Gardens: The eponymous goatherd might have been lonely, but the alpine plants in Carole and Ian Bainbridge’s Midlothian plot are never short of company from all over the world

ON A hillside in Midlothian, Carole and Ian Bainbridge have built a garden that is the world in miniature. Alpine plants from mountain ranges across the globe thrive in the shadow of the Pentlands.

But most weekends, the couple pack it all up and move it around Scotland.

“Most Saturdays, the plants are packed into cars and taken to get judged,” says Carole, who is, along with Ian, a stalwart of the Scottish Rock Garden Club. The club, which is approaching its 80th anniversary, is the reason for this moveable feast of tenacious survival. It’s one of the largest horticultural societies in Scotland and has 4,500 members worldwide. Carole and Ian are seed distributors and joint show secretaries, and have held numerous other roles. They and other members exchange seed with other clubs for the thrill of having plants from all corners of the world growing inches apart from each other. Plants from the Andes to the Antipodes grow side by side in a way that nature couldn’t do alone.

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In their garden at Easter Howgate, the Bainbridges have alpine crevices and scree beds, and a glasshouse to rival a botanical centre’s. They have lived here since 1984. Previously an animal physiologist, Carole decided to retrain as a garden designer and has run Greenscene for 13 years. Her family were horticulturists and it’s said she was “born with a trowel in her hand”.

The couple have spent years travelling the world and viewing species in their natural habitats. Their garden is south-facing and the far end is all woodland, but when they acquired it, says Carole, it had not been looked after.

The garden lies on a slope, with interesting trees dotted around, spring bulbs, shrubs and a small meadow lawn with crocuses and fritillaries. The main focus is on various interpretations of the alpine genre. The alpines are usually at their peak in April because of the club shows, and in the couple’s glasshouse are hundreds of plants potted and ready to be admired. “The alpine house is for the show plants, so they are not sitting out in the wet,” says Carole. Growing for shows is hard work. The pots need to be turned to keep the growth even all round.

Alpine plants have evolved to survive in tough conditions and thrive in poor soil. They can cope with extremes in temperature, bounce back from heavy snow-cover, and have developed strategies such as spikes and deep roots to prevent them being grazed away. Their toughness means they can grow in parts of the garden where others would not survive. In the wild, they find places to beat nature’s odds, like crevices between rocks. Yet they are delicate-looking and understated, with tiny flowers that look as though they could be blown away.

Every mountain range in the world is represented in the alpine house. There are some plants bought from nurseries, but most have been grown from seed and about 75 per cent of the collection is species rather than cultivar. The delicate peach and cream petals of a Lewisia tweedyi are an example of the appearance of alpines belying their hardiness. Carole has developed a scree bed and crevice garden to give them the rocky drainage they would have in their native home. The crevice garden, a slope at the entrance to the garden, is home to Himalayan androsace; a pale pink buttercup from the Atlas mountains; plus Pulsatilla ‘Red Cloak’, to name just three plants that would not grow together in the wild.

Alpines have an enduring appeal. “You can grow a lot of things that hang on so well in the wild. They are such tenacious little plants,” says Carole. “In general, we grow species rather than cultivars, so these are not things people have played around with. They are things I have travelled the world’s mountains looking for, and to be able to grow that plant in my own garden is just wonderful.”

The Scottish Rock Garden Club is a broad church that embraces high woodland plants as well as classic alpines. “We tend to grow a lot of bulbs, meconopsis and candelabra primula, which the general public would not think of as alpines,” says Carole.

Her design business covers all types of gardens, but Carole admits, “I really like it if someone asks me to design a woodland or alpine garden.” So how has she designed her own? A tall Scots pine was there at the start, but everything else has been planted in about a third of an acre. A silver birch, which was about 3ft tall when the couple arrived, presides over the start of the main garden, leading down the woodland. A path winds round where the dark red and green Trillium chloropetalum and erythroniums provide some of the first colour of spring. Trees like the Prunus serrula (Tibetan cherry) and Acer griseum carry the garden through winter, the bark picking up sun to give off a magical coppery warmth. Erythronium citronella, with its lemon flowers, and E californicum, with white, lead the way to spring, along with pulmonarias in blue. Trillium ovatum, with lined waxy leaves and white flowers, falls on the high woodland side of the alpine range, along with erythroniums, says Carole, so you won’t get them on cliff faces or screes.

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A pond and wetland area is where Carole experiments with plants that like damp, such as candelabra primulas and ligularia, and Senecio smithii. One “big brute” that loves boggy conditions is the yellow skunk cabbage, Lysichiton americanus, which announces itself with huge sulphur-coloured flowers in spring. A lower-key spring yellow comes from the golden saxifrage Chrysoplenium.

The club offers the chance to try more plants out. “Being part of the rock garden club is a wonderful way to get new material. You join societies from overseas and participate in their seed programmes,” says Carole. “If you’ve seen them in their habitat, you get a basic understanding of what they need to grow. For example, Primula secundiflora in China likes boggy conditions, so you know you can try them in the wettest part of the garden.”

This is the heart of a designer’s philosophy – or, as Carole calls it, “right plant, right place”. If a garden is wet, a lot of people will think, ‘I can’t grow anything here,’ whereas I think, ‘What can I grow?’ You test the conditions and see what works – but in your own garden and not a client’s!

• Scottish Rock Garden Club (