Start of something: Snowdrops signal the first stirrings of spring

The first snowdrops were flowering in our garden by the end of December. Given the long (and fabulous) sequence of freezing days and nights we had over Christmas and the New Year, this was surprising. They are planted in ivy along the northern boundary, which faces south and slopes to the west. Over them hang stooled stems of hazel, the catkins already almost full length. The snowdrops were one of the few things I brought here from our old garden, where I had introduced them into a wooded, shaded bit of ground.

They are not the ordinary kind, but a big, robust variety called 'Atkinsii', thought to be a cross between Galanthus nivalis and G. plicatus. 'Atkinsii' was named by the great snowdrop grower James Allen of Shepton Mallet to commemorate another snowdrop maniac, James Atkins of Painswick in Gloucestershire, who had got it from a friend in the 1860s.

It's a vigorous (26cm tall) snowdrop, the foliage glaucous like that of G. nivalis, but bigger and broader. It was the Edwardian gardener EA Bowles's favourite snowdrop and it's mine too: it comes very early and builds up into lavish displays with very little effort. The flowers are enormous, at least 5cm across, with the outer petals held almost horizontal. Inside, the bell is white, with a broad inverted "V" marked in green. Odd petals fly away occasionally to break the symmetry. I like snowdrops in ivy, but these look good too with dark hellebores or among the glorious marbled leaves of Arum italicum 'Pictum', which is at its best at this time of the year.

The arrival of the first snowdrops is important because it marks the beginning of a whole new delicious cycle: aconites, crocus, iris, lilies of the valley, a springful of bulbs. But gardeners also appreciate the snowdrop's ability to settle and increase with so little fuss. Since I planted them (with bonemeal) I've done nothing for mine, except split them after flowering. And that is more for my benefit than theirs. But given the way they naturalise themselves along lanes, under hedges, in fields and woods, it's not surprising they are so easy in a garden, which generally presents them with fewer obstacles to overcome.

In Dorset, the village of Compton Valence is famous for its snowdrops, which line both sides of the narrow road leading down to it off the old Roman road. You see them in Cornwall too, where I was wandering recently, to see whether any signs of spring were yet showing there. Usually when you head west, the temperature rises perceptibly. Not this time. I left home with the gauge standing at –2C and though there were some interesting fluctuations along the way, it was still –2C when I stepped out at the Golgotha Falls, north of Liskeard.

The falls are in an extraordinary little valley, made by the River Fowey as it rushes down in a series of rapids off the high granite bulk of Bodmin Moor. Boulders of granite are massed along the banks, but the overall impression is of soft green. There is moss everywhere: covering the rocks, softening the tree trunks, spreading in spongy mattresses over the ground. It's the greenest place I've ever stepped into in midwinter. But the thaw hadn't yet started and even more startling were the great beards of ice hanging from the banks of the river, the caps of ice made by the water splashing over the rocks in midstream, the fabulously

beautiful icicles descending stiffly like portcullises from branches overhanging the river. The Celts worshipped rock, wood and water. No wonder.

But if you push on from Golgotha through Liskeard you come to St Ive and here there's a deep lane running down from the village car park (find it by turning off the A390 at the signpost to Blunts) that is lit up by snowdrops pushing their way through the collapsed ferns on the steep banks. And in the hollow at the bottom of the hill you'll find an extra little treat, a winter garden made over the past 12 years by Cornishman Michael Stephens.

"Isn't it a little masochistic to make a winter garden? Especially on an east facing slope," I asked, as we stood by the front door of his whitewashed cottage, the temperature even at midday still not past 0C. "Not at all," he replied robustly. "In spring a garden looks after itself. And in summer, there's no point in trying to compete with nature, which does everything so much better."

His garden is laid quite lightly on the bank which rises up steeply behind his cottage. When you are at the top, among the newly planted dogwoods and black ophiopogons, you could jump straight down his chimney. But when he first started his work, the top of the bank was still a wilderness of elder, bracken and bramble, which he has been gradually eradicating with wedges of old cardboard and thickly laid sandwiches of cardboard. The far part of his land is wild woodland, where more snowdrops cover the ground between coppiced stands of hazel and scrub oak.

