Every year more people are discovering the enchantment the first bulbs bring to the garden after the long winter months. Since 2016, to mark the Year of the English Garden, The National Garden Scheme has held the Snowdrop Festival for visitors to admire the snowy carpets in woodland settings and meticulously grown rare varieties, as well as a colourful mix of early bulbs and flowering shrubs. Look out for inspiring combinations for your own garden or containers. Delight in golden aconites naturalised with the milky snowdrop maids, the pretty faces of hellebores planted on banks so they can be admired and let your senses lead you to fragrant witch hazels and daphne as canopies above the carpets.

‘The appearance of these beautiful early spring flowers really lifts the spirits and heralds the start of all the wonderful gardens to come,’ says National Garden Scheme Chief executive, George Plumptre. An added treat is that many of the garden owners serve delicious teas and even a warming bowl of soup.

Great British Life: Snowdrops, crocus and hellebores carpet the ground this monthSnowdrops, crocus and hellebores carpet the ground this month (Image: Leigh Clapp)Great British Life: Enjoy the snowdrop festivalEnjoy the snowdrop festival (Image: Leigh Clapp)

Although not native to Britain, common snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis, have naturalised happily here over the centuries carpeting banks, woodlands and churchyards. These tiny bulbous perennials actually originate from Europe and the Middle East, and are believed to have been introduced to England in the 16th century, though as they were known under several different names no one knows for sure. Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist, first described the genus in 1753 - Galanthus is derived from two Greek words ‘gala’ meaning milk-white and ‘anthos’ flower, nivalis is Latin for ‘of the snow’. They were not recorded as growing wild in the UK until the 1770s, probably from garden escapees. Christians dedicated snowdrops to the Virgin Mary, scattering them on altars at Candlemas Day (2 February) and bringing bunches into the churches as symbols of purity.

Snowdrops produce one small flower, often scented, which droops its head to the ground and has the ability to reopen after collapsing in freezing temperatures. Plant tissue can be damaged by ice crystals, however many plants, including snowdrops, have ant-freeze proteins protecting them. Their long slender green or grey leaves, which resemble grass, also have hardened tips to help them break through frozen soil. The outer segments of the flower move in response to the temperature, moving upwards and outward to accommodate pollinating insects that are likely to be on the wing once the temperature rises above 10 degrees. Fashionable in the Victorian era, the delicate white hanging flower remains very popular today. Millions are sold each year, with snowdrop collectors and enthusiasts, known as galanthophiles, willing to pay large sums for new treasures. By selecting a succession of different snowdrop varieties the display can last from January to March.

Great British Life: Hellebores also feature in the gardens open for the festivalHellebores also feature in the gardens open for the festival (Image: Leigh Clapp)Great British Life: Planting snowdrops and aconites around a stump is a pretty ideaPlanting snowdrops and aconites around a stump is a pretty idea (Image: Leigh Clapp)

Accompany snowdrops with other early bulbs, at the base of winter stems or popping up through clumps of nodding hellebores. Crocuses, technically corms, are the other joyous heralds of spring, ideal to naturalize in grass and vibrantly colourful for purple and gold carpets. The Eastern European species, Crocus tommasinianus, bloom from late January for around three weeks, clumping up as they multiply, welcomed by us and also a boon with their pollen-rich golden stamens for foraging bees, especially bumblebees. Crocus flowers close each evening and only open in sunshine so planted en masse in a sunny spot they form a shimmering, irresistible beacon. Bumblebee queens, emerging from hibernation, may even spend the night in the floral cocoon, before breakfasting on the enticing nectar and pollen. The sight on a sunny day is bound to inspire and it’s helpful to know they are easy to grow in well-drained light soil, in drifts, rockeries, or even in containers mixed with other early blooms. In the lawn don’t cut the grass until their leaves turn yellow and disappear.

Gorgeous groupings at this time of the year include winter aconites, crocus, hellebores, snowdrops, scilla, dwarf irises and the first narcissi. When visiting gardens take inspiration from all levels, including the first flowers on shrubs such as quince, the massed blooms of daphne, ribes and witch hazels, as well as forming pictures against the bare tracery of coloured stems and sunlit glossy bark of prunus, acers and birch. It’s all about the details at this quieter time in the garden, so immerse yourself in the scenes as you wander the gardens that open this month.

Great British Life: The crocus carpet at Little CourtThe crocus carpet at Little Court (Image: Leigh Clapp)

Top gardens to visit in Hampshire to see snowdrops and crocus flowers

Chawton House, Chawton, GU34 1SJ

Listed English landscape garden with naturalised snowdrops

Little Court, Crawley, SO21 2PU

A delightful confection of spring bulbs and booms

The Down House, Itchen Abbas, SO21 1AX

Impressive carpets of crocuses and snowdrops with dramatic use of coloured salix and cornus stems

Bramdean House, Bramdean, SO24 0JU

A traditional country garden with carpets of snowdrops, crocuses and aconites

For opening times see the National Garden Scheme website: ngs.org.uk

Great British Life: Plant snowdrops under deciduous trees and back with winter stems of cornusPlant snowdrops under deciduous trees and back with winter stems of cornus (Image: Leigh Clapp)

Get the look

Snowdrops look delicate but are mostly tough and easy to grow, especially the ones that naturalise in grass, the common, inexpensive ones – G. nivalis, single and doubles and G. elwesii.

For the best effect plant the common varieties en masse. They prefer to grow in well-drained chalk and limestone soils, rich in leaf mould and organic matter, under the shade of deciduous trees and shrubs

Every three and four years lift once the flowers begin to fade, divide clumps and re-plant to the same depth, to help them thrive.

Snowdrops can be grown in containers as long as you don’t allow the soil to dry out in summer or the container to freeze.

Contrast your colours, such as white snowdrops with black Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’.

Plant bulbs in front of stands of golden bamboo or vibrant cornus stems.