How to make the best of winter snowdrops

Snowdrops with ivy and wild geranium. PA Photo/Naomi Slade

Snowdrops with ivy and wild geranium. PA Photo/Naomi Slade - Credit: Archant

Naomi Slade has always had a soft spot for snowdrops. Growing up in west Wales where winters are cold and damp, she would gather a little posy of snowdrops for her mother on Valentine’s Day, when little else was in flower.

Years later, the keen horticulturist and author has charted her love of these pint-sized beauties in The Plant Lover’s Guide To Snowdrops, where she not only examines the many different varieties, but offers design ideas on where they can be shown off to their best.

“Very often people leave snowdrops to make the best of things unaided,” she observes. “If they are lucky, they get divided or fed, but the predominant regimen is one of benign neglect.

“A little care pays dividends, however, and to elevate the show from just delightful to simply fabulous, it is worth thinking about plants to accompany snowdrops as a background or counterpoint.”

While snowdrops look amazing naturalised in a woodland area, if you have a medium-sized garden they look best with other plants, says Naomi.

“In general, if a plant keeps itself to itself - think clumping ferns, small bulbs and specimen trees - it is probably a good neighbour as far as snowdrops are concerned,” she observes.

Avoid placing snowdrops with dense evergreens with mats of roots, spreading plants such as comfrey and some of the more vigorous geraniums and herbaceous perennials that need dividing every few years such as heleniums and asters.

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Instead, partner them with other small bulbs, she suggests.

“They look great with purple Crocus tommasinianus and dwarf irises, or planted under a tree with bright gold aconites or cyclamen. A backdrop of foliage also shows them off to good advantage, so position them among small evergreen ferns and around Sedum spectabile cultivars and clumping, well-behaved geraniums (avoid the thuggish spreading types as they may well swamp the bulbs).

“Grasses are another pleasing companion and not necessarily the most obvious choice - that particular award is held by hellebores, and not in a bad way, either.”

Personally, I wouldn’t particularly think of putting snowdrops in a container, but Naomi has other ideas, although they will need plenty of TLC if you put them in a pot, she warns.

“If you want to try growing them in a container, choose decent-sized pots, repot every year to avoid depletion of nutrients and a general reduction in compost quality, and make sure that the pots don’t freeze.”

Create temporary displays in pots, planting vigorous clumps into large tubs mixed with hellebores, small evergreens and primroses, or plant them in pots on their own, or alternated with similar sized pots of irises, crocuses or succulents.

For container planting pick a robust candidate, species Galanthus elwesii, G. nivalis, or the common double Galanthus nivalis ‘Flore Pleno’ are all ideal, she says.

For small pots you can plant them with colourful heuchera or Tellima grandiflora or with the black lilyturf, Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’. They also look good as part of an arrangement with mini daffodils and trailing ivy and add sparkle to more formal, larger containers with clipped box forms and skimmia.

In large gardens, they can form spectacular swathes against dark branches and evergreen leaves, but never plant them in a straight line or regular pattern. Just scatter the bulbs randomly and then plant them where they fall.

If you have a lawn which has a lot of foot traffic, avoid planting snowdrops there as they don’t like being trampled and won’t welcome their leaves being cut by the mower early on in the season.

They do well planted under cultivated shrubs and trees such as butcher’s broom (Ruscus aculeatus), an evergreen with red berries, variegated holly or even sorbus and hawthorn.

In rockery settings, common types such as Galanthus ‘S. Arnott’, G. nivalis and G. elwesii will multiply fairly quickly to make a good show.

Try G. ‘Flore Pleno’ with alpine plants such as sempervivums, sedums and lewisias.

“Ultimately, the trick is to use your snowdrops well. Put them where you can see them, let them spread and multiply and they will repay you generously with your own personal winter spectacle.”

:: The Plant Lover’s Guide To Snowdrops by Naomi Slade is published by Timber Press, priced £17.99