How to grow the Milky Way

Successful with snowdrops, but disastrous with crocuses, Mary Keen describes her springtime triumphs and failures in the lime-rich soil of her Cotswold garden - a mass of endlessly multiplying bulbs
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The Independent Culture
Through March and April, we split snowdrops. In limestone areas like the Cotswolds, you wouldn't believe how fast they multiply. One bulb makes two, then four, then eight and five years on, a single bulb has increased 16-fold. In the cause of this multiplying of snowdrops, I will gladly suffer bruised hands. When we moved I brought a few clumps of the ordinary sort to put under the lime trees near the gate and wrote off for another hundred to set in a grassy bank. Now they look like the Milky Way. As each clump finishes flowering, we trowel them out, tease them apart and plant them again as singletons. In time they would cover huge areas themselves, because they seed freely - in churchyards and woods round here you cannot put a pin between them. But splitting up the clumps and replanting them speeds up the process. Ten years on, I tell myself, I should have patches 20 yards across. If you want the fastest route to a snowier than snowy array, double flowers make even more of an impact than the simple bells of the single sort.

If the common snowdrops are worth hours of trowel bashing, the rarer ones are even more rewarding. We grow them in flowerbeds, in places where they will be shaded in summer. Local gardeners are generous with the larger named sorts. A clump of 'Sam Arnott', the scented giant snowdrop, now covers a bank five paces long, and this year there have been enough to give away to friends. In catalogues, 'Sam Arnott' costs three pounds a bulb, so the clump I was originally given was probably worth pounds 100. I love the feeling that I can now distribute the same sort of largesse to others, who will in their turn indulge other gardeners in a few years time.

It is a moment in the year when it is hard not to gloat over horticultural freebies. The self-sown progeny of hellebores that cost pounds 10 each, have reached flowering size after two years. Their first flowers are anxiously inspected. You never clone the parent plant, but some of the crosses are exciting enough to keep. A creamy green orientalis hybrid with spotted petals gets moved into a prominent place. A very dark plum variety replaces a dingier purple. The rest we give away.

There are over 40 variations on the hellebore theme here, and I can never decide which ones I like the best. The nigers, or Christmas roses, seem to do better in sun than shade. They grow stiffly and hold their faces up to be admired, but the Lent lilies (H. orientalis) have drooping flowers which need to be turned if you want to see their markings. When the bees start to pollinate them, they offer their flowers to the sky, but the shape of their petals is beautiful whichever way you see them. Long before the daffodils, the hellebores are out and their flowers last for at least two months. The green ones, H. argutifolius, and the native foetidus, 'Wester Flisk' are even better value. We used to find that some hellebores were prone to black blotches on stems and leaves, but the best growers recommend cutting off all the leaves just before Christmas. So far it seems to work.

The blanda anemones are another good investment on limestone. In our last garden, on neutral soil, they were hard to keep and I wasted a fortune trying to establish them. Here they seed and spread in a haze as blue as the sky. I like them best in grass, but they do increase faster in a bed of leaf mould. When they have covered enough ground, thin grass seed can be sown around them.

With crocuses, we repeatedly fail. The species sorts are what I want but the mice want them even more than I do. Crocus tommasinianus, in its unimproved pale form, is the most desirable, and not the dark 'Whitewell Purple' that most catalogues offer. On sunny days their milky lilac petals open wide, but they are uncomfortable in the tussocky orchard grass. I believe they would do better in the bare earth of flower beds. Their native habitat is woods and shady hillsides on limestone, but Crocus vernus is from the grasslands of Europe and may be a better bet in the orchard if I could only find the unimproved form. This is the ancestor of the large Dutch crocus that is massed in parks and public places. I dislike the bulbous, top-heavy look of these hybrid forms, but they work if you want a blast of colour.

Wall to wall daffodils always imply cheque-book gardening because they never increase at the rate of the smaller bulbs: any plant which you can coax into seeding itself is a thrilling sight. The quest for bulbs which will go native fast is a compulsive one. Each year we try something different and give it a little encouragement and the sort of conditions it is supposed to like. Then, when the newcomers start to seed, I buy another hundred.

It is tempting to struggle with bulbs you admire in other people's gardens, but after two years their time is up. Cyclamen repandum, which likes the wet West Country is not for me; and trilliums and lilies (except Madonna and martagon) are hard to grow here.

The small bulbcodium narcissi that do so well in the alpine meadow at Wisley like peaty moorland. The sandy soil of Surrey suits them perfectly, but they would never settle here. In heavy clay soils, the early irises and tulips rarely reappear after their first season; but where the ground drains fast they are worth trying. Here Tulipa sylvestris, a British native, has come up faithfully for three years, but the Lady Tulip clusiana, which is my favourite, cannot be persuaded to stay. This year, I have tried tulips in grass for the first time, because ever since we came a few have appeared every spring of their own accord. Unlike snowdrops, they will never multiply, but it would be a triumph if they did not disappear. At Highgrove, where tulips are a famous feature, the bulbs are regularly renewed. An annual princely outlay is not possible for most of us, so planting only those things which thrive in the conditions on offer is the answer if you want massed colour.

You could spend hundreds on bulbs, but if you can get them more or less free, there is money over for early shrubs. The Daphne bholua, with its heavy scent, the shocking pink Japanese apricot, Prunus mume 'Beni Shidori' and the green-flowered Ribes laurifolium are each more expensive to buy than a hundred tulips and unlike the obliging Cotswold snowdrops they are incapable of reproducing themselves. !