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Received Wisdom

The legacy of Miss Beatrix Havergal

 Archives can be helpful when maintaining a garden or planning its future, but the memories of long-serving staff can be even more enlightening. Waterperry Gardens in Oxfordshire is particularly fortunate. It can draw on the knowledge of gardeners who knew and were inspired by its founder, Miss Beatrix Havergal of Waterperry Horticultural School.


When Miss Havergal and her friend Avice Sanders moved to the Georgian manor at Waterperry in 1932, their aim was to expand their already popular women’s horticultural training school. For the following 40 years, with great dedication and hard work, they helped many young women to develop their horticultural talents. As Waterperry’s Garden Manager and tutor, Pat Havers, points out, ‘ Miss Havergal paved the way for women gardeners.’


Today, features that played an important role in the school’s curriculum continue to attract both students and visitors. The 200-foot long herbaceous border, once an important teaching tool, is now one of the most admired traditional borders in the country. It provides a good example of the way that the Waterperry team continues to use and pass on the traditional skills that keep the garden’s history alive and relevant.


According to Mary Spiller, a former student and member of the Waterperry teaching staff, this glorious border, packed with colour, was Miss Havergal’s particular ‘pride and joy’. Archive photographs show Miss H (as she was known to her students) dressed in a green smock, breeches and her panama hat. The images suggest a somewhat formidable woman but the memories of the gardeners who knew her tell a very different story.


‘Perfection was always Miss Havergal’s aim’ explains Mary Spiller, ‘but although she expected a lot from us, she was never anything but kind and fair’. As Chris Lanczak, Orchard Manager and a member of Waterperry’s staff for almost 50 years, points out, ‘Miss Havergal treated us as family. Rather than putting us off, her high expectations made us want to please her more.’


With these high standards to the fore, Pat Havers and Horticultural Manager Rob Jacobs are responsible for the planning and maintenance of the herbaceous border. It’s an enormous job but both Pat and Rob have been well prepared for the task. Pat has been involved with the garden since her childhood. Waterperry was her playground. She remembers Miss Havergal introducing her to visitors at the age of five as ‘Waterperry’s youngest student.’ In comparison, Rob is a relative new comer. He was trained by Mary Spiller and has been working and teaching in the gardens for more than 30 years.



‘We have so much knowledge in our heads that looking after the border has almost become instinctive. I wake up in the morning and know exactly what needs to be done’ says Pat. ‘I don’t need a diary to help me work, but I do keep detailed records for whoever takes it on in the future. In Miss Havergal’s day, the Waterperry staff and students kept meticulous records and now we do the same. All this knowledge passed from Miss Havergal to Mary, and then to me. It’s really important to keep handing the skills on.’

Given its spectacular display of colour, it surprises some visitors to learn that the border doesn’t have an overall design. As Pat points out, ‘that has never been its point. It’s a traditional herbaceous border with three ‘seasons’ of interest. Lupins are the main act in May and June. They’re followed by verbascum and delphinium in July.   Phlox are our gentle introduction to the burst of autumn colour when the asters, sedums, helenium and golden rod are at their best.’


In the days of Waterperry Horticultural School, students were taught to master the meticulous planning needed to produce four to five months of colour using nothing but herbaceous plants. It was an important part of the practical examination that led to the Waterperry diploma. Early film footage shows students being observed by an external examiner. Marks were given for their deadheading, staking skills and for their choice of plants.


‘It isn’t just planning for the three seasons that’s important, placing plants with contrasting flower and leaf shapes is crucial too’ says Rob. ‘The whole border is like a patchwork quilt. Occasionally there’s a plant combination that doesn’t work but by the time the plants have grown big enough for us to notice the problem, it’s too late to do anything about it. The border is south facing. If we had to replace something in mid summer, it would need watering and nurturing. We just don’t have time to do this.’ Pat consoles herself with the knowledge that ‘every Persian carpet contains a mistake. The day we get the border right, we can retire’ she laughs.


For Pat, work on the border begins in February when she goes down to the river to cut hazel for staking. Mary Spiller taught her to stake and now those same skills are handed on to the students on Waterperry’s staking courses. ‘It’s a wonderful way to keep the old skills alive. They’re always very popular and quickly sell out’ she adds.


Before growth begins in earnest, the border is fed and weeded, and irrigation pipes are put in place. Any necessary adjustments and additions are made while there’s still space for staff to move around. Watering, weeding and deadheading continue through April and May until it’s impossible to work without damaging the border.


Staking begins in April. Canes are put behind the delphiniums when they are about one foot high. By the time they flower, they will have been secured to the stakes three or four times. ‘ We stake the asters when they’re two thirds of their expected height’ says Pat. ‘If the weather in early summer isn’t as we hoped then the plants don’t grow high enough and it doesn’t looks so good’. But as Pat admits ‘although we notice, the visitors might not. We have to be our own worst critics’.


As plant varieties improve, so the choices that Pat and Rob make when planning the border change. They keep Miss Havergal and Mary Spiller in mind when they make alterations. Mary’s advice to them has always been ‘to keep the border full of incident.’ But they have no qualms about introducing varieties that need less intervention. As Mary confirms, ‘Miss Havergal was very forward thinking and was always investigating new and better plants.’ This knowledge gives today’s garden team the confidence to do the same and allows the planting in the border to change and evolve in a very healthy manner.


There has been one very noticeable change since the days of the horticultural school: when Miss Havergal and Avice Sanders were at the helm, there were relatively few external visitors. Today, the herbaceous border is on view to the public every day of its growing season. ‘The pressure is constant’ says Pat. ‘I don’t have a holiday until Michaelmas Daisy Weekend. I can’t just go away and leave it’. It would seem that Miss Havergal’s dedication to high standards lives on.







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