Snowdrop season at Waterperry Garden

Snowdrops are an early winter star in the varied gardens at Waterperry (photo: Mandy Bradshaw)

Snowdrops are an early winter star in the varied gardens at Waterperry (photo: Mandy Bradshaw) - Credit: Mandy Bradshaw

Waterperry Gardens may be known for its magnificent herbaceous border but it’s just as magical in winter

Iris unguicularis adds a splash of colour (photo: Mandy Bradshaw)

Iris unguicularis adds a splash of colour (photo: Mandy Bradshaw) - Credit: Mandy Bradshaw

Rob Jacobs is a little sheepish when I ask how many different snowdrops there are at Waterperry Gardens. His true passion for these tiny white flowers is something he downplays to colleagues.

"I deliberately forget how many we have," he admits. "People think we've got about 60 to 70 but we've got more like 80 to 100."

It's a collection the horticultural manager's been quietly expanding since the 1990s and one that the eight-acre garden near Oxford now makes full use of: what started as one 'Snowdrop Weekend' quickly became two and this year has been renamed 'Snowdrop Season' with guided tours that are popular with winter visitors.

"Businesswise it's a good thing to do because it brings people in but personally I find it great fun," he says with a smile.

Viburnum x bodnantense 'Dawn' has scent as well as colour (photo: Mandy Bradshaw)

Viburnum x bodnantense 'Dawn' has scent as well as colour (photo: Mandy Bradshaw) - Credit: Mandy Bradshaw

Originally there were only six standards in the garden the common single and double snowdrop, 'Atkinsii', 'Magnet', 'Hill Poe' and 'Viridipice'.

It was visitors to the garden and local 'snowdrop teas' that sparked Rob's interest in snowdrops - and started him collecting.

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"Every now and then you meet like-minded people, generous people and they just come along and help you build up a collection once you show an interest.

"Most of our collection's been donated to us by really kind people."

A fiery mass planting of cornus (photo: Mandy Bradshaw)

A fiery mass planting of cornus (photo: Mandy Bradshaw) - Credit: Mandy Bradshaw

Today, it covers the full range of snowdrops from the big-flowered varieties, such as 'Mighty Atom' and 'Bertram Anderson', to the yellows, including 'Primrose Warburg' and 'Wendy's Gold'.

One of Rob's favourites is the curious 'Lady Elphinstone', which can change appearance from season to season.

"She chooses to be yellow only at her own choice. Sometimes she's green, sometimes she's yellow. It's really how she's feeling that year."

Not that snowdrops are anything new at Waterperry. Down by the river, there's a display of the double Galanthus nivalis f. pleniflorus 'Flore Pleno' and 'Magnet' that's believed to date back more than 100 years.

'Girl Holding the Lamp of Wisdom' by Nathan David in The Formal Garden (photo: Mandy Bradshaw)

'Girl Holding the Lamp of Wisdom' by Nathan David in The Formal Garden (photo: Mandy Bradshaw) - Credit: Mandy Bradshaw

It's a naturalised area that Rob and Head Gardener Pat Havers have been opening up and extending with paths now winding through the snowdrops. Trees, including Acer griseum and silver birch, have been added to increase the winter interest and there are plans for daffodils and crocus.

An attempt to create a 'snowdrop valley' by the rock garden has been abandoned after the snowdrops failed to thrive and they've now been moved to a border in the main garden.

"They've done so much better to the point that we can now start lifting some of the groups, dividing them and planting them out so that we have bigger displays of all these individual varieties."

Of course, growing mainly snowdrops in an area means there's little there beyond labels in the summer when the bulbs have died down and the border is jokingly known as 'Rob's graveyard' by his colleagues.

Eventually, once the collection has bulked up, he plans to spread it more evenly through the garden, adding more winter interest to other areas of Waterperry.

"I would like to incorporate the snowdrops as bigger groups of varieties throughout the garden so it becomes a whole, unifying garden collection."

With its mix of massed displays of common snowdrops and groups of named varieties, all carefully labelled, a trip to Waterperry is as educational as it is pleasurable.

It's a characteristic that is nothing new. Set up originally as The School of Horticulture for Ladies by Beatrix Havergal in 1932, Waterperry has always had education at its core.

Now owned by The School of Economic Science, it still runs gardening courses and workshops while the gardens are a valuable resource for anyone wanting to expand their plant knowledge.

The orchard has around 50 different varieties of apple, including unusual varieties such as 'Ashmead's Kernel' and 'Kidd's Orange', grown as espaliers and cordons. There are areas devoted to alpines, a National Collection of saxifrage, and the Formal Garden where plants are arranged in time periods: Elizabethan, Victorian, Georgian, and 20th century.

The long 200ft-long herbaceous border is one of the highlights. Planted as a pure herbaceous display with none of the shrubs that are more commonly added, it flowers in waves of colour starting with aconitum, lupins and geraniums, moving on to delphiniums, verbascum and achillea and finishing with an autumn flourish of heleniums, Michaelmas daisies and solidago.

In winter, it's a quiet area of the garden with neatly cut back clumps and the position of delphiniums marked by grit mulches, designed to deter slugs. Against the shelter of the long brick wall, an early clump of daffodils is adding a splash of yellow.

Pat and her team of four hold off cutting back for as long as possible to give winter cover for wildlife but can't leave the herbaceous standing until spring due to time pressures.

"There is the debate as to whether you cut it down because of the wildlife," says Pat. "But it's getting through the amount of work that you have to do."

In contrast, the low maintenance grass border is left until late spring.

"The grasses look lovely all through the winter."

But there's plenty of colour elsewhere. In one border, a mass planting of cornus puts on a display of red, orange and gold. In another, the white stems of Rubus cockburnianus are ghostly in the winter sunshine. There are hellebores in dusky shades and golden aconites spreading out beneath shrubs.

The heathers in the conifer boarder are at their peak in late winter with plants covered in flowers of white and shades of pink.

The Virgin's Walk, a shady east-facing border, is designed for spring and early summer with snowdrops and ferns followed by leucojum and pulmonarias.

"It's quite a difficult cold wall," says Pat, who has known Waterperry since childhood when she visited with her mother who worked there.

It's also the season to fully appreciate the structure of Waterperry from the topiary of The Formal Garden and the yew hedges that enclose The Mary Rose Garden to the gnarled branches of the fruit trees and the meticulously trained climbing roses, which are tied into domed shapes making them flower more profusely. It's said the practice started when Miss Havergal needed to disguise the stumps of some dead elms that she could not afford to have dug out.

It's history like this that makes Waterperry special and which Pat loves.

"For me, it's special because of the history and because I actually knew the ladies that went before me.

"Because I was a little girl up here with Miss Havergal, I'm kind of the last 'Waterperry girl'." u

Waterperry Garden's 'Snowdrop Season' runs throughout February. For details of tours and admission, please visit the

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