Experience a Sussex Snowdrop Festival garden

PUBLISHED: 17:34 03 February 2020

Snowdrops carpet the ground at Pembury House

Snowdrops carpet the ground at Pembury House

Leigh Clapp

Shake off the winter with a stroll around a lovely garden resplendent with the tiny nodding blooms of snowdrops and hellebores

Stroll the paths at Pembury House to admire these dainty maids up closeStroll the paths at Pembury House to admire these dainty maids up close

Many gardens open this month as part of the National Gardens Scheme Snowdrop Festival. "Over the past few years the festival has attracted tens of thousands of visitors to gardens," says George Plumptre, chief executive of the National Gardens Scheme. "But garden visiting at this time of year isn't just for galanthophiles who are looking to discover a rare variety of snowdrop in gardens they may never otherwise find. Snowdrops are 
the perfect antidote to the winter blues and spending the afternoon at one of our Snowdrop Festival gardens is the ideal opportunity to get outside and enjoy some spectacular scenes at an otherwise gloomy time of year."

Whether you are a true connoisseur or just want to stroll around one of the early spring gardens to start the open season, make sure you visit Pembury House in Clayton where you will find snowdrops and hellebores at their best in a delightful, relaxed woodland setting. Snowdrop experts and self-confessed galanthophiles Nick and Jane Baker have been opening their garden to visitors through the National Gardens Scheme since 1992, firstly on set open days and now by appointment. They have carpets of some 200,000 naturalised common snowdrops along with some 50 special varieties such as Galanthus 'Mrs Thompson' with its bell-shaped scented flowers, the stately 'Blewberry Tart' and 'Daphne's Scissors' whose inner segments do indeed resemble a pair of scissors.

Since moving to Pembury House nearly 40 years ago years ago Nick and Jane have gradually developed their three-acre garden, which extends out from the attractive Edwardian house and is set on a gentle north-facing slope with views to the South Downs, open farmland and woodland. Although there is some shelter from the prevailing south-westerly winds the site is open to the damaging north-easterly winds and the heavy clay soil is a challenge. "The soil is like concrete in summer and can get waterlogged in winter," says Jane.

Hellebores are the perfect companions for snowdropsHellebores are the perfect companions for snowdrops

Transformation into the informally planted cottage garden you see today was gradual, with no particular plan, as Jane and Nick worked steadily from the house outwards, eliminating weeds and removing the old apple trees, planting mixed native hedges for screening, as well as creating shrubberies and flower beds. To ensure a harmonious whole, with year-round interest, they took care that the beds were in scale to the surroundings with soft curving shapes that flowed from one to the other. Jane explains: "After a year we also bought more land and planted an orchard with apples, plums and medlar, and then a woodland of mainly native trees, such as ash, birch, oak and field maples, with some ornamentals nearer to the house, leaving a large area of grass into which island beds were gradually created with shrubs and perennials. Once the grass in the woodland no longer grew back due to lack of light, we started to create a woodland garden of mainly snowdrops and hellebores."

Today the snowdrops have naturalised to form vast snowy carpets, assisted by lifting, splitting and replanting. New garden flowerbeds with a lovely range of plants have been added, including camellias, ribes, sweetly fragrant hamamelis (witch hazels), wild narcissi and ferns. "One of the joys of gardening is the constant state of change," says Jane. Paths, designed to cross and divide giving a choice of different routes, wind through the sea of snowdrops and hellebores and there are also paved areas, borders and lovely vistas to enjoy. Seating is dotted throughout, positioned carefully to take in the surroundings. "We've placed them where there are good views within the garden or with borrowed views," says Jane.

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