Naturalising snowdrops

Snowdrops are a familiar early spring sight, growing in woods, shady roadsides, shrubberies and spreading through suitable parts of gardens. If you wish to emulate such spectacles it is easy, although a little patience helps.

Naturalising Galanthus nivalis (under trees)

First you need snowdrops. If you have snowdrops growing on your property, you are part way there already and your main activity will be to lift, split and re-plant your existing bulbs. If you are getting bulbs for naturalising, either in their entireity or to supplement stock you have already it is worthwhile trying to get several different strains. Look for (slight) differences in the size and shape of the green marks on the inner petals. British "wild" snowdrops represent a very narrow genetic base and thus set very little fertile seed. We are naturalising nivalis into several acres of deciduous woodland and have made an effort to source several different strains. We are getting encouraging evidence of seeding and those seedlings that have reached flowering size are often singles.

Planting the bulbs

You need a bucket or trug, a small trowel, a kneeling mat and a freshly lifted clump of snowdrops. If you are lifting your own clumps, do it carefully with a fork. Try to get as much of the root system as possible undamaged and be careful on the surrounding ground of seedlings; try not to disturb these. Properly fill the hole you have created with potting compost or garden soil and, while doing so, plant a number of bulbs teased off the outside of the clump you have just lifted. A few growing seasons and the clump will have re-grown.

Off you go, planting the bubs out. We have created a deciduous snowdrop wood from a previous re-seeded grass pasture. Snowdrops cannot compete well with vigorous pasture grasses and it was necessary to wait a few years until the developing saplings began to shade and supress the grass. The trees were planted in small clusters of the same species and differed in the rates at which they gave rise to sparse grass or bare ground. Bird cherry (Prunus padus) was the first followed by Hazel (Corylus avellana) and Field maple (Acer campestre).

Once the ground is suitable, probe into the ground with the trowel making a slit and waggling it around to loosen the ground. Discard any sizeable stones before planting one or a few bulbs into the hole. Firm the ground back, trying to exclude any airpockets. Depth seems unimportant, bury the bulbs a few centimetres. Bulbs teased from the base of the clump will be growing out at a strange angle as they try to get round the clump and up to the surface. Plant these bulbs upright; don't worry that the leaves are at a crazy angle, next season they will be fine.

If your trowel goes into the ground too easily you have probably gone into a mole burrow - best avoided. Probe around the general area until you find a spot that doesn't intersect a burrow. This can take some time and is an informative realisation of how abundant moles are in suitable ground.

Try not to plant the bulbs in too regular a pattern;  but if the ground contains stones, tree roots and moles, your successful efforts are likely to be suitably random.

In the green is the ideal time to transplant snowdrops. You can easily find the bulbs to lift them. They are easier to handle and work with. You can easily see where snowdrops are already that need avoided or complemented. And finally, you get a preview of what your naturalised planting will look like.

One last thing, take the clump of bulbs with you and tease them apart as you go. It is easy to keep the diminishing clump upright and pristine. If you tease the clump into its constituents as a first step, you can only carry a few at a time. Filling your trug with teased snowdrops means those at the bottom get crushed and muddy. If you are working on a windy spring day, an unteased clump is much less prone to drying out.

If you repeat this effort over a few seasons you will begin to be suprised at the results. After a few years you won't even need a stock of bulbs; you can begin to lift the clumps that have developed from your first efforts and spread them further.

To our snowdrop wood we have added oxlips (Primula elatior), a few bluebells and winter aconites (Eranthis sps.) and in the dampest spots snowdrops are replaced by Allium triquetrum and Allium ursinum.


Landscaping with garden varieties

There is no doubt that many of the named snowdrop varieties have great potential for use in a landscape setting. Those that are large or have some distinction that renders them instantly recognisable from a distance could bring a whole new dimension to landscape planting.

The obvious and unavoidable drawback is the cost of planting named varieties in landscape quantities. As a result our experience is limited to some of our first easy-going acquisitions which have increased enough to allow their deployment in extravagent quantities.

James Backhouse, Atkinsii and S Arnott were among our first acquisitions and have been regularly lifted and split to the point where a developing surplus could be planted out.

 On the basis that we were unlikely to give them much ongoing attention we planted them singly to delay the onset of overcrowding and to spread them as far as possible. Little impact was achieved in the first year or two but the results are now rather dramatic. The distinctive character of a snowdrop like Atkinsii is easily appreciated by anyone when they are growing in an extended drift in isolation. We have deliberately not mixed varieties on a landscape scale so that each variety can be viewed in isolation.

As some of our ground is relatively impoverished drumlin deposits, we applied a small amont of fertiliser around each emerging bulb in their second year to good effect.

We do not plant varieties of Galanthus elwesii in landscape situations. It seems to do best with periodic lifting and has performed rather erratically when planted out in woodland and left to its own devices. Galanthus plicatus seems better, and our original purchase of Warham (from Broadleigh Gardens, thirty years ago) has now become a very generous drift under a weeping beech tree.

Finally, we initially attempted to house all our new acquisitions on a landscape basis; preparing a new planting pocket for each new variety. This was not a success and many new and expensive acquisitions failed under such treatment although I cannot satisfactorily say why.