When the Snowdrops are over

We are lucky to have articles in our January 2016 newsletter from two of our inaugural members. This one is from Michael Baron.

When the Snowdrops are over

by Michael Baron

A couple of weeks before Christmas I started to put together a few ideas as to how to best plant snowdrops in a garden where there are so many strong growing herbaceous plants and shrubs.  These make it almost impossible to keep track of things, and it is all too easy to ruin the bulbs with the spade or by swamping them with summer-flowering stock. And of course, when the snowdrops and other bulbs wither and die back, there may be an unsightly mess of brown and sodden leaves.

It so happens, as most gardeners will be aware, that this has turned out be a quite unusual Christmas. Here at Brandy Mount there were probably upwards of fifty kinds of snowdrop in full flower before the end of the year!  Accordingly, I felt that some urgent new strategy was in order. Perhaps it is worth mentioning that in almost any year there will be groups of snowdrops in full flower by the beginning of November, and often even a month earlier; then, as one lot fades it is quite likely that others will be coming on. The following are just a few of the early forms that I particularly like: one of the first and most often mentioned is Galanthus reginae-olgae which hails from the Southern Greece and Corfu. Then there is the fairly ‘new’ species, G.peshmenii from southern Turkey (not fully hardy but makes a superb pot plant). Perhaps a little later, there is the rather rare G. plicatus ‘Hely Hutchinson , soon to be followed by several forms of G.elwesii – one of the best of these is G.elwesii ‘Barnes’. But pride of place must surely go to to G.’Three Ships’, a really splendid snowdrop that this year easily anticipated Christmas.

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So there is quite a problem, deciding how best to plant to cover up the patches where there are dead and decaying leaves, let alone total blanks. Recently as this unseasonable display began, I realised that some action was needed, not just to display the snowdrops to their best advantage, but also to save bulbs from many of the older plantings which had become overgrown and maybe outcompeted by herbaceous plants and shrubs, or simply overcrowded. Many of the stronger snowdrops will survive and increase reasonably well in light, moist woodland and grass, but here at least they do much better without too intense competition from many of my other favourite plants, like hellebores and pulmonarias. The problem was to design and plant to satisfy both the snowdrops and attractive cover plants, without running the risk of disturbing the bulbs during the course of the year.

After much head scratching and discussion, I decided to create two new virgin beds, cutting into the lawn where there had never been snowdrops and, hopefully, no serious weeds. This seemed to be against my vow to make the garden simpler! I compromised by removing the turf to an area which was not particularly exciting and perhaps too shaded and dry to be ideal snowdrop territory. This led to the creation of two crescent-shaped new beds, each about seven metres long and nearly a metre wide. These are lightly shaded on the south side, have good access and look good from the front of the house. So at last the fun could begin!

I began planting soon after the first snowdrops appeared at the end of November, scouring the garden for especially good forms that I could actually identify, and then planting them in groups of a dozen or so of each form. Each bulb was planted with a small handful of sharp sand and the group immediately labelled. The ‘plan’ was to continue planting (until space ran out) as each form came into flower, so that the bed should flower progressively throughout the early part of the year.

One of the new beds

One of the new beds

As the planting progressed, gaps were left for ‘fillers’. Some such would have to be early flowering to provide interest as the first flowering snowdrops went over. This, at last, is where I have had to grapple with the title! These fillers must not be too vigorous, but on the other hand should also reduce the risk of fungal infection from snowdrop clump to clump, and maybe also perhaps help to reduce the risk from Narcissus flies (which over the last few years have not been reading the books and take to the wing on warm days in early February).

I had hoped to be able to select fillers which would give good contrast in colour or form with the snowdrops whilst they are in flower, and also find plants which could provide colour and interest as the snowdrops wither later in the year. Having removed many of the more boring hellebores from the area, I selected a few smaller upstanding forms which had flowers with a good greenish yellow with some purplish spots. These seemed to contrast well with the snowdrops, but I really wanted material to be useful later in the year. Primroses are always good value and various forms have turned up in the garden which I particularly like. These have the look of oxlips, with taller scapes of flowers and sometimes reddish leaves. Others may be of the Primula ‘Wanda’ fraternity with flowers of an intense purple.

Hepaticas are seldom successful, but I have a few pots of five year old seedlings which might do as the site is not too hot. Peonies like P.broteroi show their red growing leaf buds well at snowdrop time and then could provide acceptable cover as the snowdrop leaves wither. Hellebores (unless of one of my smaller strains) are too vigorous, and there is the business of removing their old leaves, pulmonarias are a definite ‘No’ – being too tough they will outcompete snowdrops – while most of the geraniums are also far too strong growing. Brunnera and the various Cardamine are definitely out. Some bulbous plants may mix in well, aconites grow splendidly amongst snowdrops here on our chalky soil. Crocus tommasinianus and scillas will inevitably seed themselves into the area, whether you like it or not. A few of the Corydalis could be useful, notably the white flowered C.malkensis. Some other kinds of bulbs are worth considering. One of my favourites is our own introduction of Colchicum cilicicum ‘Cilician Gates’ which is at present undergoing trial with the RHS. This has relatively neat leaves and makes a grand display before the snowdrops come into flower in the autumn. Cyclamen too are a possibility and maybe could be planted so as to mingle with the snowdrops; C. coum should be good, though C. repandum, once established, could be even better.

I am conscious that most of the plants listed are fairly small and lack the scale needed for post-spring display and later as summer approaches. I have relied upon neighbouring shrubs, principally daphnes, as well as dwarf Syringa palibiniana and Ribes laurifolia, but there must be many others suitable for late cover of the snowdrops.

Our crescent beds may sound too complicated and formal for the gardener who prefers a more naturalistic effect. In any case, I suspect that the slight formality may disappear within a surprisingly short time, and I think that the general idea could be modified in countless ways within the alpine garden. Whatever is eventually achieved, I believe that the result will be exciting and worthwhile. M.B.

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