Saturday, 30 November 2013

The Alpine House

Giddy Heights

Laura and Chris in Lilliput
      We had a toy that was supposed to encourage toddlers to walk. I can't remember the details, other than that the oblong plastic body of it was red and the wheels were yellow. There was a seat and a handle at the back so that the child could either sit on it and propel itself by pushing with the feet or stand behind it holding the handle and gaining support while a few tentative steps were taken. I remember thinking at the time that the handle was a characteristic it shared with a shopping trolley. This was the time of conspiracy theories and the suspicion crossed my mind that the thing was a subversive effort by Tesco to get kids used to the idea right from the start.

      Our daughter, Laura, regularly did the sitting thing on it but always just plonked herself on the floor if we placed her behind it in an attempt to get her to walk.Then one day she suddenly got the idea, hauled herself to her feet and gave us a beatific smile as she clung to the handle. So far so good. Her weight caused it to move and this wasn't something that had figured in her plan of action. Standing was one thing, forward motion was a totally new ball game which expressed itself in the expressions which flickered across her face.

      It was a fairly long lounge and she'd started at one end. The first couple of steps were a tentative victory, transformed into a self-congratulating smile, then the thing gained momentum as she continued to cling to it, gathering speed until little legs became a blur. Learning to run before you can walk was a fact of life for Laura. The smile faded and her eyes widened as, mouth open in a silent scream, she shot along the room at increasing speed until the sofa proved an effective barrier from her bursting through the wall into the garden. At this point the scream became anything but silent and the police were probably inundated with calls about a murder taking place.

      As a child, Laura knew how to stick up for herself, although the correctness of when to do it was sometimes questionable. My wife was chair of the school governors and, on one occasion, a meeting was taking place in our living room. The discussion had turned to something about her form teacher:

      "Better be careful what you say", my wife whispered, "Laura sometimes listens at the door"

      "I DO NOT!!", came a loud indignant voice from outside the door. Something in this statement struck even her as incongruous, and she departed tearfully to the top bunk she should have already been in - the top bunk she got headaches in due to - as her mother had informed her (and Laura firmly believed)- altitude sickness. My suggestion of asking Santa for an oxygen mask for Christmas was receiving serious consideration.

Alpine House Holehird Gardens
      And plants are also responsive to the effects of altitude, which brings me to the pleasing topic of alpines. True alpines live on mountains which are covered in snow for part of the year, then exposed to sunshine and, possibly, grazing, for the summer. A snow covering sounds pretty harsh but is actually the reason some alpines don't thrive in the seemingly less hostile conditions of temperate gardens: the snow actually protects the plants from changing conditions. In the garden it may be raining one day, freezing the next, snowing on the following one and so on, while under the snow blanket the temperature remains constant and there is no dampness problem.

Poor Man's Alpine House
      The term 'alpine' has become diluted by being applied to plants which are suitable for growing on a rockery or sink garden (see previous blog) but don't have the qualification of originating on mountains. However they may have the right cushion-forming habit and scale to make them aesthetically the right thing.

      In order to be able to grow the more sensitive of these subjects, it is necessary to do what nature does on the mountains - create a protective snow cover in the form of the alpine house. Quite simply, this is an unheated greenhouse. At its best, the benches or floor have a thick layer of gritty growing medium which is suitable for sinking pots in, making it seem they are growing there naturally. Another school of thought simply displays the plants in their pots. There is no right and wrong but the former method enables the creativity of gardening, while the latter has the more limited enjoyment of just growing plants. Cold frames are a good adjunct to the alpine house: plants can be grown to flowering point in the frames, then brought in to display under glass, giving  the house colourful ongoing interest.

Tufa Wall at Harlow Carr Gardens
      Another popular and natural way of displaying alpines is by growing them on tufa. Tufa is a soft form of limestone formed adjacent water and rich in calcium, aluminium, magnesium, silicon and iron - all elements of importance to plants. It is fairly easy to hollow out a planting hole before adding the plant in a compost enriched with the resulting tufa particles. This may seem a pretty harsh environment but it is accurately reflecting the native habitat of many alpines such as saxifrages. In fact, the name saxifrage is derived from saxum and frango, meaning 'rock' and 'to break', taken maybe from the fact that often they can be found growing from a crack in a rock, or possibly because medicinally they were once used to break up gall stones. If plants are grown this way in the alpine house, rather than outside, there is a danger of extreme drying and it is important that each watering be sufficient to soak into the stone to some extent.

      I've seen a single chunks of tufa positioned on a twelve inch pot and planted with seventeen alpines at the Harrogate Spring Show. This raises the philosophical point that you don't even need a garden to practise the art. Many a forty foot square plot has not got as much variety.

      A big attraction of the alpine house is that it doesn't need heating, cancelling out a few big bills. This fact has been the undoing of many a budget-conscious gardener: he or she sees the economic sense of growing alpines in this way and dangles a toe in the water. Jaws is waiting, and the unsuspecting horticulturist is dragged into the deep waters of an addiction which relegates heroin dependancy to the level of chocaholism. Many is the besotted gardener who disappears into the alpine house never to be seen again, leaving a lonely partner to eventually succumb to the charms of the milkman or double glazing salesperson. For such a marriage to be termed as 'on the rocks' would seem particularly appropriate.

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