Planting combinations for snowdrops

Using Snowdrops.

Ursula Cholmeley talks you through planting combinations for snowdrops at Easton Walled Gardens and suggests ways to use late winter flowers in your garden.

Where to use Snowdrops.

Snowdrops are a wonder flower for your garden. They work in a landscape or on a ledge, making them fantastically versatile for large or tiny gardens. Undemanding and delicate, with a honey scent, they will flower before the rest of the garden even breaks from the ground. Just when you need the leaves to vanish, (maybe a nearby geranium is spreading out in the spring sunshine) they die back quickly and won’t bother you again until January. We are always experimenting with new ways to use these little flowers.

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Using Snowdrops in large spaces.

At Easton Walled Gardens, the delicate snowdrop has flourished since it was introduced. Some say the Romans brought them along the Great North Road, some say that the Tudor Cholmeleys planted them. No one really knows.

Whenever they were introduced, the slopes of the gardens are carpeted with small nodding flowers throughout February and into March. Across the valley, a bowl of white-washed green appears in the park. These are the snowdrops that were here when the re-discovery of the gardens began in 2000.  They prove that large scale plantings of a flower that grows no more than 15cm high can be highly effective.

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The smallest and the largest.

Although it is difficult to photograph, there is nothing more charming or evocative of nature’s power of invention than snowdrops around the skirts of a huge tree. Unlike a lens, our eyes notice movement in the branches and the wind passing over the nodding flowers below. We can see how a wintery light catches the edge of the tree canopy and the outline of 1,000 flowers, 5 metres below.

Snowdrops are almost ok just as sheets of white; but not quite. In our meadows, woodland walk and on the snowdrop bank, careful thought has gone into where and when we need to break into the snowdrops to provide contrast and an opportunity to draw the viewer in.

The Snowdrop Bank.

The effect here is natural. Hellebores, the obvious choice to combine with snowdrops (see later), are not planted here because their dominant colours would detract from the sheets of white. The interest comes from the landscape. The path winds through ash trees and the old course of the river is filled with water in winter. The reflection of snowdrops in the water adds to the scene.

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You can just make out some early daffodils on the water’s edge in this image – a pretty Narcissus called ‘Spring Dawn’; it is in flower by mid february. This isn’t always in its favour as heavy frosts or snow can lay it out for several days. It has pretty pale petals around a yellow trumpet and combines gently with the snowdrops. Further up the bank, Lonicera fragrantissima is a bare shrub that has small flowers of a similar pale yellow colour. They have an exceptionally sweet perfume. Like all wild gardens, scent and sound are as important as the visual scene.

The Cedar Meadow.

Here, naturalised snowdrops are scattered through grass between even larger trees. When we started work they had already been joined by aconites and the two combine beautifully, set off by the green turf.

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Aconites flower just before the common snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) and the petals will hang on long enough to create a yellow and white patchwork effect. They can be established in large areas by scattering fresh seed where you want to see them and keeping the ground clear of brambles and nettles.

Early crocuses work well here too and we have spent some time experimenting with different varieties to find the ones that seem happiest and content to stay. (Not always a given in a meadow.) The ‘tommies’ or Crocus tommasinianus come in various shades of lilac through to deep purple. We use ‘Whitewell Purple’ and ‘Ruby Giant’ mixed with the original species. Order the corms in September and plant as soon as they arrive.

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Usually by early March, Narcissus Tete-a-tete will be up and will provide a yellow foil for the snowdrops. The aconites are just green now with emerging star shaped seed pods replacing the flower.

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Snowdrops for borders and garden edges.

A winding path leads off the White Space Garden through the woodland walk and the shrubbery. Here the snowdrops are combined with perennials and spring bulbs to create impact closer to the viewer. In other words, it’s a lot more colourful and you can get in amongst it.

The combinations we use here would work well under shrubs, in a cottage garden setting and in the middle of herbaceous borders where the dying foliage will be covered late in the season.

Hellebores are natural companions, flowering from January to April. If you consider that a tulip may last 10 days if you are lucky, hellebores are remarkably valuable. Their sepals (the petals are tiny) retain colour when the seed pods form and only when they are really tatty do you need to cut them off. Rich deep colours and spotty, picotee or anemone flowered forms add to their allure.

