Why snowdrops remind us we should be getting set for spring

Irish Examiner columnist Peter Dowdall advises us what to do in the garden to prepare it for the season now unfolding 
Why snowdrops remind us we should be getting set for spring

Snowdrops in bloom.

It is natural to look for snowdrop bulbs in the autumn as that is the time to plant spring-flowering bulbs. 

However, l would advise against you planting such bulbs at that time of the year for, in my experience, they can come to nothing, or at least, not very much. 

You see, the tiny little bulbs tend to dry out and become desiccated if left out of the ground in packets for any length of time. Far better to look for plants now.

Once an established clump of snowdrops has flowered, lift the clump and divide it into smaller clumps or even individual bulbs. That is this time of the year, from now until late March or early April. 

You may find some available “in the green” in garden centres when it safe for them to re-open but until then, try including some snowdrop growers in your “bubble” so that you can visit, with trowel in hand!

Once lifted and divided, cut back the foliage a small bit but not too much and re-plant in their new home immediately. Not only will this result in new clumps of snowdrops for your own or friends’ gardens but doing this will also rejuvenate the initial clump.

It is something that I would recommend doing with most clumps of established spring-flowering bulbs every four or five years, including daffodils, crocuses, camassia andfritillaria among others.

When you are out in the garden at the moment, dividing snowdrops or not, bring the secateurs with you and take the opportunity to cut back some plants which will benefit from a haircut at this time of the year. Many ornamental grasses, which have been doing their thing right through the winter months, offering texture, structure and even food for the birds will benefit from being cut back now.

Deciduous varieties of miscanthus, imperata, calamagrostis and deschampsia can all be cut back to ground level this month. The foliage above the ground is all dead and can be composted as the growth and energy within the plants has gone subterranean and taken to the warmth of the rootball over the winter.

Now, as the temperatures and sunlight hours begin to increase, the magic will happen all over again and new growth will begin to break through the soil surface, emerging in fresh new foliage.

If you don’t cut back last year’s growth now, you will be left with a mixture of last year’s dead and brown growth, mixed with this seasons, fresh green growth. 

The result is quite an untidy clump and removing last year’s from this year’s, is a nigh-on impossible task. Far better to give them the chop right now.

Evergreen grasses such as festuca and many of the carex should not be treated this way. If you cut them back to ground level, they will, quite simply, curl up their roots and die-off on you.

It’s a bit more labour intensive to keep these species looking well. Any dead or brown leaves need to be removed individually, leaving the good-looking fresh foliage for this year. 

Most of the leaves to be removed will come off in your hand and a good shake or comb through will take all, or nearly all, that need to go.

However, the evergreen carex will normally need a bit more work and a good, sharp, scissors or secateurs will be needed. Some of the carex leaves will be discoloured but not easily removed and will this need to be cut off at ground level.

Irish Examiner gardening columnist Peter Dowdall. Picture: John Allen
Irish Examiner gardening columnist Peter Dowdall. Picture: John Allen

It’s a bit of work but the rewards are large for a nicely growing carex or festuca specimen is beautiful, whereas one which hasn’t been well maintained, is somewhat less than.

ONE of my favourites of all of grasses in the garden for its airy texture and light green appearance is Stipa ‘Pony Tails’. This is technically a deciduous grass though I don’t recommend treating it as one.

It behaves more like an evergreen in this part of the world, particularly in my garden. One of the stipa’s most endearing features is that it is nearly impossible to walk past it and not to run your hand through it.

Take that to the next level now and keep running your hand through it, removing whichever leaves will come away easily in your fingers.

If it is more than a few years old and nearly completely brown, you could risk cutting it back quite hard but I wouldn’t do it now with the other deciduous as temperatures are still too low for it.

Leave it to the end of March or early April and cut it back then but take it from my experience that doing this does come with the risk that the plant will not come back.

Got a gardening question for Peter Dowdall? Email gardenquestions@examiner.ie

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