I've registered to attend the US Garden Bloggers Fling in Portland, Oregon, this summer, so I suppose I'd better start doing some blogging again or I'll be unmasked as a fraud. I haven't posted for ages, but I have an excuse (sort of), which is that I've been writing a book. It's on Cotswolds gardens, and it's being published by Frances Lincoln in February 2015. I'll tell you more about it nearer the time.
In the course of writing the book, I almost got to the point where I never wanted to see another Cotswolds garden. I didn't want to write the words "box topiary" or "yew hedges" or "old roses" or "pleached hornbeam" ever again.
That makes me sound terribly ungrateful. It's been a fantastic opportunity to see some really interesting gardens, and hear the stories of how they were made. Here in the Cotswolds, we are able to grow all the ingredients of the classic English garden - lavender, roses, clematis, apple trees - which, combined with an idyllic pastoral landscape of beech woods and green meadows, and villages built of honey-coloured stone, creates a picture that is postcard-pretty.
However, we're now in snowdrop season, and these too seem to love it here in the Cotswolds. Indeed, you might argue that the region is an important centre for snowdrops: Galanthus elwesii was introduced from Turkey at Colesbourne Park, and Galanthus 'Atkinsii' was developed by James Atkins while he was living at an estate cottage at Painswick Rococo Garden. Beneath hedgerows and on roadside verges, Galanthus nivalis, now naturalised in Britain, is in full flower.
Snowdrops don't like to dry out too much, but they don't like being waterlogged either. Cotswolds limestone, combined with the, ahm, generous rainfall we get in the south-west of England provides the perfect growing conditions.
Snowdrops inspire strange passions in the hearts of their devotees, known as galanthophiles. The garden writer Val Bourne, who also lives in the Cotswolds, wrote a very entertaining piece about them in the Daily Telegraph the other day, and you can read it here.
I love the idea of celebrating a seasonal flower, and it was fascinating to visit Colesbourne Park the other weekend and see visitors enthralled by the winter display there. There were plants for sale, there was tea and cake - and I could also take Rufus. A perfect afternoon, in other words.
At Colesbourne, you can see sheets of snowdrops growing beneath the trees, above, or in beds in the spring garden, below.
It's quite difficult finding planting companions for snowdrops on this scale. You can't have anything that is too invasive, because it crowds out the bulbs, so ferns, which form a tight clump, are ideal. Cyclamen and crocus, which flower at the same time, are good companions, as are the shrubby Cornus varieties, such as C. albus 'Sibirica' or C. sanguinea 'Midwinter Fire', whose bare flame-coloured stems look wonderful with snowdrops growing beneath them. Hostas and Sedum spectabile are also good, since they come into leaf once the snowdrops have finished.
All the snowdrop varieties (they have around 350 cultivars at Colesbourne) are clearly labelled. This is G. 'James Backhouse' (above), a variant of 'Atkinsii', and a good choice if you want a bigger snowdrop that establishes easily.
I love seeing snowdrops growing alongside Cyclamen coum. The pinks and magentas of the cyclamen flowers enhance the white of the snowdrops, and the cyclamen foliage makes a good contrast to the spear-like leaves. Traditionally in the UK, you plant snowdrops in the green (ie in leaf) rather than as bulbs. The theory is that they establish better, but according to Chris Horsfall, the head gardener at Colesbourne, this isn't strictly true. He says that many of the bulbs are imported, and might have become dehydrated which has given them a bad name. But if you can get hold of good fat bulbs, it is always better to plant snowdrops while they are dormant. If you have planted in the green, and you get a dry spring, he argues, then your new snowdrops may suffer.
I was invited to a coffee morning at the home of John and Lyn Sales this week. John Sales is the former gardens advisor to the National Trust. He is now retired, but his own garden hosts another wonderful collection of snowdrops, growing both in the woodland that runs alongside (above) and among the shrubs and trees of the garden itself. Again, the varieties are labelled, so you can exactly which one is which, and compare size of flower, colour of foliage and height of plant. The foliage colour varies considerably from a deep emerald green to a blue-green, almost grey shade. If you already have snowdrops and you want to introduce perhaps a taller variety to grow among them, I think it looks better if you choose one that has similarly coloured foliage.
Snowdrops flowering beneath the stems of Cornus sanguinea 'Midwinter Fire' in John Sales's garden.
Painswick (above and below), a gloriously eccentric garden and a wonderful place to wander during the snowdrop season.
So where does the marmalade fit into all this? Well, if you're frozen stiff after an afternoon of bending over snowdrops, there's nothing like standing in a steamy kitchen over a pan of marmalade, while the scent of orange peel wafts through the house. Seville oranges are in season only for a few weeks in the UK, from roughly mid-January to mid-February. This coincides nicely with the need to have an excuse to stay indoors and keep warm and dry.