BRIAN KIDD: What the butler saw was... an imaginative use of alpines

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I enjoy reading you letters and do my best to answer your questions here in The News and as you will know I often send you a personal reply in hand writing if there are too many letters to be answered in print.

Sheila and her husband have been saving to transform their kitchen and have made use of a lot of the old components but they are wondering what to do with an old chipped butler sink. This would be perfect for creating a little sink garden for alpine plants.

Real stone sinks are expensive but you may be able to get hold of an old butler sink which can be made to look interesting with real alpines.

To disguise the fact that it’s a sink and not a real stone container, the outside of the sink can be coated with a mixture of hypertufa using one part cement powder, one part fine peat and one part sharp sand mixed together with water.

This is applied to the outside and the rim of the sink. It will stick, so be patient.

Try to get a natural effect, not just a smooth covering – it needs to look a bit rugged – and by this time next year it will have weathered and look like real stone.

A layer of broken clay flowerpots should now be put over the plughole in the base and then the container is filled with John Innes No1 compost. If 20 per cent extra sharp sand is added, this is the perfect medium for alpines.

Now fill the sink to within an inch of the top and then we are ready for the planting.

Choose one miniature conifer such as chamaecyparis obtusa nana gracilis. This is a really good miniature and plant it on one side of the sink with a nice piece of rock alongside.

Cyclamen coum will be in flower in February. This has pink, red or white flowers only three inches tall and has marbled leaves nearly all year and looks great alongside edelweiss. You will only need five alpine plants. Have a look at a catalogue to find out what will provide colour or interest all year.

Try not to use rock garden plants which are already in the garden as they may be too tall. Choose some little gems to give yourself a cultural treat.

Have a look at alpine phlox, saxifraga, thrift, and alpine pinks. These are all evergreen alpines and you will find lots of others at your garden centre.

After planting, sit back and wait for the outcome.

The sink garden will need watering. Rain water would be ideal but feel the compost before watering. With the drainage in the base, it will never become waterlogged.

Finally, in the autumn, after picking off any dead foliage, cover the surface of the compost with white stone chippings. This gives you a professional finish and stops mud splashing on to new leaves and flowers which form in the spring.

THIS WEEK'S TOP TIP

Keep an eye on new plants you were given for Christmas. If the room is always warm they will need more water than those in a cold room. To be certain, push fingers into the top of the pot’s compost and water when it feels dry.

Cyclamen prefer a cool room with plenty of light but not in a sunny window. If leaves on a poinsettia are yellow at the bottom of the plant, they are being over-watered.