December 30, 2009

Winter Stars, winter sax's

Saxifraga longifolia

Many non gardeners may think that the winter garden offers little in the way of interest or display. But many plants offer year-round interest, and walking to the greenhouse today, I noticed how pretty my many troughs of Saxifrages look in the winter, with their lime encrusted foliage, and their silvery leaves that are as hard as rock. I am amazed at how sturdy these high mountain plants are, and each and every year, as I add and collect more, their diversity and beauty stops me, and I am reminded of why I love unusual plants so much. You are unlikely to find Saxifrages at your local garden center, or at a big hardware store garden shop. But you can find them online at a few alpine plant nurseries. Saxifrages are worth searching out, for these are one of those things like the finest cookware is to a cook, or a fine imported tool, that get's better with age. Saxifrages seem to say " Hey, you are a serious gardener, and you undoubtedly know what you are doing". Well, if you are like me, you may like things that 'say' that.

Not all Saxifrages are alpine plants, for some are downright huge, and tropical. But it is the alpine species that are so collectable and cherished by rock gardeners, and alpine plant enthusiasts. Saxifrages that are alpines are tiny, lime encrusted plants, and often for dense, hard mounds that alpine gardeners lovingly call buns. The dense buns are hard, and tight, they way we like buns. In the wild, they cling to rocks and cliffs on the highest peaks above the clouds, in in the mist, but they are sturdy and strong, in fact, they are designed for snow and harsh, misty conditions, but, conditions that are exact. T

So why don't you see them everywhere? Well, the reason you don't see them that first, they are considered challenging to grow, and, they are not suited to mass productions for retail garden centers. Plus, they bloom in the late winter, or very early spring. When you see a trendy trough garden workshop on TV or on a make over show, what the host reccomends planting is often hens and chicks, sempervivums, and sedum's. These are incredibly foolproof we all know, but hardly something you can show off or impress with. I like semps, but sempervivums are best left to the casual gardener, for although pretty, they are rather unexciting, and boring, a toddler can grow them.

Saxifrages require an informed mind, and an experienced alpinist to master. ( They don't, but everyone still thinks so, even experienced rock gardeners ( read on) Or, so, they did, for today, I feel most anyone can 'master' growing this once difficult and fussy alpines, but don't share my secret with too many people! Just quietly order some, and pot up a trough, and leave it alone. Then, sit back and watch the most experiences horticultural snob's eye's pop out when they see your trough of these precious, high alpines, all dense and bun like, and you can exclaim...."oh those?, They're so easy, I really don't pay much attention to them". And, here's how...

Here is my big secret - although they are notoriously fussy ( I don't think so, though), they are easy if purchased from one retailer online Harvey Wrightman, for he not only has a premiere collection from the finest sources in Eastern Europe where the best come from ( the Czech's are crazy about Sax's), Check out their Rock Garden site if you want to see some incredible Sax's. But the reason you must get your plants from Harvey is because he grows his Saxifrages in blocks of Tufa rock, which makes them incredibly fool proof.

Look, you can still kill them, but think about this: I lost hundreds of Saxifrages until I bought Harvey's stone grown plants. I have lost none in over 4 years, and although costly, they have grown into large, if not huge, specimens in my troughs. And.....I rarely do anything to them. They get snowed on, rained on, full sun, and rarely watered, they are exposed to all of our New England elements. So, if you've ever wanted a winter garden, or a container that looked as good on the New Year, as it does in March, and in August, then consider planting a trough of Saxifrages, and maybe next year, you too can have a container of stars on your terrace or deck.

The only thing they dislike is winter moisture, and summer humidity. Many of these Saxifrages offer pretty flowers early in the year, perhaps late February or March here in New England, and often are the first sign of spring in our garden, long before the crocus and spring bulbs even think of emerging. Easy to grow in Hyper-tufa troughs, the sort Martha Stewart has shown being made out of concrete and peat, or grown in a frost proof stoneware container, Saxifrages are fun to collect, for there are countless hybrids and species.


  1. That's a nice photo of your Saxifraga longifolia. You seem to be doing a lot of posting this week and it's so nice to hop on and read all these new posts.

    You write that the sax's don't do well with winter moisture, and summer humidity. So is it safe to safe they only can do well in a trough?

    Happy and Healthy New Year Matt.

  2. And what sweet saxi thangs they are! I especially love S manchuriensis and S. 'Silver Velvet' as both are relatively forgiving of my deep, rich woodland soils! Miracles do happen! Have an enjoyable New Year's - see you back here in 2010!


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