade; also, overwintering plants.

Drabas coming into flower

8x6 greenhouse looking south

This greenhouse has permanent white painted shading with added plastic shading (scaffold netting is ideal, cheap, and large enough) which is held in place from March until September by clothes pegs clipped to the frame.

My growing area receives direct sunlight in winter only for a couple of hours in late afternoon, consequently not all plants thrive with little attention. Regular turning of some plants (especially cushions) is required but I do not try to ‘force’ plants into flowering for shows. Growing in character is of greater importance. Not receiving direct sunlight for part of the day is of benefit for many plants, mainly those enjoying shade, such as Hepatica, Dicentra, resting Kabschia Saxifraga, ericaceous plants, Arisaema, Thalictrum, Trillium.

Raised bulb frames

I have 2 raised-up Access frames. A 10’x3’ frame containing bulbs is under the west facing wall to receive maximum sunlight throughout the year. I place bulbs in plastic and terracotta pots on 3’x1’ plastic tomato bag trays, again with 1cm of horticultural grit. I water once a fortnight in the resting season, always with added feed of Tomato or Seaweed fertiliser and always keep the grit moist in the growing season. These trays are not fixed and rest on timber bearers supported on breeze blocks. I use the under space to store pots and plants on the outer edge, such as Corydalis, Dicentra and Rhododendron. This frame has a permanently glassed roof, shaded in summer with open sides, except in very cold weather.

Raised bed frames

I also keep bulbs in pots outside on pebbles without covering, behind the north facing gable of my house protected by fencing, only bringing them into direct sunlight to begin flowering.

Second Access Frame

My second Access frame, also 10’x3’, is under an East facing wall of my in laws garage. This frame only receives direct sunlight after midday in summer and late afternoon in winter. Again, I use 3’x1’ plastic tomato trays with 1cm of horticultural grit, to keep plants needing shade particularly in summer, such as Kabschia Saxifraga, Hepatica, Viola, ericaceous plants, Cyclamen, resting Primula allionii types, Dicentra.

This frame has a permanent glass roof, shaded in summer. The shading is assisted by trays full of empty plastic pots, also other light-weight gardening paraphernalia and my seeds awaiting germination. I can look at shoulder height to inspect my seed pots ensuring maximum light, essential for germination, however watering is by a small can. I think I have done enough bodily exercise looking after my plants without press ups using full watering cans!

Access frame behind east wall with Saxifraga display in foreground on plastic table


The round plastic table with saxifrages in the photo foreground provides a useful and cheap way to keep and display plants.

I have already mentioned moving plants around. The method I employ (standing plants on shallow trays filled with grit) allows easy movement and management of plants for display and preparation for showing.


I do not rush plants to exhibit; there are plants I leave to grow and mature. Trillium, Saxifraga and Sempervivum come to mind! Many AGS members will know I waited well over 10 years before exhibiting Trillium grandiflorum with some success! There are pitfalls in growing large plants, especially around re-potting. Frequent re-potting, or overpotting, can have undesirable consequences. Having lost one Farrer Medal plant by repotting into a 36cm pan, I am now cautious.

Once plants have outgrown a 19cm pot or thereabouts, I try to repot into a 31cm terracotta half pot and let them mature.  Plants this size are big enough for the large pan classes at shows. They are easier to manage and water than smaller pots. On the other hand, such plants are easier to move about and transport to shows than 36cm pots, and I can pack more into my vehicle.

With my plants in 31cm pots, management around watering is not difficult. However, adding fertiliser in the correct strength is essential. Little and often works with a slightly stronger mix before flowering, although keeping plants in character is important.

Plants in summer are placed on plastic tomato growbag trays

Plants in summer are placed on plastic tomato growbag trays

Easy Alpines

My garden display includes many common alpines, some useful for showing. A prime example are Thymus species. I purchased Thymus serpyllum ‘Coccineus Group’ from Aberconwy Nursery a few years ago, primarily for inclusion in my garden display, only to go onto winning a Farrer Medal at Pershore in 2019. Growing easy alpines in large show pots helps you learn how to grow more challenging plants in similar pots.

Another Thymus serpyllum ‘Coccineus Group’ in my display (needs trimming for showing)

Another Thymus serpyllum ‘Coccineus Group’ in my display (needs trimming for showing)

The large 10’x8’ greenhouse is used to grow plants requiring winter protection, such as cacti, Oxalis, Crassula, Nerine, rhizomatous Iris, Helichrysum, Sedum and Eucomis, also seedlings of bulbs awaiting moving into 19cm pots when large enough.


One side has a raised sand bed where I previously plunged plants. Cacti stand on top of the sand which is watered with feed March to October. I only have 6 cacti, mainly Rebutia species hardy enough to overwinter without protection other than the greenhouse glass. If you fancy growing and showing cacti, Vic Aspland wrote an excellent pamphlet for the 2020 Show Handbook on this subject.

