Saturday 4 April 2015

Kabschia saxifrages at Waterperry Gardens

Ice diamonds are forever.

Now at the beginning of April is a chance for anyone living near Oxford to visit the National Collection of these silver gems.

Anytime is a good time to visit Waterperry Gardens the old home of  Waterperry School of Gardening for Girls. The garden and grounds are superb all the year round and the end of the season reaches a crescendo with fantastic michaelmas daisies. The spacious gardens are superbly maintained with a wide range of high quality plants.
It’s a wonderful place for a visit. It includes an unusually well managed ‘up market’ garden centre. The extensive garden facilities are superbly organised and  serve excellent food.  There is even a small gardening museum.
If Beatrix Havergal could see it today she would be proud.

Miss Havergal’s  gardening school for girls
A formidable vicar’s daughter. Hugely eccentric she was loved – and I suspect feared – by many generations of girls who attended the two year residential gardening course. There is nothing like that college today that teaches hands on practical technical horticulture. The girls were taught in an upright godly manner and grew the crops and maintained the grounds from dawn until dusk. There was time left for gentile parties and play. For most of the students it was the best time of their lives. Girls from Waterperry  have over the years made a huge contribution to gardening. ‘Trix’ considered their education too good to be wasted on marriage!
‘Old girl’ Mary Spiller has worked and made a huge contribution to Waterperry’s  high standards for more than fifty years. I was myself privileged to work with a lovely colleague who was a former pupil. She was also a vicar's daughter and devoted her life to her students.
If you want to get a better flavour of the history of Waterperry read this delightful article in the Oxford post.

Silver saxifrages were the girl’s best friend

Kabschia saxifrages
 Miss Havergal loved ice diamonds and the tradition has been continued in a kabschia collection curated by Adrian Young, alpine grower and saxifraga sage extraordinaire.
Kabschia saxifrages are one of fifteen classification sections of saxifraga and are difficult to grow. As high alpen plants they grow in very different conditions to here on low ground. They are covered by winter snow and do not experience the vagaries of the UK winter. In spring in the mountains melting snow, wind, intense sunshine and deep nutrient-poor rocky scree terrain contribute to a very special habitat. 

At ground level they are likely to be too wet in winter even in very well drained rubble. In summer they suffer from periods of drought and excessive heat.

The solution at Waterperry is clever, efficient and elegant but does require you to forget the growing contraption and imagine yourself there in among miniature mountains composed of three tons of white Canadian tufa. 
Tufa is limestone rock with a kind of perforated ‘aerobar’ structure. Not only can plants grow on it they can also root into it.

An ingenious system to provide ideal growing conditions in this country
Adrian has created raised beds filled with well drained ‘ballast’. His growing mixture is sharp sand and up to 20mm grit mixed half with peat. Peat is a highly water retentive yet well aerated ingredient infinitely superior to any trendy ‘green’ alternative.

In winter the beds are protected from excessive rain by transparent vinyl sheets. In summer they receive fifty percent shade from wood slats. Overhead permanent spray lines supply regular rain all the year round. 

You can see from the pictures how well Adrian Young’s saxifragas grow.
You can read more about Adrian’s work here

These gorgeous varieties grow together in gentle competition. Note the closely packed leaves characteristic of kabschia saxifrages

They just love this mossy tufa and so do I 

Imagine these as cliffs and note that saxifrages love bright shade 

March and April is perhaps the best time for alpines 

Kabschias have  a lovely range of colours achieved by very skilled hybridisation 

 The gravel mulch looks good and conserves water
I myself grow as many as twenty different saxifrage species and varieties but have forgotten their names. I confess I cannot say with certainty whether any are kabschias! I know some are merely ‘mossy’ ones. Kabschias are small ‘hard’ leaved, silvery and  bloom early. I know over the years I have lost several that have just faded away. The ‘saxs' that do well for me are the lovely encrusted type. 

I am a sucker for any saxifrage

Waterperry saxifrages love the rain from the overhead watering system. Here in Tigne in the French Alps encrusted saxifrages receive wet spray from the cliff springs 

Tucked close to an encrusted saxifrage this is the only kabschia I am sure of! It has perhaps survived because the well drained ground retains summer moisture and one of my dwarf pines provides light shade.

I think the advantage of the trough is that I don’t forget to water in Summer

Saxifrages grow together with my hardy cacti and  self seeded Scilla biflora in my gravel garden


  1. Fascinating, I had no idea such a school existed. I don't grow saxafrage, as I don't think my drainage is quite sharp enough. They are beautiful plants, though.

    1. Yes its a shame that the two year course closed about 1970 when supporting educational grants started to evaporate for this none u type of education!
      They still do short gardening courses there I believe - and indeed if anyone from Waterperry wants to promote them here they are welcome.

  2. How beautiful! Our winters are a bit too tough for them. I have a few but they tend not to be long-lived.
    I have read about Miss Havergal. She must have been quite a character in her uniform!

  3. Beautiful plants Roger, takes me back to my alpine growing days when I had a small lean-to (a bit Heath Robinson affair) over a vertical tufa wall. I did have some moderate success with high alpines but I would be hard put to remember many of the names today. Although I like the hard leaved early flowering saxifrages my all time favourite would have to be the encrusted Saxifraga longifolia 'Tumbling Waters'.

    1. Good morning Rick. Tumbling Waters really does have fantastic flowers. I have a very similar variety - and on a good day might even remember its name. If I am not careful it is likely to flower itself to death and I do root a few extra rosettes each year to make sure I do not lose it.

  4. I like the solution for growing them. I love the alpine plants but would never have an opportunity to have them. Seeing the cactus in your garden is really unexpected.

  5. Thank you for noticing the cacti, Donna. It seems to be a minority interest over here and my six different species that are completely hardy are always ignored by visitors and nobody reads my old post on them!
    However I have promised myself the self indulgence of writing another soon.
    I have another dozen species that have a holiday in my unheated cold greenhouse December to February - in fact the holiday is the nine months outside each year!

  6. Some great specimans there Roger, I persevered with Saxifrage in Aberdeen and had reasonable success, in my Cheshire garden I have my doubts as it is rather boggy.
    Every time I come across A Yorkshire gardener I am taken back to when I first got interested in gardening, I was always fascinated with Geoffrey Smiths weekly article in (garden news) He had a great way with words.. There I go again, always harking back to the good old days..

    1. Yes Geoffrey was a great character and a student at Askham Bryan where I taught - but long after his time! My boss was a good friend of Geoffrey. On one occasion he contributed on a gardening weekend we were running. As soon as he walked into the room it was filled with his charisma and no one listened to us!
      On another occasion he was the guest of honour at a gardening event. The heavens suddenly opened and it poured. He held his umbrella for Brenda - what a thrill. He was a proper Yorkshire gentleman!
      He was also a great man for his alpines.


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