Snowdrops

Did you know that snowdrops do not have petals? Instead, in an interesting reordering of letters, they have tepals. One of several snippets of pub-quiz information offered by Wikipedia’s Galanthus page. The distinction is subtle, vital for botanists, unlikely to make a huge difference to gardening practicalities.

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It’s gardening practicalities I’m searching the web for, an explanation as to why my snowdrops are looking unhappy. They are inherited snowdrops. This is our first winter in the flat, and they have popped up as a surprise. I’m terribly glad about this, as I love snowdrops and thought of planting some in the autumn. However, my mother warned me not to bother: ‘They don’t do well planted as bulbs,’ she said. (How then? Seeds, apparently.) So it is delightful that these snowdrops were hiding away below the soil all this time.

Trouble is, the snowdrops are crowded, and small, and stressed. For all the hundreds of shoots shooting up, there are only a handful of flower buds. Today, Sunday, is a beauty of a day, clear blue sky, mild. A bold slant of sunlight blesses the front garden. (I was wrong: it can’t be north-facing. Must get a compass.) A perfect day for a garden spring clean, and I am clearing dead leaves, litter, cigarette butts, the latter an unfortunate consequence of living beneath four storeys of students. Some of the snowdrops are choked by brown leaves. I remove the leaves. Some enterprising shoots have punched their way through one papery leaf so it resembles lace.

The thought passes my mind that I should leave the leaves where they are. Isn’t leaf-mould nutritious for soil? But then again, is not the bulbs’ nutrition contained within the bulb itself? Finally, I decide, the dead leaves are not attractive, and attractiveness is the point of a garden. Gardens are for beauty — and food. I have not graduated to food production yet, so today I am concentrating on looks. I clear the leaves. The garden is not beautiful, due to the winter, and the concrete, and the dead-ish roses and hydrangea, but at least it is clean and neat.

The following morning, on my way to the bus stop, I nip into the Left Neighbour’s garden to drop back an ice tray she kindly lent us, and am left agape by the swathes of fat, healthy snowdrops lolloping about her garden. That evening I email her. ‘Have you been feeding them anabolic steroids?’ She proudly replies that her snowdrops always turn out well and she has no idea why. Lucky her. Probably she tends to her nutritious, weed-free soil and other plants in a way that incidentally benefits the snowdrops. I want a garden of nutritious, weed-free soil and bouncing snowdrops too. I ring my mother.

‘Yes, you can separate the snowdrops if they are crowded,’ she says. ‘But you must wait till the flowers are over and the leaves are looking tired.’

She also tells me to feed them with plenty of potash (tomato food will do fine) and as an interesting aside, that bulbs will self-adjust their depth by pulling themselves down through the soil to where they want to be. So it doesn’t matter too much if you don’t plant them deep enough.

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The Kew Gardens website tells me that snowdrops need dappled shade and well-drained soil that does not dry out in summer. That’s all right: I am quite confident our soil will not dry out in summer, especially not at whatever depths the bulbs will pull themselves down to.

Kew then goes on to promise that ‘large and impressive drifts’ can be obtained after some years of planting. Exactly as I have witnessed in Left Neighbour’s garden, then. Only, this happy eventuality is highly unlikely in our own garden thanks to the anti-weed netting that lurks below the soil. (More about that evil netting later.) I suppose this is why the wee snowdrops have crowded in on themselves: nowhere else to go, poor souls.

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