Rebutia heliosa condorensis

I grow more plants in a 12” strip immediately north of the large greenhouse. Here, I keep a selection of “Collector’s” Galanthus in soil. After flowering and foliage die-back I use this shaded area to store trays of germinated seedlings, awaiting repotting on top of the Galanthus. I have mentioned this previously to plant ‘friends’ who question my method. I respond, ‘the Galanthus always flower well and multiply’!


I never rush repotting, preferring to wait until mid to late summer. I try to restrict repotting, only keeping 3 to 4 of each species, maybe more, depending on what I have grown. A couple I keep, but the others I exchange, give away or take to AGS Shows members stall. The retaining wall to the Galanthus bed is ideal for germinating seeds, especially using used shop plastic mushroom containers for seeds such as Anemone caucasica which are slowly being distributed around the UK. This is also an ideal position to await 3 years for Paeonia seed germination.


I have never used complicated soil/compost/grit mixes to grow alpines and bulbs. For many years I relied on JI soil composts, garden centre proprietary composts and grit, mixing them in even quantities. In the last five years or so I have used mainly one potting mix, comprising 60% horticultural grit, 20% JI No 1 & 20% garden centre potting compost (shredded bark is better). For shrubs and Trillium, I substitute JI No 1 by JI No 3. To lighten pots, I may use perlite instead of grit or as a proportion to the grit. I empty purchased grit and compost into plastic dustbins for ease of storage.


Seeds are obtained from the AGS and SRGC seed lists which I donate to each year.  These need all our support if we want to grow fabulous plants from around the world. Looking elsewhere for seeds is worthwhile, especially the well-known available advertised lists from Europe, The Americas and Asia. Just a word of caution – ensure you have sufficient area to grow seeds in the right place.

Multi-pan classes at Shows

I enjoy entering the large pan multi-pan classes at Shows. To enter 6 large pans is always an achievement, however, it requires growing a lot of plants in large pots. I have created several areas in the alpine area to keep suitable plants. Some are kept directly on top of gravel, such as Ranunculus, Phlox, Pulsatilla, Paeonia, Androsace sarmentosa series, Thymus, Rhododendron, Primula, Trillium, Anemone, Narcissus and other bulbs, also dwarf shrubs. All receive some shade until mid-morning in summer. This area also includes a small raised area in which hardy orchids grow in permanent shade, always late to flower, grown to enjoy not to show.

A few days before exhibiting 6 large pans, I place them together to see how best they display, take a photo on my phone, so when I arrive at the Show, I have a reference. This technique can be used for all multi-pan show classes.

I don’t chase ‘red stickers’ at shows, preferring awards of any description as a surprise. But I will move my plants around at shows to display their possible advantage and effectiveness against other plants.

Arranging 6 pans at home for reference on arrival at a show (March 2020)

North of the large greenhouse

Another area I use to grow larger plants is north of the large greenhouse. In winter I cover this area with anti-weed suppressant and place pots on top of the fabric giving them irregular feed throughout. I do move some plants onto the floor of the greenhouses if heavy frost is forecast, however, my 2m west facing wall helps to minimise this threat.

In summer, usually from late May, I place these pots into plastic tomato bag trays to help with watering and feeding from the pot base rather than overhead. I do have to empty the trays after heavy rainfall – if we get some!

The green lean-to greenhouse houses mainly my wife Linda’s cacti. I think she now wants to grow hardier types, so we do not fill our heated conservatory in winter with plants. Her ‘Cacti’ greenhouse also serves as a temporary home for my plants during severe weather.

Sempervivum and Rosularia on a raised wall

A further display area I use is a raised wall in my front garden area. Here I keep Sempervivum and some Rosularia throughout the year. Worms cannot enter the pots, so I have no problems with blackbirds, however, this year for the first time a blackbird shredded my Phlox bifida plants for nesting material!

Learn how to create crevice gardens in small spaces Product The Crevice Garden, A Bold Aesthetic for Adventurous Gardeners by Kenton Seth, Paul Spriggs A crevice garden replicates the environmental conditions ...
crevice garden
You pay: £25.00 (Members pay: £20.00)
Image of Chris Lilley Chris Lilley

My interest in plants came from my family garden in East Anglia, where I lived until my early 20’s. I joined the Police Service and moved to Yorkshire 52 years ago and now live in South Yorkshire. Over 40 years ago, I became interested in alpines whilst looking for plants to grow throughout the year in a cold greenhouse. I found the AGS, joined local groups, eventually helping to run these groups, started showing, became a Show Secretary, eventually becoming a Judge, also helping to run the AGS as a trustee, and now currently Finance Co-ordinator for Shows and Show Secretary for The North Midlands AGS Show. My interest in alpines is not confined to growing them; I have visited The Pyrenees on a number of occasions over the past 35 years.