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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 20 February 2018 by Tim Ingram

Snowdrop Days.

Snowdrop Days

"Oddly, it was only in March 2012 that 'galanthophile' was included in the online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and defined there as 'collector of or expert on snowdrops' ".

(display at the 'Plant Fairs Roadshow', Hole Park, Rolvendon, 11th February 2018).

This is a line from an excellent article in 'Country Life' this January on the 'Snowdrops of Oxford: How the city fell in love with winter's most entrancing flowers'.

With the notoriety that snowdrops now often receive for the prices that the ever latest rarity commands, the ways they light up the garden - in some ways actually inspire the garden - can be rather lost to view. But as the author also says: "As long as they trod carefully, visitors were welcome and devotees might be asked to one of Mrs Warburg's snowdrop lunches, a coveted invitation in Oxford gardening circles. She saw galanthophilia as a social activity...".


This too is why we grow them and open the garden in February for the National Gardens Scheme and gardening groups. Snowdrops rather uniquely are both the poet's and the botanist's flower. They are not the only winter flower though and this is a quick tour of the garden in mid-February as we open it for the first time this year. The flower arrangement in the picture below was made by Fiona Chapman at the Kent Hardy Plant Society meeting in January at Headcorn. If snowdrops connect gardeners with plants then perhaps gardeners also connect across different Specialist Societies devoted to plants.

Every year is different and the timing of snowdrop flowering can vary appreciably. The picture below was taken in earliest February, preparing for that display we always make at the 'Best of Faversham' Market down in town. A week later most of these plants still looked good for my opening picture at the 'Plant Fairs Roadshow' event we are involved in. And, with some later specimens, a few still as we open now for the NGS in the middle of the month. Even though it seems an early year and we were worried many plants in the garden might be going over by now, in fact growing in significant numbers they brighten the garden for several months in winter.  Growing and collecting a wide range of snowdrops may be regarded as incomprehensible by many gardeners who haven't been beguiled by their fascination and stories, but it does result in extending their flowering period remarkably.

Cyclamen coum is a perfect companion for snowdrops but so far we grow much less of this than we do the autumn flowering C. hederifolium and not significantly enough for it really to begin seeding and naturalising.

However, living near to that famed plantsman Peter Moore, and Tilebarn Nursery, does mean we have a few rather special selections, including this amazing silver-leaf form that does seed true under the large Cedrus deodora.  

From Stefan Rau, who visited us recently, we also have a nice very deep-pink German selection 'Marianne', here growing with Galanthus 'Primrose Warburg' beneath the cordon crab-apples.

After a while, when you get to know more about the snowdrops you grow (in particular) the garden begins to resonate beyond the plants themselves. So these following specific snowdrops - all rather excellent plants in their own right - have further stories and connections to tell. This is a striking and very large flowered plant known just from a faded label annotated 'Walker, Canada' in Richard Nutt's garden (ref. 'North Green' Snowdrop Catalogue). He was a renowned gardener who I only met once or twice, firstly at a Crocus Group and Snowdrop gathering/lunch in  Chris Brickell's garden and secondly when he came to us in Kent to talk about another of his passions, the woodland anemone. Another form of G. plicatus which appears little grown, named for Richard Nutt by Margaret Owen, is listed in a past copy of the North Green catalogue too. You can be fairly sure that any snowdrop named for a noted plants-person will be notable in the garden as well. 

This next is a plant that Paul Barney had for sale at the Plant Fairs Roadshow, which certainly stood out for the size and relative novelty of the flower - 'Castle Eye Shadow' - introduced by the Scottish plantsman and nurseryman Ian Christie.  The price sadly was beyond our pocket (as most new snowdrops are) but the name will be stored away for future reference. Interestingly this plant graces the cover of the 2018 North Green Snowdrop Catalogue, and shows that 'eye' that the professional gardener has for a plant (no pun intended).

In the garden we have a slowly maturing clump of G. elwesii 'Yvonne Hay' which does stand out for the size of its flowers and also rather pale leaves. The nice connection this has for me is with the plantsman and expert bulb grower, Alan Edwards, who once introduced me to Harry Hay and his extraordinary menagerie of plants sitting next to the M25 near Reigate.

Finally two more contrasting plants which we lifted from the garden and potted to display this month; the rather fine double 'Heffalump' named for the botanist Dr Edmund Warburg (who incidentally was lecturer and mentor to the Kentish Landscape Architect, Tom La Dell, who I will introduce in a future Diary entry), and the really elegant long-pedicelled 'Percy Picton', which I first admired in David and Anke Way's garden at Hunton near to Maidstone, and, as you might expect, is an excellent plant from such a long established and well known lineage of nursery-people.

The majority of gardeners certainly don't have this detailed interest in snowdrops and unsurprisingly few are able or willing to devote themselves professionally to making a garden in the way we do. But on a fine February day this year we did have well over a hundred visitors for our NGS Open day and raised over £400 for charity, so the value snowdrops have - in terms of how you may garden with them - does go beyond their very individual appeal to the plantsman alone. They have become a major interest and investment in time for us through the winter months, which is hardly likely to pall as we continue to develop the garden. But we would like to gradually develop stronger plantings of other winter bulbs, especially crocus, to go with them and early flowering forms of daffodils such as this lovely Narcissus pseudonarcissus at Myddelton House in late January.

In a large garden such as ours the detail of individual plants, which is such a feature of the Alpine Garden Society, has to give way (to an extent at least) to finding plants that can increase and naturalise more effectively. In a sense the emphasis shifts from the 'botanical' to the 'ecological', even though the demands of the nursery and visitor will always tend to the individual plant. We haven't been too successful with forms of Iris reticulata so far, but 'Clairette' has proved reliable and grows and flowers well in a partly shaded gravelly spot, which suggests it would be worth trying along with other bulbs in the lawn. At the Salutation Garden in Sandwich, Steve Edney is successfully naturalising forms of winter iris in a grassy meadow on sandy soil that dries out appreciably in summer.

Nearby Crocus tommasinianus makes a good clump but hasn't self-seeded in the profligate way other gardeners describe it doing. It has slowly begun to spread a little where planted in the 'meadow' grass beneath and around a specimen of Cornus controversa 'Varieagata', so hopefully might in time make that wonderful mix with snowdrops and cyclamen that I have seen in other long established gardens. We probably need to keep planting bulbs annually until a critical population becomes more self-sustaining.

These two pictures, taken with a telephoto lens from a high point overlooking the garden, show the beginnings of crocus dotting the lawn and how we are trying to link the open foreground view with the more woodland character of the garden beyond. The small 'bulb' bed in the middle distance is the most intensively planted in the whole garden, with a very long succession of plants and colour, and this acts as a kind of focus for the plantings around.

The kind of planting to aim for is this one taken several years ago in Harris Howland's garden in Harrietsham on a rather glorious winter's day!

On a raised bed rich in humus (and now sadly also with the roots of bindweed) Crocus gargaricus subsp. herbertii is beautiful flowering amongst the creeping shoots of Sorbus reducta and Fritillaria thunbergii emerging alongside. This is an effective mix that needs to be dismantled and remade elsewhere, and the bed is being removed and replaced with a run of alpine troughs.

The aim we have in 2018 is to re-coat these troughs - which have come from friends and visitors - in a hypertufa mix and plant them up with more choice alpines as stock plants to propagate from for the nursery. We especially hope to find more keen horticultural help down here in the south-east and to encourage more interest amongst visitors in gardening in these ways and with these plants.

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