Discovering snowdrops at Colesbourne Park

Take on an established garden in the summer and you would expect to see most of what it has to offer. There may be the odd winter-flowering shrub, or some spring bulbs to discover but the rest of the year is unlikely to hold many big surprises. Colesbourne Park is different as new head gardener Arthur Cole is finding out.

When he arrived last year, the Cotswold garden’s snowdrops were hiding underground. Now, with the snowdrop season well underway, he’s beginning to see what makes this garden special.

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‘Fiona’s Gold’ is one of the yellow snowdrops at Colesbourne

“Seeing things coming up now is so exciting,” he says.

Already there are big drifts of ‘S Arnott’, ‘Ophelia’ and ‘John Gray’ spread out under the trees and this year, there’s the added bonus of ‘Colossus’, which is flowering weeks later than normal.

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‘John Gray’ is out in the garden

“I was told ‘Colossus’ came up at Christmas and was finished by the end of January. This year they were only just poking their noses up around Christmas. Now they are looking amazing.”

Meanwhile, more unusual varieties, such as the yellow ‘Carolyn Elwes’, are flowering in raised beds near the house and in the Spring Garden, where snowdrops are grown with a mix of shrubs and perennials in a woodland setting.

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The Spring Garden has a mix of early blooms

Arthur, who trained at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh, arrived as the long job of lifting and dividing the snowdrops was underway at Colesbourne.

The garden, which has more than 300 different varieties, is known for its mass displays through woodland and alongside the unusual blue lake; the colour is thought to be due to suspended clay particles in the water.

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The blue lake is a notable feature

Every year, Colesbourne’s owners Sir Henry Elwes, his wife, Carolyn, and the garden team, lift, divide and extend the display.

“All that was here was the grass, markers and gaps marked on pieces of paper,” recalls Arthur.

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Viburnum flowers add a dash of pink to the display

What guides the work is the knowledge built up over decades of not only Sir Henry and Lady Elwes, who started expanding the collection in the 60s, but also gardener Will Fletcher who has worked at Colesbourne for many years.

“Having that experience is invaluable.”

Arthur says lifting the clumps was like “digging for gold” – an apt description as some of the snowdrops are sold to help fund the garden.

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‘Ding Dong’

One third of each clump is replaced with the rest either potted up for sale, or replanted to extend the display.

And making the show even bigger is one of his main objectives.

“What I’m aiming to do is expand the snowdrops right along the lake,” says Arthur. “I want different varieties that are diverse enough to show the differences clearly.”

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Cyclamen are an important part of the show

Already, there’s been some replanting on the raised path while on the lake’s banks, where the ground is too heavy for snowdrops, more trees have been put in, including Pinus orientalis and a Californian nutmeg, grown from seed.

Other changes since I last visited include moving a boundary fence to bring ‘George’s Garden’ further into the main garden. Now, you can walk around both sides of the border of shrubs and trees while the arboretum is being extended with more trees and snowdrops up to the new boundary.

The trees, many of them planted by Sir Henry’s great-grandfather the Victorian plant hunter Henry John Elwes, make a stunning setting for the snowdrops, which are mixed with cyclamen and aconites.

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Snowdrops are spread throughout the arboretum

And it’s what Arthur refers to as the “macro and micro” interest of Colesbourne that makes it different.

“You’ve got champion trees, the ‘blue lagoon’, and then the snowdrops all in a concentrated package.”

Colesbourne Park, between Cheltenham and Cirencester, is open every Saturday and Sunday until March 5 2017. Gates open at 1pm and last entry is at 4.30pm. Entry is £8 for adults, children under 16 enter free.

A snowdrop study day will be held on February 15 with snowdrop experts John Grimshaw and Judge Ernest Cavallo. Numbers are limited and tickets must be pre-booked. See the website for more details.

For more Cotswold snowdrop gardens open in 2017 see here

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