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Swathes of colour can take a while to build up (hellebores like to settle in to give you decades of slowly increasing blooms) so it’s good to consider another common but often overlooked snowdrop ally – the arum. Flashes of silver on the leaves makes this a very sophisticated combination that is well worth seeking out.

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In the woodland walk, the main show is provided by Galanthus nivalis, the ‘common’ snowdrop and Galanthus Flore Pleno, a double form that spreads easily amongst the dog’s mercury and yellow aconites.

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On the edges are cyclamen coum, small early irises and a pulmonaria called ‘Redstart’ which is particularly good on alkaline soils like ours.

You can see them together with a hellebore in the picture below.

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Special beds and containers.

Snowdrops work in troughs and small beds, containers and pots. A snowdrop collection needs its own space and some permanent labels – beware the family strimmer getting busy in your precious space in high summer and beheading all your labels. Our alpine beds and troughs are home to about 10 varieties of snowdrop. Early elwesii forms such as Galanthus ‘Fred’s Giant’ (shown below) are usually the first up and they can be grown with little iris such as ‘Katherine Hodgkin’ or Iris reticulata ‘George.’

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Our cottage garden and secret garden have unusual snowdrops too. I particularly like the double yellow ‘Lady Elphinstone’ although she can be quite miffy; coming up green in some years.

If you are using containers, consider using foliage for background colour. Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ is a classic but you can also use variegated sedges, as shown here.

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The young foliage of golden feverfew can be equally dynamic and we use this in a bed under the black walnut mixed with a large Galanthus nivalis form to great effect.

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Purely ornamental containers can have snowdrops housed temporarily in them. We dig up clumps just as they start into growth and move them into round terracotta pots – once they have flowered we lift them out, split the bulbs up and re-plant them in a quiet area of the garden.

 

Ideas for May Blossom

Towards mid-May, Easton Walled Gardens is filled with an avalanche of blossom. The early blackthorn on the hedges around our village and its’ associated weather pattern (‘a blackthorn winter’ = a spell of harsh weather while it flowers) is over for another year.

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Now the hawthorn hedges around the carpark and village are covered with small white blossoms arranged in clusters. The dense wood and knarled outline of a mature hawthorn trunk gives the appearance of extreme age. When the tree is festooned with blossom, the combination of age and vitality is a potent emblem of spring.

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The trees form a cascade of white that splashes onto the cow parsley below.

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Seen in detail, there is an unexpected sophistication to these generous white flowers.

The growth rate of hawthorn trees is quite fast so they may be pruned in winter. Hedges should be pruned after flowering and, to keep it neat, again in autumn. Leaving the second pruning, will give you more flowers in spring the following year. Typically, we have a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ approach and opt for one late summer cut which is when the birds have finished nesting and we have time to tidy the hedge up. As you can see, we still get a smattering of flowers.

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Apple blossom is showing for the first time in our orchard.

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We have an infestation of apple capsid bug which shouldn’t affect fruit production but will lead to marks on the ripe apples; a pity, but for now we are just grateful for the first ever blossom on our young trees. The tatty foliage on the greengage trees is also caused by these little bugs. We don’t like to spray while the trees are in flower; it is far too indiscriminate and will harm pollinators like bees so we may try a wash in early spring to attack the eggs early next year. The adults will lay eggs in nooks and crannies for overwintering.

Speaking of damage to blossom, the lilac blight on the rare shrubs in the meadows, has become too serious to ignore. This is a bacterial infection and is highly localised at the moment, just confined to the lilacs in the rose meadows. Suggested treatment includes copper sulphate in late winter which we will try next year. Incidentally, Syringa vulgaris ‘Zulu’ seems the most resistant to blight.

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This image is of a very beautiful old double lilac that survives in the gardens from 100 year old stock. At the time, lilacs symbolised the remembrance of a first love. We have established this sucker in a large tub by the entrance to the gardens. It greets visitors with its beautiful scent.

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Elsewhere in the garden things are much rosier. The crabapple blossom has turned pure white and sends showers of confetti onto the long meadow grasses and under your feet as you walk.

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Nearby, the wisteria is spectacular this year.

