Using small bulbs in your garden

Small bulbs, such as snowdrops, irises, aconites and crocuses, hit the spot for Ursula Cholmeley.

The days are lengthening and the first shoots are starting through the ground. Occasionally, spring is detectable on a warmish zephyr. It’s the time of year when small groups of people can be found huddled around small groups of flowers.

For the really committed, there is joy to be had in closely studying the many varieties of snowdrops (and, increasingly, aconites); if you choose different varieties, their season can last for months.

Galanthus elwesii Fred’s Giant is one of the first to come out and makes an excellent show of fat, white flowers under our red-stemmed dogwood in the Secret Garden. Its enormous bulbs (for a snowdrop) bulk up easily and, because it’s so early to flower, it is suitable for combining with the yellow winter aconite.

These two will be in flowerby mid to late January, depending on the season, and are joined by the best of late-winter flowers: the Iris reticulata group. They grow 3in–6in tall and, depending on the cultivar, their diminutive iris flowers are in various shades of blue and rich, deep purple (and also yellow in a few species), picked out with intricate markings.

The small bulbs can have a fairly complex parentage, but, as a group, they’re good value and easy to plant. Named forms of these irises thrive on our well-drained soil. Try Iris Gordon, an entrancing, winter-sky blue bloom with velvety, dark-blue tips. Slightly later is Harmony, with rounded cobalt-blue petals. We weave plantings of their bulbs around our snowdrops and beside the pale-lilac Crocus tommasinianus to good effect.

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Iris Katharine Hodgkin has exceptionally even blooms and her bleached-denim flowers look excellent packed tightly together. Ours are in the Secret Garden (which isn’t very secret, but visitors often steam past it). They grow there with other flowers I like to get a close look at on a cold day. Alternatively, these gorgeous flowers do look beautiful when grown in terracotta pans to be appreciated near the house, perhaps on a low wall. I try to place groups of bulbs where the view is small and they can therefore be appreciated: en route from the garden into the house, for example.

Consideration of scent is vital in a spring planting and we would now not be without Skimmia x confusa Kew Green, a neat, evergreen low shrub with a generous perfume. We’ve added it to our woodland walk with winter-flowering Daphne odora Aureo-marginata for a succession of scent. For larger spaces, Lonicera fragrantissima is similarly powerful. Its small white flowers decorating bare stems add to the honey scent released by drifts of snowdrops on the banks. We tend to tuck this shrub away where its rather scruffy habit won’t detract from summer plantings.

Snowdrop enthusiasts are often excellent at creating remarkable woodland effects in cottage garden spaces and the best use of late-winter flowers I have seen is in such gardens, with bulbs concentrated under deciduous trees or shrubs. These gardens may not be open very often, except for charity, which reminds me that now is the perfect time to order the National Gardens Scheme Yellow Book ( or to see this year’s late-winter flowers.

With our gravel paths being regularly kicked up by winter boots, we’re often out raking and, recently, we’ve been trialling the Gillhams Gravel Rake ( on pea gravel in front of our long borders and across the ornamental bridge. It’s easy to use on wide, straight areas and the tines leave tidy tramlines. As a bonus, it’s excellent for freshening up old bark paths.

Ursula Cholmeley owns Easton Walled Gardens, open for snow-drop week, February 14–22 daily, 11am–4pm (01476 530063; Small numbers of Galanthus elwesii Fred’s Giant are available via the online shop