I have long been a fan of snowdrops. They offer the best value of any garden plant and their crowning glory is their timing: they flower when almost nothing else is prepared to stick its head out of the soil. Yes, aconites are lovely, if rather short-lived, and hellebores can be stunning in a good winter garden, but taken as a whole nothing has the same impact as a good expanse, a vista no less, of snowdrops.
So if you’re new to gardening, how do you go about acquiring some? Ideally you want to make friends with a gardener who has a well-established snowdrop bed. Then arrange to visit him or her later in February, just after most varieties have finished flowering. It’s then that the bulbs are in the best condition for moving. Long-established clumps can become congested and then they don’t flower so freely. So that’s why it’s always a good idea to divide them up – or rather that’s what you tell the potential donor (and it happens to be true). Then, once you’ve scrounged a clump or two, take them round to your garden and plant them right away, but don’t make the mistake of planting individual bulbs: try to plant three or four at a time. Do that, and your new clumps will become visible far quicker. This way of planting-out growing bulbs is known as planting ‘in the green’ and I would strongly recommend it for aconites, and other non-bulbous springtime plants, such as anemones, too. And another useful tip: if you buy a pot of snowdrops in the garden centre, I’d advise waiting till March or April, when the nursery normally reduce prices by around 50%. And one final thing: always wash off the fluffy peaty compost that they’re nearly always grown in these days. If you don’t, the bulbs will dry out in hot summers – and snowdrops sometimes fail to break dormancy if they’re allowed to get too dry. Which is one of the reasons I rarely buy them as dried bulbs, because even if they do manage to germinate, they’re often very feeble the following year.
But there is one aspect of snowdrops that has never appealed to me. I suppose you could call it ‘snowdrop fancying’ and the people who practise this arcane, this black art, are known as ‘Galanthophiles’, after the Latin name for the snowdrop family, Galanthus. I’ve never actually dared take part in a Galanthophile conversation, but I have listened-in to one. And it was scarily obsessive. Indeed, I’m reliably informed that rare selections can change hands for hundreds of pounds. And often you need a magnifying glass to tell the various types apart.
I suppose we’ve got about half-a-dozen different varieties in our garden, but 99.999% of them are the common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis. To my mind it’s perfection and cannot be improved upon; but there is a straight double version, if you’re looking for something that looks a bit more garden-like and less like a wildflower.
By and large, snowdrops prefer shade to direct sunlight, and they would rather remain dampish all year round. They very much resent having their leaves cut off before they die down naturally, over summer. So don’t plant them in grass that you intend to mow. Otherwise they require little or no attention, which is another reason I like them so much. They’re also superb in dark urban gardens at times of the year when the light is dim. But town being warmer than country, they often bloom two or three weeks earlier.
Over the years I’ve planted thousands of snowdrops and I set about it as a military operation, but one that’s short and sharp – as befits the brief days of February. Snowdrops are very forgiving, so it doesn’t really matter when you move them. The traditional time is after flowering, but often, like in the current season, it suits me to do it early. I also find that bulbs moved early ‘in the green’ seem to settle into their new positions a bit quicker. And it’s also worth bearing in mind that early springtime can be very busy elsewhere in the garden. So I tend to strike when the mood is upon me – which is now.
First, I dig an entire clump out of the ground with a small border spade. Then I remove surplus soil from the roots and use it to refill the hole, planting four or five new clumps as I do so. Then, I break my lifted clump into large pieces, from which I break-off individual bulbs to make mini-clumps of 4-5 plants. I then drop these onto the ground in what I hope looks like a fairly random pattern. Finally, I plant them where they fell – and I do this quite quickly and without much fuss, a process that takes less than half the time it took to form the mini-clumps. If the season’s very dry or your soil is sandy, I would suggest you water after planting. Using this system, I can plant roughly 50 mini-clumps in an hour, or so. I concede it’s very hard on the back. But be of good cheer: next winter they’ll look gorgeous. And then all the effort will be worth it.