Of all the plants you can grow in a garden, snowdrops offer the very best value. For a start, they appear at a time when little else is growing, let alone flowering. They’re a sign of hope after a long winter. They’re also clean and white at a time of year when everything on the farm and in the garden is splattered with grime. And finally, they flower for a very long time and their foliage, while not exactly decorative, does at least show off later bulbs, such as tulips and daffodils, to advantage. No, in my opinion you can’t fault them.
This has been a superb year for snowdrops. In my garden they started to appear at the end of January, then received quite a firm check during that cold snap in early February, but then returned more vigorously than ever, when it turned milder last week. And right now they are in full, fabulous bloom.
Yesterday I took a break from lambing and strolled out into the wood which we planted over the winter of 1992-3. Strictly speaking it’s not a wood, but a plantation; but I don’t care: to us it’s our wood and that’s what it’ll stay. As I was saying, our wood covers about seven and a half acres (3 hectares) to the north and east of the house and garden. It provides much-needed shelter against the bitter north-easterly gales that blow in from off the Wash in winter. It’s arranged in three zones: to the east, a belt of about 400 hazel bushes, which we coppice. These are inter-planted with oak tree ‘standards’. These standards serve to draw hazel regrowth upwards and help form good, long straight rods, ideal for weaving into hurdles. Next to the hazel is a large area of mixed oak, hazel, alder and ash wood; here the oak is slowly becoming dominant. Then, to the west is a large area of ash, inter-planted with oak. My intention in planting this area was for the ash to draw the oak up, but instead the ash trees have proved far more vigorous than we’d expected and many of the oaks have been shaded-out and failed. But even so, it’s a wonderful stretch of woodland, where the dappled shade has proved ideal for snowdrops. Finally, we’ve planted smaller trees and shrubs (dogwood, hazel, field maple and viburnum) around the edge of the wood, to provide a different habitat and to shelter the interior.
When we moved here nearly twenty years ago we set about the business of transplanting our old garden as if it were a military operation. We even rented a half-acre growing ground midway between the two houses (which were about nine miles apart). But moving snowdrops was easy. I dug a few clumps up, put them in a bucket and re-planted them half an hour later, when I sub-divided each clump into half a dozen, or so, smaller clumps. Now as you will have gathered, I like snowdrops. But I’m by no means an obsessive Galanthophile, as they are known. No, I’m content with about six varieties in our garden, of which the common snowdrop Galanthus nivalis is by far the most frequent – and the best. And for good reason: it’s vigorous, free-flowering and (touch wood) still disease-free – although doubtless the cut-throat nursery trade will soon manage to import some vile pathogen from Outer Mongolia, or somewhere unexpected. I bought a hundred or so G. nivalis bulbs in the early 1980s from Walsingham Abbey, in Norfolk. The snowdrop wood there are quite simply astonishing – they extend for acre, after acre and are well worth repeated visits. Anyhow, Walsingham sold snowdrop bulbs ‘in the green’. This means they were dug from the ground shortly after flowering. Snowdrops can be reluctant to break dormancy if they are too thoroughly dried-out, which is why I prefer this way of buying them. Another good way is to visit a nursery or garden centre in mid-March when they are selling off the early spring stock. You can often pick up pots of snowdrops very cheap. Plant them out immediately, and try to get rid of as much peaty compost as you can from around their roots (as this makes them dry out if there’s a hot summer). And keep them damp. Remember, they’re woodland plants and don’t like to get too dried-out, especially in hot front gardens.
And this brings me to one of my hobby-horses: texture. Modern gardens are far too neat and ordered. Everything has its place. Nothing blends. Plants tend to be packed-in. Natural re-seeding is frowned upon. Now I can understand this in an urban or suburban garden, where space is limited, but surely not in the country? So I tend grow snowdrops in different ways. Out in the wood I plant to achieve carpet-like drifts. This takes time and it’s very hard on the back, with a lot of bending. These days, I tend to divide and replant snowdrops for about an hour, before my aches and pains start, and I have to break off and do something different. Then, four years ago, grey squirrels arrived in our wood and they now do much of my snowdrop propagation for me.
Out in the main flower garden I like snowdrops to grow with a different texture. Here I plant to achieve individual clumps which I find carry the eye from one area of the garden to another. Shortly after we planted the wood we laid-out a nut walk, consisting of two double lines of cobnut bushes. Cobs are simply larger versions of ordinary hazel nuts, which are still grown commercially in Kent. Sadly since the squirrels arrived we’ve barely been able to salvage a single cobnut. Beneath the nut bushes we’ve planted clumps of common snowdrops which are followed later in the spring by blue Anemone blanda and the gorgeously rich blue of Siberian squills (Scilla siberica), an easy-to-grow and tolerant plant that deserves greater popularity.
Closer to the house the common snowdrops are replaced by a double-flowered form and by a larger variety, known as S. Arnott’s seedling or just Sam Arnott. These more obviously improved cultivars would look out-of-place in the nut walk, or out in the wood.
It’s also been a very good season for Hellebores and for primroses, although these were set back quite severely in the recent cold spell, when temperatures at nearby Holbeach fell to a record -16C – and for two whole days we were the coldest place in Britain. Now we desperately need rain and then, with luck, we’ll have a fabulous show of cowslips (the open country version of the native woodland primrose) in the orchard and the hay meadow. Meanwhile my garden pond is still bone dry, even though its bottom is over two metres below sea level. Soon newts will be arriving there to spawn, poor things. Who says our climate isn’t going crazy?