What is an Alpine Garden?

C. Mitchell

An alpine garden is a garden composed primarily or entirely of plants that are native to mountainous climates. These plants are called “alpine plants,” and are characterized by small, shrub-like leaves and tiny flowers. A garden need not be in a mountainous climate to be considered an alpine garden, as the classification depends entirely on the types of plants growing, not on the garden’s physical location. Alpine gardens at low elevations usually require special care to flourish. Alpine plants thrive in rocky, acidic soil, and require a consistently cool climate.

Man mowing the grass
Man mowing the grass

A plant is considered an alpine plant if it grows in an alpine climate — that is to say, if it is indigenous to rocky, mountainous conditions. On a typical mountain, the base is lush and green, but the trees grow sparser going up in elevation until finally they disappear. Smaller plants persist on the rocks going higher still, until finally there are no plants, just rocks and usually snow. The place where the trees stop is called the “tree line,” and everything above the tree line is considered an alpine climate. Alpine plants usually grow below the tree line as well, but they stand out in the alpine climate because they are the only things growing there.

Gardeners who live in mountainous climates, such as the Rocky Mountains in the United States or the Alps in Europe, will often make use of indigenous alpine plants in their arrangements. The result is, often by default, an alpine garden. Plants common to lower-lying gardens do not usually survive in the colder, rockier climate of the mountainous north.

The simplest alpine garden is a living collections of indigenous alpine plants in a mountainous setting. More complex gardens involve artistic arrangement of alpine plants, often incorporating rock sculptures and arrangements and plant identification. Many alpine gardens are predominantly rock gardens, with several varieties of vine-like, low-lying flora interspersed. Local governments and private foundations in alpine conditions often sponsor the creation and upkeep of publicly accessible alpine botanic gardens to showcase native landscapes.

Alpine plants are prized for their aesthetic value outside of mountainous climates, as well. Many lower-altitude gardeners will seek to incorporate alpine plants into their gardens, both as a means of introducing variety and as a way to capitalize on potentially low-water or drought conditions. Many alpine plants are accustomed to growing with little water, and planting them in dry soil is not usually a problem.

Just because alpine plants will survive in lower altitudes does not mean that they will thrive there. Gardeners seeking to create an alpine garden setting in a lower altitude will need to pay special attention to the alpine plants’ growing conditions. If the soil is too rich, the air too bright, or the wind too still, the plants may suffer.

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