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This is Wisteria floribunda ‘Burford’ taken from an original climber at Burford House in Oxfordshire. The very long racemes with dark purple and lilac pea flowers and a beautiful scent require a pilgrimage every day while they are in flower. Long whippy growth on wisterias will need pruning twice a year, once after flowering back to 3-5 buds and then again in late winter back to 2-3 buds. It is also a good idea to give them a slow release, high potash feed in Spring to boost flower production the following year. This is particularly important if you see the foliage turning pale or chlorotic later in the year suggesting it is under stress.

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For totally undemanding blossom, you could try Weigela florida which, here, is confined to some of the most unpromising parts of the garden where it is dry or in semi-shade. Completely uncomplaining on our alkaline soil it will produce corymbs of flowers on last year’s growth. Like many spring flowering shrubs, it should be pruned after flowering.

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Viburnums are excellent sources of spring blossom but the queen is really Viburnum opulus var. roseum better known as the snowball tree. The lime green buds open to become pure white and are excellent cut for the vase if you split the bottom of the stems with secateurs. Here they are in the White Space Garden.

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Beyond the hedge is our ‘Sakura’ moment. Sakura is the Japanese for cherry blossom and the source of a traditional Japanese folk song of Spring, the season of cherry blossom.

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As you round the hedge alongside the velvet border, 16 cherry trees are in full bloom. Our variety is Prunus ‘Shogetsu’, chosen for the broad shape of the trees, the exquisite blossom in white and pale pink and for the later flowering period. This is one of the last of the flowering cherries to break out in all its spring glory.

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The great cherry, Prunus ‘Tai Haku’ is already going over at the top of the gardens. These are ornamental cherries and the glory is in their flowers. If you want fruit you will need to chose sweet cherry cultivars (usually prefixed Prunus avium) or cooking cherries (usually prefixed Prunus cerasosus.) We grow P. avium ‘Stella’ and ‘Early Rivers’ on the wall of the old peach house – they are supposed to be sweet but in our experience, are better for cooking. Our ornamental cherries will now recede into the landscape until Autumn when their leaves colour up in orange, red and yellow.

Snowdrop Facts

Snowdrops at Easton Walled Gardens

10 interesting snowdrop facts

Snowdrops feature heavily at Easton Walled Gardens from late January until mid March. Around 3,000 people visit us to see the snowdrop display each year.

We get asked a lot of questions about our snowdrops and here are our top 10 favourite answers and facts:

When do snowdrops flower?

  • According to the old proverb: “The snowdrop in purest white array, first rears her head on Candlemas Day.” (2 February)

Snowdrops at Easton Walled Gardens

How many species and varieties of snowdrop are there?

  • There are 18-19 species of Snowdrops (Galanthus) and more than 500 named varieties.

What do ‘Galanthus’ and ‘Snowdrop’ mean?

  • The Species name Galanthus comes from the Greek: ‘Gala’ meaning milk and ‘Anthos’ meaning flower.
  • In the 19 century, a Dr. Prior wrote that the common name cannot mean snowdrop since ‘snow is a dry powdery substance that cannot form a drop.’ (Was he also a train spotter in his spare time?)
  • It is more likely the name comes from the pearl drop earrings worn by women in the 16th and 17th centuries, as in the painting ‘The Girl with the Pearl Earring’

snowdrops with water at Easton Walled Gardens

How to grow snowdrops

  • The best way to divide snowdrops is to lift a group every second year as the leaves start to yellow in late spring; split all the bulbs and then plant them separately with a pinch of bonemeal in the hole.
  • The flower is formed in the bulb the previous March and waits nearly a whole year before pushing through the soil.
  • On a sunny day, snowdrops are highly scented and give off a honey smell. If you have enough plants the perfume will fill the garden. Mix them with crocus, aconites and cyclamen coum for a colourful display.

Life saving properties

  • Snowdrops contain their own anti-freeze proteins. Snowdrop plants were harvested during the First World War to make anti-freeze for tanks.

Lady Elphinstone at Easton Walled Gardens

Collecting snowdrops

  • Snowdrop collectors and enthusiasts are called ‘Galanthophiles’ not to be confused with Snowdropping which is an entirely different type of fetish (apparently.)
  • Such is their enthusiasm that a single bulb Galanthus plicatus ‘Golden Fleece’ sold on ebay for £1,390 last year. The bulb had taken Joe Sharman 10 years to develop and was a record price for a snowdrop.

For more information on our open days please see our snowdrop pages on the main website.

Copyright Ursula Cholmeley.