Learn how to grow snowdrops and how to create natural-looking drifts by propagating by division.
- Botanical name: Galanthus spp.
- Common names: Snowdrops, Fair Maids of February, Little Sister of the Snows, Common Bells
- Type: Bulb
- Flower colour: White with green marks on inner petals
- Height: 12cm
- Spread: 20cm
- Flowering time: January-March
- Light: Partial shade
- Hardiness: hardy
Snowdrops are a familiar sight from January through to March and are one of my favourite flowers to look out for in the winter months as gardens start to wake up. They are tiny and almost any garden has room to accommodate them. Snowdrops will naturally multiply over time, but it is a good idea to give them a helping hand to speed this process up. Propagating them by division helps to create larger drifts and patches. I am going to tell you how to naturalise them, and explain a little about the lifestyle of common snowdrops to help you to understand how to create a fabulous display next year.
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The lifecycle of a snowdrop
- Winter: In later winter/very early spring the flowering shoot grows and comes through the soil to bloom. The leaves are relatively short initially and only elongate once the flowers have faded.
- Spring: In spring the elongated leaves and roots take in all the nutrients they require for next year. The flower stem will also lengthen and bend towards the ground – the ripening seed head will rest on the soil. Inwardly they begin creating the flowering shoot and new leaves for next season.
- Summer: Snowdrop bulbs are dormant through the summer (from May onwards). From the outside, there is no sign of activity, but inside the energy and information the plant needs for flowering next year has already formed.
- Autumn: The snowdrops start to grow new roots, once autumn rain commences. The flowering shoot will start to emerge from the top of the bulb. They grow slowly and growth stops when the weather is very cold.
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The best time to lift snowdrops during their lifecycle
Snowdrops “stock up” with nutrients for next year mainly after they have flowered. Ideally, they should be left alone whilst they are doing this so they can take in the maximum goodness from the soil and photosynthesise as much as possible. Their delicate roots and leaves could be damaged during this process if they are moved during this cycle.
Ideally, we should wait until the leaves have faded before lifting them. However, the reality is that in summer when the leaves have disappeared, we forget to divide them, there are lots of other jobs to do in the garden and sometimes forget where they are! I think that it is better to do it when you remember than to forget to divide them all together.
Lifting snowdrops “in the green”
I lift and divide my snowdrops any time between late February and June when they are “in the green”* and before I forget where they are. This way allows you to see which groups need more, or which need to be left to make up for another year or two. You also benefit from seeing a preview of how next year’s more naturalised display will look. I have never had any trouble with naturalising them this way. The most important thing to remember if you are going to do this is to replant them immediately so that you do not allow them to dry out. Try to cause as little disturbance to them as possible.
Lifting dormant snowdrops
When snowdrop leaves have completely died, is a trickier time to lift them as you cannot see them above ground. To remember where the bulbs are, mark their positions in the soil with a cane or marker when they still have leaves. Dig the snowdrop bulbs up any time from June onwards.
Where to plant snowdrops
Plant snowdrops in partly-shady areas in moist, free-draining soil. Incorporate leaf mould or well-rotted compost to improve the structure of the soil. Do not plant in areas of your garden where the ground completely dries out.
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How to lift and divide snowdrops for naturalising –
Now we know when to lift snowdrops and where to plant them, we can start to divide the individual clumps to naturalise them and create new snowdrop colonies in our garden. Here's how:
- Using a garden fork, carefully lift a clump of snowdrops. You may need to dig down deeper than you think so that you don’t slice the bulbs or leaves. Try to cause as little disturbance to their roots as possible (particularly when lifting “in the green”).
- As you go, gently pull apart the separate bulbs from the clump. Keep as many roots intact as possible. Do not divide all your clumps in one go as this will make it harder to keep them pristine and they will be more likely to dry out.
- Once you have a few individual bulbs, dig some small, deep holes approximately 8” apart. Plant 1-3 bulbs per hole. Plant a few bulbs back into the hole that the original clump came from. Each bulb can develop offsets and form a clump of its own.
- Try to plant irregularly, and not in a regular pattern or lines. You can try distributing them at random in the area you are planting first, to help with this - work fast. Once you have allocated a spot for each bulb/group of bulbs, quickly go around with a trowel to plant them. Then, move on to the next clump.
- Repeat this effort for a few years to colonise them and create larger drifts and/or patches of snowdrops.
*Planting bulbs "in the green” refers to planting bulbs that have visible leaves.
If you love snowdrops as much as me, have a look at my sustainable, wooden decoration in my shop. My snowdrops in a mug ornament can be hung in your home all year round and looks fantastic hanging from dressers or door handles.