Anyone with a cold-area garden will find solace in alpine plants. They evolved in frigid mountain air, live on what nature provides and thrive in impossible nooks and crannies. When they bloom they are heart-stopping beauties. Daphnes are just one example of these alpines. A great plant, it comes out early in the year and blooms ferociously with absolutely glorious scent. Daphne x ('Lawrence Crocker') is a brilliant hybrid that grows just about anywhere in the country. It blooms in May with such intensity that it's possible to spot it many metres away. When it's past flowering, the shape of the leaves and the form of the plant is low and pleasing. Like many alpines, it may be tiny but it has enormous impact. At maturity, it could be 20 to 30 centimetres high and wide. Perfect as an edger or massed as a focal point.
With alpines, it's where you put them that counts. Call them rock gardens, alpine gardens or raised beds, they make so much sense especially at this time of year and most especially in areas cooler than Zone 5. A raised bed has good drainage; it will warm up quickly allowing plants to bloom early in the year, and it's marvellous to see such a variety of colour.
Creating a raised/rock/alpine bed is straightforward: You can simply make a mound with a base of concrete sand (it's coarse enough, solid enough and readily available). Pile just about any kind of soil including clay on top and make holes for the appropriate plants. You need only tuck them into place and water well.
A more formal raised bed needs proper edges that could be constructed of stone or wood. There are kits available for the latter, which is a good way to start if you have no experience. Ruffle up the soil and make sure it's going to drain properly, add a thick layer of concrete sand (up to 10 cm), then add ordinary garden soil on top. The more important thing is to have a layer of compost on the top and keep adding to it annually. To plant, make a hole that is as deep as the root system of the plant and twice as wide. Water it in and then back fill with soil. Make sure you press down around the plant so that all the air pockets have been pushed out of the soil, then add some compost.
Sourcing alpine plants isn't the easiest thing anymore, but there are societies in every province and they usually have terrific plant sales. Wrightman's Alpines is one of the last of the mail-order businesses left in Canada. The nursery is based in New Brunswick and Harvey Wrightman's catalogue is a feast for the eyes. The plants arrive when he says they will and you can learn just about everything you need to know about growing alpine plants on his website.