The only garden that existed when he took over lay at the front of the cottage: a straight, slate-paved path to the front door, with a small spring-fed pond dug in the lawn on the left hand side. The overflow from the pond tips over into the little stream that charges down the hill just inside his boundary. The rest of the garden happened around him as he pushed on up the bank behind the cottage, planting as he went. "None of it was done in a terribly organised way."

As you'd expect, he has plenty of witch-hazels, some already in full gingery bloom when I was there. He's also keen on winter and early spring flowering rhododendrons such as 'Olive', a smallish evergreen rhododendron that never gets much above 1m (3ft) and provides plenty of mauve-pink flowers. Another rhododendron, the Eastern Asian R. dauricum 'Mid-winter' is even earlier, semi-evergreen, with rose-purple flowers tucked into the axils of the leaves. I'd not seen it before and thought it rather remarkable, flowering so profusely in such chilly conditions.

The night before I arrived had been the coldest that Michael Stephens had ever experienced at the cottage. But the Acacia dealbata planted down by the drive seemed to have come through unscathed, with plenty of bud ready for its February flowering. For a tree rated as only half hardy, that's impressive.

You can see it for yourself (as well as daphnes, skimmias and camellias) as the garden at Coombegate Cottage is open today (11am-4pm); admission £2.50. It's open again next Sunday, 15 February (1-4pm). The village car park at St Ive is just off the A390, four miles east of Liskeard. Phone first (01579 383520) if it is wet, as the paths may be too slippery for access. You can also make contact by e-mail: mike@coombegate.wanadoo.co.uk

Gardens to visit this weekend

Snowdrops are the chief reason for early openings, which have been a huge success for the National Gardens Scheme:

Devon

Three gardens in Cherubeer, Dolton open tomorrow (1-5pm); £3.50. Call Jo Hynes on 01805 804265 or e-mail hynesjo@gmail.com.

Sherwood, Newton St Cyres, Exeter is open tomorrow (2-5pm); £3. 01392 851216; quickes.co.uk

Essex

Green Island, Park Rd, Ardleigh is open tomorrow (10am-5pm); £3. 01206 230455; greenislandgardens.co.uk

Gloucestershire

Trench Hill, Sheepscombe GL6 6TZ is open tomorrow (11am-4pm); £2.50. 01452 814306 or e-mail celia.hargrave@btconnect.com

Gwynedd

Snowdrop walks in the National Trust's garden at Penrhyn Castle, Bangor LL57 4HN are open tomorrow (11am-3pm); £1. 01248 353084; nationaltrust.org.uk

Sussex

Mitchmere Farm, Stoughton PO18 9JW is open tomorrow (11am-4pm); £3. 02392 631456 or e-mail sue@mitchmere.ndo.co.uk

Warwickshire

Ragley Hall Gardens, Alcester B49 5NJ are open tomorrow (11am-3pm); £3. 07917 425664 or e-mail rossbarbour@ragleyhall.com

Wiltshire

Carpets of snowdrops cover the grounds of Lacock Abbey, Chippenham SN15 2LG, open tom (11am-5.30pm); £2.80. Call 01249 730459 or visit nationaltrust.org.uk

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game Of Thrones
Uh-oh, winter is coming. Ouch, my eyes! Ygritte’s a goner. Lysa’s a goner. Tywin’s a goner. Look, a dragon
tvSpoiler warning: The British actor says viewers have 'not seen the last' of his character
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave long-running series
Sport
The Etihad Stadium, home of Manchester City
premier leaguePlus all the build-up to Man City vs Chelsea and Everton vs Palace
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
Polly Borgen at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2012
peopleThe Emmy award-winner starred in Cape Fear, the Sopranos and Desperate House Wives
News
people'I hated him during those times'
News
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
Lauryn Hill performing at the O2 Brixton Academy last night
musicSinger was more than 90 minutes late
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: 'Time Heist' sees a darker side to Peter Capaldi's Doctor
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam