Creating an alpine scree garden

Val Bourne / 23 March 2015

Gardening expert Val Bourne shares her tips for creating a scree bed in your garden, and recommends some of the best spring bulbs and plants for your alpine garden.



A scree bed is a section of the garden designed for alpines and other plants that love good drainage. By digging down and replacing the soil with a mixture of rubble, grit, soil and coarse gravel you can create an area that's perfect for alpine plants that would not usually grow in a flower bed.

Making the scree garden

The most important thing is finding an open, sunny position because alpines resent being shaded at any stage.

Once a position is decided upon you have to improve the drainage, because most alpine plants hate winter wet. Try to slope your scree downhill towards the sun, because a slope will improve drainage greatly.

Dig out at least 30 cm, more at the lower end, and lay a base of rubble or coarse rock. Then add a layer of gravel, about 5 cm deep, and then a mixture of roughly 3 or 4 parts soil, with one part shredded leaf mould or peat and one part coarse gravel. You may want to add some rocks to your scree as well.

Planting up and maintaining your scree garden

Space the plants out well, using gravel to top dress the area afterwards. When replacing plants, dig out the soil into a bucket, put the plant in place and backfill with your gritty mixture and then top dress with fresh gravel.

Keep the area well-weeded, because you will get more seedlings in gravelled, gritty soil.

Read our guide to protecting alpines in winter.

Easy bulbs and alpines to grow

It’s possible to grow a wider range of plants on a scree, things that you couldn’t grow in a garden border. Most will be short in stature, because most alpines are, and most will flower in spring when most alpine plants perform.

It’s important to extend your season into autumn, using some autumn-flowering bulbs, and to use some diminutive shrubby plants for all-year round presence. Any pruning or division needs to be tackled after flowering.

Spring-flowering bulbs for your scree garden

Anemone blanda ‘White Splendour’

This sun-loving anemone with the open-rayed flowers and raisin-like bulbs performs in early spring, but should not be confused with the shade-loving wood anemone Anemone nemorosa. Good forms of A. blanda come in blue and bright-pink, but ‘White Splendour’, with large white flowers flushed in pink on the back of the petals, can look lovely. This performs in well-drained soil in the garden setting.

Crocus sieberi

This Greek crocus flowers very early in the year and the bulbs persist from year to year and seem less attractive to mice and voles. Purple flowers, marked in yellow and white, pop through the ground in late-January. This performs in well-drained soil in the garden setting.

Corydalis solida

This tuberous corydalis with glaucous ferny foliage comes in many colours including the pink ‘Beth Evans, the tomato-red ‘George Baker’ and the white ‘Snowstorm’. ‘Beth Evans’ is the strongest of all but all them increase their tubers far more on a scree than in a sunny woodland border. Seedlings also occur.

Iris histriodes and I. reticulata

These spring-flowering miniature irises love a bright, hot spot, although they are very hardy too. There are lots of named varieties of both, but some of the star performers are the mid-blue ‘Lady Beatrix Stanley’, the the grey-blue and yellow ‘Sheila Ann Germany’ (which is a stronger colour than the similar ‘Katherine Hodgkin’) and the blue and yellow ‘Harmony’.

Cyclamen coum or C. graecum

Cyclamen coum is a spring-flowering cyclamen capable of growing in a wide range of positions, but the small corms make it suitable for a scree. Flowers vary from white through the whole range of pinks to magenta. The rounded leaves can be marked in silver, all-silver or green so it’s worth hunting through a tray full for the best.

The walnut-sized corms do not turn into dinner plates as they do with the autumn-flowering C. hederifolium - so avoid that one. Your scree will also allow you to grow the less-hardy C. graecum. However, this scalloped leaved cyclamen needs to be planted deep, four inches at least, on a bed of grit.

Read our guide to growing cyclamen coum.

Fritillaria whitallii

Many high-altitude fritillarias need good drainage to thrive. F. whitallii, for your driest spot possible, has chequered flowers or tesselated green-brown flowers rather like our moisture loving snake’s-head fritillary (F. meleagris).

Narcissus bulbocodium

The hoop-petticoat daffodils, with their almost circular flowers, are meadow flowers. However they seem to do well on dry slopes, although some are easier than others. The form labelled conspicuus does well in the garden. or plant miniatures such as ‘Gipsy Queen’, a lemon-yellow lovely.

Tulipa

Many diminutive species tulips will thrive on your scree including Tulipa humilis 'Lilliput' (a wine-red ) and ‘Persian Pearl’ (a silver-washed purple-magenta). The blue-eyed white is also beguiling, but Tulipa humilis var. pulchella 'Albocaerulea Oculata' is more of a chellenge to grow.

Allium oreophilum

A small purple allium known as the pink lily leek, this loves a scree although, be waned, alliums self seed!

Bulbocodium vernum

A dwarf bulb that resembles an autumn flowering Colchicum with very attractive dark pinkish-lilac flowers, only 7cm tall, produced in abundance from March-April.

Autumn flowering bulbs

Colchicum agrippinum

Most colchicums, commonly and ambiguously known as autumn crocuses, produce ugly foliage early in the year -making them unsuitable for screes. This August-flowering colchicum, with starry tessellated purple-pink flowers, is well-behaved.

Crocus goulimyi

This species from Southern Greece is an autumn gem, increasing well. The purple-blue flowers are borne on long stems and, in rich autumn light, they glow.

Sternbergia lutea

The bight-yellow, crocus-like Mediterranean plant needs warmth to bulk up well, but once established it will form good clumps. The glossy green, very neat leaves, sometimes appear after the weather-resistant flowers. This loves a slope!

Alpine partners

Easy alpines can normally be acquired from garden centres and will include dianthus, thymes, saxifrage, pulsatilla, sedums and campanulas. Miniature daphnes make good additions too. Look out for Daphne x transatlantica ‘Eternal Fragrance’: this will form a neat dome to about 60 cm with pale pink flowers.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.