True alpine plants are native to mountainous regions above the tree line and are adapted to harsh growing conditions. They form neat buns and mats of foliage and grow slowly, often producing gorgeous flowers. Alpine plants may be fussy about their growing conditions. But many other dwarf and low-growing plants provide the look of an alpine meadow without making difficult demands on the gardener (see next page). Once you have mastered them, you can move on to growing more esoteric specialty plants.
Be sure to choose plants that are in scale with the size of your rock garden and the rocks in it. Plant a small rock garden with fine-textured small plants and very dwarf conifers. A large-scale garden can accommodate larger dwarf conifers. Arrange plants naturally so they spill down the hillside and nestle around the rocks. In nature, alpine plants grow right next to a rock, enjoying extra water from runoff and a bit of shade from the rock's small shadow. Position your plants accordingly, planting the root ball directly at the base of a rock.
Dwarf conifers add dimension and year-round greenery to a rock garden, where they imitate the contorted specimens found on windswept mountain peaks. Choose columnar, rounded, and spreading shapes to add interest to the garden, but position them artfully to avoid the look of a collection.
Apply a mulch of fine gravel or pebbles to keep the crowns of water-sensitive rock garden plants dry. The gravel top dressing also keeps dirt from splashing on the tiny plants and discourages weeds, which can quickly overrun these slow-growers. The top dressing also gives that final, natural-looking touch to the rock garden.
Continued on page 4: Recommended Plants for Rock Gardens