One of my gardening philosophies is that the world can never have too many snowdrops. A large drift of Galanthus in full bloom is sure to chase the winter blues; even a single blossom from a long-neglected clump can lift the spirits.
Snowdrops spread slowly. If growing conditions are right, each bulb will repay the favor with a modest clump of leaves and flowers within a few seasons of planting. Then, ever so gradually, blooming diminishes until a few years later tiny white flowers are sparse atop congested foliage. The bulbs are begging for more space.Few plants like to be divided during their active growing period, but snowdrops don't seem to mind. They move quite willingly after the leaves have come up a few inches. If a gardener is careful, the task can even be done when the plants are in bloom, without the flowers missing a beat.
Lest you hesitate - why take a chance? - remind yourself that April is soon knocking. How many other (more important) chores await that will push the diminutive Galanthus to the bottom of the gardening agenda?
It's easy to lift and divide the clumps. Just be sure to prepare a bed for them beforehand, so the bulbs can be replanted quickly.
Dig lots of compost, chopped leaves, peat moss or mushroom manure, or a combination of two or more of these soil amenders, into a bed at least eight inches deep. Soil preparation for the tiny bulbs is especially important in clay soil, for they appreciate good drainage.
Slide a fork or spade under the clump of snowdrops to be divided. The bulbs may have worked their way down to a depth of several inches (depending on how much they were mulched over the years), so be sure to dig deeply to avoid slicing the bulbs in two.
Carefully shake all the soil from the roots and begin to gently tease the bulbs apart. Separate each individual bulb for maximum coverage or leave them in small clusters of two or three for a faster display.
Set the finished bulbs aside until the other clumps have been lifted. If it's a cool, cloudy or rainy day, the bulbs will be fine for an hour. If the sun is shining, cover the pile with a piece of damp burlap to keep the roots from drying out and the foliage from wilting.
Replant Galanthus bulbs about three or four inches apart at least three times the depth of the bulb, about three inches. This will mean burying an inch or more of the green portion of the stem. Firm the soil around the plants so as to support the foliage in an upright position.
Finally, fertilize the plants with a balanced liquid or granular fertilizer, water them well if the soil is dry and mulch with an inch or two of loose organic material such as chopped leaves.
Snowdrops will sometimes push their way to the surface of the soil, until spring rains expose the vulnerable young bulbs. This happens more frequently in heavy clay soils than on sandy or loamy sites, and it's usually an indication of crowding or that the bulbs weren't planted deeply enough in the first place.
As the clump expands outward, the older bulbs get squashed together in the center of the clump and are forced upward, where freezing and thawing cycles nudge them to the surface. Those of us with clay soil are certainly familiar with the effects of frost heaving.
Erosion can also cause surfacing of small bulbs. Good soil preparation and a thick mulch can help stabilize soil on slopes. Plant additional ground covers or spreading shrubs to slow the damaging erosion process.
Occasionally, burrowing animals are responsible for bulbs deposited on the soil surface. Moles and chipmunks find snowdrops unpalatable. They'll push them up and out of their tunnels to get the bulbs out of the way.
After the snowdrops are done, gardeners can also divide winter aconites (Eranthis) and early species crocus in a similar fashion. Winter aconites are even easier to dig than snowdrops, because the flattened irregular-shaped tubers rest close to the surface. Replant them the same way.
After dividing, arrange the individual varieties in drifts (groupings of a dozen or more). Plantings of minor bulbs look better in the landscape and make more of a visual impact than if they're scattered throughout the garden or all mixed up together.