Snowdrops’ obliging nature makes them ideal for most gardens. Happy to naturalise through grass or under trees, they can also be tucked under shrubs or hedges to add sparkle to the winter scene. At Cotswold Farm this versatility has been exploited to the full and come February every nook and cranny is tinged white.
The collection was begun in the 1930s when the house was enlarged in the Arts and Crafts style by Sir John and Lady Birchall. The sloping site was divided into ‘garden rooms’ with a terrace designed by Norman Jewson and long vistas out into the Cotswold countryside; the garden is 700ft above sea level and the ‘borrowed views’ are an important element.
Snowdrops permeate every corner of the garden, now owned by Iona Birchall. The beech wood is gradually being colonised by drifts of the scented ‘S. Arnott’ and the common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis; varieties including ‘Ransom’s Dwarf’ and ‘Anglesey Abbey’ are conveniently placed at eye-level in the rock border; even the Bog Garden has clumps of white.
Most of the ‘special’ snowdrops are found in the shrub borders and the range is wide from the rounded blooms of ‘Hill Poe’ and the double ‘Hippolyta’ to the dark green leaved ‘Woronowii’ and the yellow ‘Wendy’s Gold’.
Some have connections to the garden: ‘Mary Biddolph’ is named for the woman behind another great Gloucestershire garden, Rodmarton Manor, who was originally a Birchall.
“She is flourishing here and doing very well indeed,” says Iona of the snowdrop that she refers to as ‘Aunt Mary’.
Then there’s ‘Ruth Birchall’, called after one of the many women who have shaped the Cotswold Farm garden, ‘Daglingworth’, a tall, statuesque snowdrop, which was discovered in that Cotswold village by Ruth, and ‘Cotswold Farm’ itself.
Another tall variety, ‘Benhall Beauty’, is slowly spreading through the island beds on the terrace, part of a deliberate plan to enhance what is predominantly a summer display that includes lavender, penstemon and roses.
It’s not just snowdrops that are brightening the garden. On the cold winter day I visited, Cornus mas was in full flower, a yellow cloud above leafless shrubs, burnished red bark on a Prunus tibetica was set against the white and gold of snowdrops and aconites, and the Step Garden was glowing with red and orange-stemmed dogwoods.
There are hellebores throughout: simple singles, frilly doubles, cool cream, pale pink and sultry purple. The paper-like blooms of Iris unguicularis nestle in beds of strappy foliage and the scent of daphne, sarcococca and winter honeysuckle are carried on the cool air.
The stripped back season also exposes the fine bones of this garden from hard landscaping, including old Cotswold stone walls and a gazebo in the Step Garden, to the living structures of clipped box and gnarled trees.
February belongs to the snowdrops though and their ability to lift the spirits in the depths of winter is eagerly awaited.
“They’ve been twinkling in the dark evenings and dark mornings,” says Iona. “It’s always special.”
• Cotswold Farm at Duntisbourne Abbots, Cirencester, is open from 11am to 3pm on Saturday and Sunday February 6 and 7 in aid of Cobalt. It is also open on Mondays February 8, 15, 22 and 29. Admission is from 11-3pm and costs £5, children under 16 enter free.
• Details: http://www.cotswoldfarmgardens.org.uk/