This section is from the book "The Gardener V1", by William Thomson. Also available from Amazon: The New Organic Grower: A Master's Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener.
The person who does not admire the great majority of hardy Alpine plants is not to be envied, for he debars himself from one of the most beautiful and interesting fields of study and observation which the flora of the world affords. That these, in most instances, tiny gems are coming more into notice, is certainly a matter for congratulation. Besides much else that can be said for a great many of them, it can be said that as the freshness and beauty of other hardy flowers decay, the freshness and charms of many of the Alpine plants are most conspicuous at the "fall of the leaf" and downwards through the winter. In whatever way they are arranged or grown, they are always objects of great beauty and interest. A well-arranged collection of Alpines, whether in pots, in a mixed border, or on a properly-constructed rockwork, is sure to give much interest to their votaries every day in the year. And these are common enough ways of cultivating and arranging them, and not a word can be said against them. But the use of these gems as carpeting or bedding plants is as yet comparatively rare.
We are, however, convinced that their extreme attractiveness when so used - in groups and in quantities together - is not so well known and appreciated as it should be, and it only requires a few striking examples of Alpine bedding to commend this system of planting them to all lovers of winter gardening.
Indeed it would seem that, from the way nature nurtures these lively plants, to cultivate them in large surfaces is the correct way of bringing out their striking beauty to perfection. Look, for instance, at a small morsel of some of the glaucous Sedums and beautifully-in-crusted Saxifrages, and then go and view the same plants by the square yard and see how very much more striking they look the one way as compared to the other. And this is exactly how they show themselves in their natural condition.
We would advise some of our readers who have a series or group of beds not very large in their gardens, to try the bedding of these gems after the following method. Suppose a circular bed rising somewhat cone or globe shaped to its centre. Let the first ring next the box or grass edging be of Sedum dasyphyllum, the second ring of Saxifraga rosealaria, the third of Sempervivum californicum, the fourth of Arabis lucida variegata, the fifth of Saxifraga longifolia vera, and the sixth or centre of the bed be Saxifraga ceratophylla. The rings formed of these should be a few inches in breadth; and seen in such breadth, and in concentric rings, their individual beauty is much more conspicuous than when mixed up in small patches with other plants. This is just one example of scores of combinations and plants that could be adopted. Then for carpeting, how charmingly beautiful is a carpet of Sedum dasyphyllum or Sedum acre aureum, or Thymus tomentosus, or Saxifraga glabra; Veronica repens, Veronica alpestris, Perinaria glabra, and many other beautiful dwarf spreading plants which will occur to the minds of all acquainted with Alpine flora, and which supply colours almost as varied as the summer bedding plants, and aspects of vegetation far more chaste and interesting ! Take, for instance, a bed covered densely over with the quite brownish grey, edge it with Saxifraga rosealaria, or S. incrustata, or even Sedum acre aureum, and dot the centre or body of the bed, at intervals of 8 or 9 inches, with large well-developed plants of that gem among Saxifrages, S. longifolia vera, and there will be produced a bed that must look charming the whole winter, or indeed the whole year.
This is another combination only indicative of what can be done with the family of hardy Alpines in the way of grouping.
Then for dressing the surface of beds in which Hyacinths, Crocuses, Tulips, etc, are planted for early spring-flowering, what could excel as a beautiful carpeting, or what could show off bulbous flowers to more advantage, than the dwarf plants named above, and scores of others which might be mentioned? If these plants were difficult to propagate or keep, we would hesitate to recommend them for such a purpose; but most of them are so easily managed, and propagate so rapidly, that they can be grown in breadths in any out-of-the-way corner, and many of them lifted in great tufts and planted with the greatest ease, and without any check or injury to themselves. The low, dense-growing, surface-rooting Saxifrages, Sedums, and Veronicas, Autennarias, etc, should be planted on a few inches of soil spread over a hard surface, and when required, as indicated above, late in autumn for planting and carpeting, they can be lifted without check in any size or shape of tufts required.
Beautiful as are Alternantheras and other plants used for summer carpeting, we do not consider it any disparagement to such plants to say that they are not nearly so interesting to an observant mind and eye as are these gems of beauteous hues and more beautiful construction, which, in addition to their beauty, are so hardy that they put on their best dress as other plants unclothe themselves of foliage and flowers. We hope our readers will be induced to try this style of grouping or planting Alpine plants, and that they will report on them in due time. It is a system of hardy gardening which only requires to be begun to become one of extreme interest and beauty. D. Thomson.