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

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