Playfair II – Reminiscenses

by Ken Webb  December 2002


Bang! Bang!  I got you this time.  No you didn’t.  You just shot a hole through my hat.  Did So!  Did Not!  The Playfair Park Gang was at it again.  It was 1955 and the Jeff boys were playing Cowboys and Indians with the Webbs and Archers on the rock bluffs at Playfair Park.  The Walkers were all home sick with the chickenpox.

It was a lot more fun to be allowed outside this week because there weren’t any more cougars around.  They prowled around in the rocks and bushes and we had to stay inside for a few days.  We had a fort built in a big hollow between two rocks with logs over the top and moss covering it.  No one could find us there.


The Lake Hill Little League was just starting and Mr. Devlin was going to enter a team this summer and we were all going to play baseball.  These are some of my first memories of Playfair Park as a child.  I grew up on Palmer Road, just around the corner from Cumberland and the back entrance to Playfair.  At this time, there were no Gardens, just bush and rocks and a play park with swings, teeter-totters and a small baseball diamond.


I guess this early connection was what drove me to work on the Playfair Park Gardens when the opportunity came up.  I got connected with Saanich Municipality during the water shortage and they started asking questions because I told them about my rhododendrons.


More to follow in the ongoing story.



Playfair Park III

Thoughts on Microclimates

by M.J. Harvey  December 2002


Mirror, mirror on the wall who has the mildest climate of them all?  In Canada, Vancouver just edges out Victoria.  This hurts my adopted Victoria pride but plant hardiness zones are fickle things defined by minimum temperatures and on days when we Victorians are enjoying lovely clear sunny winter days with a bit of resultant night frost, over in Vancouver it is pouring down.  Who, I ask you, would want to live under those conditions even if it is ‘milder’?


Similarly, within Victoria there is quite a variation in conditions from one part of the city to another.  These differences are the microclimates.


For instance along the seafront the proximity of the water greatly lessens the frequency of frost so such locations get the higher rating, say Zone 9.  But this is just on winter minimum and for heavens sake don’t try growing red peppers on the Dallas waterfront – they won’t ripen.  This brings us to another part of the microclimate equation and that is summer heat.  This is usually expressed as ‘degree days’ – the sum of the degrees above 20oC over a certain number of days.  So our ‘mild’ waterfront loses out in summer because the sea not only moderates the cold in winter, it also moderates the heat in summer (sometimes as fog).  Inland, as little as 1 km., the ocean effect is lessened and the nights are cooler, the days warmer.


There are other factors governing the microclimate of a particular locality:  tree cover, aspect (facing N or S), topography.


George Nation recently gave a talk to VIRAGS reminiscing about Ed Lohbrunner and his wife Ethel.  The Lohbrunners moved house several times before Ed bought the acreage in the Blenkinsop Valley which became his famous nursery (next to what is now Lohbrunner Road).  His original intention was to set up a Rhododendron nursery but being at the bottom of the slope the drainage of cold air down the slope resulted in enhanced spring frost damaging the plants so he turned to alpines becoming internationally famous as a result.  (The writer’s own lot has the same problem but lacks alpines).


Not far from the site of the former Lohbrunner nursery on the slope of Mount Douglas and maybe 100 ft higher is the renowned garden of Al and Shirley Smith.  Although not far away they escape the valley frosts because the cool air moves down away from them on still nights.


So with this introduction where does Playfair Park fit?  It is near Quadra Street on a rocky hill in the middle of the Lower Saanich Peninsula about 5km from the nearest coast.  This means that in summer it can accumulate a fair amount of heat and this may be important for the Camphor tree (Cinnamomum camphora) and some of the Rhododendrons.  Since the Rhododendrons are planted on the upper slope they escape cold air drainage on still nights and Garry oaks provide a fairly gappy overstory moderating wind and direct sun.  Even the perennial border (well maintained) lower down seems to suffer little from frost probably because of some tree cover.  It includes Trachycarpus fortunei fan palms that fruit regularly and a gigantic Phormium whose flower spikes reach 2.5 m.


The slope faces generally north but this does not appear to be a detriment, in fact it may be an advantage.  I should add that Saanich Parks Department which looks after the park had modified the microclimate considerably by installing an irrigation system.


So in summary Playfair Park appears to have just the right combination of distance from the sea, slope and altitude to give really favourable growing conditions for Rhododendrons.


We hope to give a brief history of the past ownership of the area in a later article but it is reasonable to hypothesise that it was left undeveloped because builders just hate putting houses on the top of rocky knolls – blasting for foundations, road and drains adds expense.  I was musing over the parallels with the Abkhazi Garden on Fairfield Road.  When the Abkhazis moved to Victoria in 1946 all the ‘good’ building lots on Fairfield had been sold leaving only the highly undesirable rock (to a builder) that they developed into one of the best designed gardens in the West.


Aesthetically Playfair Park is not in the same class with severe problems of overcrowding and a lack of diversity of contrasting trees and shrubs but even having said that it certainly ranks up there as one of the more interesting gardens in Victoria.


Future articles on Playfair Park will include notes on the group of people who urged the original planting; the ‘secret weapon’ which had enabled many of the plants to be identified; a list of the species and hybrids with a map; and notes on the more unusual plants.  Meanwhile the Prop group is trying to root cuttings of certain desirable forms.