February's fair maids

PUBLISHED: 16:10 13 January 2009 | UPDATED: 15:42 20 February 2013

David likes to mix snowdrops with other spring blooms such as hellebores

David likes to mix snowdrops with other spring blooms such as hellebores

Visit a real enthusiast's garden this month with an impressive collection of snowdrops and other early blooms

February is a time of expectation, with spring just around the corner and a scattering of gardens begin to open across the country for the annual vision of drifts of snowdrops. Here in Kent there are a handful that open under the National Gardens Scheme this month, celebrating these first bulbs and accompanying blooms.

David and Anke Way's garden in Southover, Hunton is one of the first to offer visitors the sight of carpets of snowdrops, aconites and hellebores. There is certainly a lot of interest in the early openers: 400 people turned up at the Way's first February opening.

As David says: "People are bursting to get out and see something growing. They are curious and interested. It is a very attractive idea to get out and see the snowdrops."

Southover opened to the public in February four years ago and again in 2007 for visitors to enjoy the expanding collection of snowdrops. This is a true plantsman's garden, lovingly developed by David and Anke, and it comes as no surprise to learn that both have professional backgrounds in horticulture.

David was a lecturer and researcher with the fruit-growing industry and Dutch-born Anke did part of her practical training at Hilliers. On retirement, the couple ran garden tours in Europe for a number of years, specialising in trips for hardy plant enthusiasts.

Their interest in snowdrops developed from 2002 through a friendship with experts, Dr Andy and Dr Lallie Cox, and a visit to their garden, Woodpeckers, in Warwickshire. "They enthused us and also mentioned that the south east was a bit of a snowdrop desert, adding that we should do something about it as we already had a few snowdrops naturalised in our garden," says David.

David and Anke soon became seriously interested, as have many before them. In fact, the genus Galanthus has such a following that there is a specific condition, Galanthofilia, to describe those afflicted by the bug to possess all the snowdrops in existence. Galanthophiles will travel across the country to specialist growers hunting a particular treasure for their collection. "We prefer to be called snowdrop enthusiasts, not out and out collectors," laughs David.

For the Ways, it is important to have year-round interest in the garden, but early spring is increasingly a favourite time, with the focus on the snowdrops. "We now know that we can have different varieties that flower from October to March, giving interest right through the winter," explains David.

Instead of lots of bare soil dotted with the nodding white heads, evergreen groundcovers and other early flowers that associate well with snowdrops have been included in the design.

"We have experimented with various groundcovers that are attractive year round such as vinca minor, veronica, black mondo grass and even a dwarf comfrey and ground hugging euonymus. We don't want bare earth and are trying to get away from convention," adds David.

The one-and-a-half acre garden spreads around the house and over the past 27 years has evolved into an informal, part woodland landscape of internal and external vistas, with bold drifts of underplanting giving year-round colour.

David and Anke enjoy journeying to snowdrop events and exchanging ideas and bulbs with other enthusiasts. Closer to home, they are involved in finding naturalised clumps of wild snowdrops in the parish, some being found in swamp conditions, others on a cliff face.

An exciting find in the old rectory garden was a group of unusual, large-leafed snowdrops that must have been introduced in Victorian times and then forgotten. David has reintroduced this variety, now named Hunton Giant, both in the village churchyard and in his garden. Anke has selected a form with green-tipped 'petals' which she has named Anika, after her granddaughter.

Snowdrops have long been associated with church grounds and religion, so as well as visiting private gardens this month, look out for other local events.

David recommends Lamberhurst's churchyard with its massed snowdrops in a very scenic location and the remote church out of Challock that has special snowdrop weekends.

David's top 5

Trym - Unusual triangular flowers with large green marking
Sutton Courtenay - Lime-green markings
Percy Picton - Tall. Green markings, large flowers
Mrs MacNamara - Textured petals, early flowering
Merlin - Solid green inner segments

Snowdrop facts

• It is thought that monks brought Galanthus nivalis to Britain from Italy in the 15th century, as they are often found in old monastery gardens

• There are no records of them growing wild in Britain before 1770

• Galanthus plicatus is indigenous to the coastal area near the Black Sea, including Crimea. In the 1850's, during the Crimean War, some British soldiers were amazed to see battlefields covered in snowdrops after the harsh winter and took bulbs back home to their gardens

• In folklore they represent the passing of sorrow

• An old superstition suggests bringing them inside is bad luck

• Galanthus means milk flower and when warm, they release a fragrance

• Also called Candlemas Bells and Mary's Tapers

Growing tips

• very hardy, the colder the weather, the longer the flowers last

• look best in naturalised drifts in light shade

• can be grown in containers, re-pot annually in July or August

• well-drained, humus-rich, slightly moisture-retentive soil

• specialist nurseries supply plants in leaf, 'in the green'

• you can buy flowering bulbs in pots to know exactly which ones you are purchasing and plant straight away

• David recommends using aquatic plant baskets for planting special varieties, lifting in June, splitting and putting back immediately so they don't know they have been moved. He suggests making a plan of where the baskets are.

Opening times

Southover, Hunton
Saturday 14 February (11am to 4pm)
Visitors also welcome by appointment
Tel: 01622 820876
Small selection of snowdrops for sale

St Cosmas and St Damian church, Challock
Snowdrop teas, Sundays 8 and 15 February (from 12.30pm)

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