Snowdrops deserving of award for gallantry

What these tiny flowers lack in stature, they easily make up for in beauty and resilience

It was the actor David Niven who said that much of life is a matter of perspective, something that’s curiously true of Irish gardens at this time of year.

If the country’s snowdrops bloomed in high summer, for example, would there still be galanthophiles down on bended knees reverently examining every tiny detail of their dainty, ghostly, bell-shaped flowers from the individual notches and markings on their petals to the angle and length of their slender pedicels? If winter aconites flowered in June, would we love their pint-sized golden blooms quite so much? Might the sweet fragrance of a potful of tiny, velvet-petalled winter irises go unnoticed if it had to compete against the heady perfume of a rose, its quiet charms outgunned. Who knows?

What we do know for certain is that, by the time February rolls around, we gardeners are so very winter-weary that every tiny flower is a reason to celebrate. Plus what these diminutive late-winter and early-spring flowering bulbous beauties lack in stature they easily make up for in terms of the scale and beauty of their seasonal displays as well as their hardiness and resilience.

A shining example is the snowdrop (Galanthus) which, when given the right growing conditions and left undisturbed for many years, can self-seed or “naturalise” so abundantly that just one small potful of bulbs will slowly spread over time to create generous drifts of flowers, gently sowing itself through lawns and flowerbeds, along banks and hedgerows and beneath the skirts of deciduous trees and shrubs.


The very same is true of many other dwarf species of winter and early-spring flowering species of bulbs, including the aforementioned winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis); the pink and white-flowered winter cyclamen (Cyclamen coum), several species of crocus (Crocus tommasanianus, Crocus chrysanthus, Crocus vernus and Crocus sieberi); the wood anemone whose pretty, star-shaped flowers come in shades of violet, pink, blue and white (Anemone blanda); the various scillas and squills (examples include Scilla siberica, Scilla bifolia and Scilla bithynica); the blue-and-white flowered Glory-of-the-Snow (Chionodoxa luciliae, Chionodoxa forbesii) and grape hyacinths (Muscari armeniacum, Muscari azureum); as well as some of the daintiest kinds of daffodils (N ‘Tête-à-tête’, N ‘Hawera’, N ‘Peeping Tom’ N ‘Topolino’, N ‘Minnow’. N ‘Jack Snipe’, N ‘WP Milner’ and N obvallaris).

As a rule, most of these miniature-sized late-winter/early-spring flowering perennials should be planted as bulbs in autumn (the exception is snowdrops, which are best planted “in the green” soon after they’ve finished flowering), but you can also buy them from good garden centres and specialist nurseries as container-grown plants at this time of year.

They typically like a moisture-retentive but free-draining soil in a spot in the garden where they’ll get full sun in spring but dappled shade in summer. So they’ll happily grow beneath the seasonal shade of deciduous or herbaceous species as long as their fleshy bulbs are left undisturbed underground and their foliage is allowed to die back down to ground level after flowering.

Tidy-minded gardeners often struggle with the latter, itching to tie up or cut away the leaves as they yellow. But it’s vital that the energy that the foliage contains is allowed to return to the bulb below ground, crucially enabling it to ‘fatten up’ in preparation for flowering again the following spring.

For the same reason, if you want them to naturalise in a lawn or rough grass, then it’s important to hold off mowing or strimming the area until these early-flowering bulbous plants have fully died down to ground level. Likewise, take care to avoid accidentally walking on or mowing their emerging flowers and foliage as they begin to push their way through the soil in late winter/early spring, something that’s guaranteed to fill you with such terrible feelings of remorse that you’ll almost certainly never do it again.

To encourage these pretty bulbous perennials to generously self-seed around your garden or allotment, don’t dead-head them after flowering. Instead their faded blooms must be allowed to slowly transform into swollen seedpods and then given sufficient time (at least a couple of months) for the seed to ripen and spill.

Their ability to naturalise aside, the petite proportions of these dainty perennials makes them a great choice for the front of a border or for growing in pots, troughs and window boxes where they’ll add oh-so-welcome flashes of seasonal colour and scent.

In small courtyard gardens or container gardens where space is at a premium, they look very pretty grown in pots (give them a multipurpose compost lightened with horticultural grit) and placed in a generous cluster near a doorway or entrance. They can also be very effectively displayed on elegant wrought-iron plant stands with tiered shelves – a sort of plant theatre – where the individual beauty of their blooms can be appreciated close-up.

If you’ve planted just one variety/species to a pot, then it’s just a simple matter of removing each container after flowering (label it and then tuck it away somewhere out of sight to die back), before replacing it with a later-flowering substitute. In this way it’s easy to create an ever-changing seasonal display.

Alternatively, different varieties/species of spring-flowering bulbs can be planted in autumn in layers within the one container for a staggered display, a technique known as the “lasagne method” suitable for larger pots.

In gardens where squirrel damage is a recurring problem, growing late-winter and spring-flowering bulbous plants in containers also makes it much easier to protect them from being stolen or eaten. After planting, just cover the top of the compost with a layer of narrow-gauge chicken wire (no bigger than 25mm aperture). Tuck the edges down into the pot out of sight and then conceal the wire beneath a thin layer of horticultural grit. To protect emerging flowers and foliage from slug and snail damage, regularly check the base of the pots and kill/dispose of any that you find.

In the case of snowdrops, container growing is also a very useful way to preserve the identity of especially rare or valuable varieties that might otherwise get mixed up. The unfortunate downside, of course, is that this also makes them easier to steal. In a world where the individual bulbs of the rarest or most sought-after snowdrops are traded for hundreds, sometimes thousands of euro (I kid you not), this is not unheard of.

Astonishing, I know. But not if you’re a galanthophile. For as David  Niven so wisely observed, it’s all a matter of perspective.

This Week in the Garden 

Get ready

Take advantage of this relatively quiet time in the gardening year to repair, oil and sharpen any garden tools and to arrange for garden machinery to be serviced or repaired. If you plan on growing lots of plants from seed, then check your supplies of seed and multipurpose compost, seed trays, pots, labels, and garden fleece, clean down any propagating equipment and (if you own one) wash/tidy glasshouses and/or polytunnels and repair any broken panes, damaged windows or doors or tears/rips.

Get planting

As long as soil conditions aren’t waterlogged or frozen, late winter/early spring is a good time of year to plant bare-root plants including many kinds of fruiting and ornamental trees, shrubs, hedging, climbers and perennials. Available to order from all good Irish garden centres and specialist nurseries at this time of year, bare-root plants are not only much cheaper but also a much more environmentally-friendly alternative to their container-grown equivalents as they’re supplied without the use of (typically peat-based) composts and plastic pots and are also easier to transport.