What to do with 25 snowdrops in a garden in February

February 28, 2023

Winter 2023

Winter for the florist can be long, and for some it’s a struggle. This year the media and even the Government warned us it was going to be “tough”. It has been bloody cold. 

Most florists don’t have much income in January. It takes a while to get your head around the fact that for one long, chilly month, you’ll not be doing much that constitutes “flowers”. It took me a good five years to transform January from a month of angst into one of…go on I’ll say it…one of my favourite months of the year. The month to recharge. 

In the old job, the fancy leather-bound diary would come out on 2nd January and by February it would be full of cases for the year ahead. Some that would excite me and the odd few “white knucklers” that would turn me from cold to clammy as their dates grew closer. 

These days, as my own boss, I can set the scene in January. From under a blanket (or two and a dog this year) I might write a list of things I’d like to do: dream jobs; dream places to see; dream flowers to grow. Some of it will come true, some if it won’t, and sometimes someone or something will shatter the dreams but so what? There will still be flowers. And that’s what it always comes back to…the flowers. They really will see you through the harshest of times, even a British winter. 

This January, when not watching Slow Horses or trying to reduce the toppling book pile (a.k.a every book written by Sarah Moss), and when not thinking about the flowers I’d like to make this year, I’ve had a good few business chats. One thing that always emerges in late January is the lack of inspiration. Without an abundance of roses and all that colour, texture and life, it’s easy to feel flat. Until you open your eyes and start to see things differently. 

I love the winter months for their sparseness. In years gone by I might by February have bought in some fluffy Italian ranunculus or some other such delicacies, because after all I’m a florist and I need to be either working with flowers or at the very least practising my craft. But as with all addictions, you can try and train yourself to want something else. Over the last few years my eyes have turned to snowdrops, so that now each February I crave the sight of them carpeting woodlands and I need to bring them inside so I can see them at eye level, with light filtering through their pure white petals. Also, they involve a challenge, because they are extremely difficult to capture on camera and what better way to spend a dull day in February than with that camera, crouching down outside, sniffing in the scent of the grass as you fall into it. 

Weirdly, you don’t get many dull days in February at Cambo Gardens. It was on a sunny day in 2020, a few short weeks prior to the world changing, that I first saw snowdrops properly photographed by Éva Nemeth. Me, her and Hedgerow (aka Rachael Scott) did a Gardeners’ Lunch photoshoot from the glasshouse, setting long tables with terracotta pots tumbling with a combination of Flore Pleno (the delicate doubles) and, my own favourite, the Cambo Giant (possibly the best snowdrop to use as a cut flower). There was too much sun that day and we all felt so much better after it. And there it was, the lightbulb moment. A day at Cambo is always good for the soul, but a day at Cambo in February after a long January is essential nourishment for the soul of the uninspired florist. 

Which is why this year, 2023, it seemed like a good idea to throw caution to the wind (whilst trying not to worry about any prevailing winter gales) and hold a small class up in the paradise gardens on the Fife Coast where all the snowdrop fans flock in February.

What a perfect day. February 20th, 2023. Six florists, one gardener, two photographers and one traveller from the East. OK, John from Japan works for a bank. We’ve been corresponding since pandemic times about his love of antique vessels and his Ikebana practice and I was dying to meet him in the real life. There were connections everywhere. Fiona, one of the Cambo gardeners, had met Rachel, a photographer, on our September class. Rachel was connected to Edinburgh where Julie, Claire, Sophie and Marion also live and work as florists. Sophie, Marion and Julie are also part of the Ochre team who grow flowers at Granton walled garden and they had met Becky on a wedding last summer. Becky has provided me with a few life-saving cups of tea and Éva has taken photos of her garden. We were missing one. The Japanese connection. The one who would have chatted non-stop to John. Sadly Sara couldn’t be with us, but I’m sure there will be sake drunk one day, maybe with snowdrops, or maybe under cherry blossom. 

We were also all united by our love of a good vessel. Admittedly Becky prefers a log and a few mushrooms but the rest of us have another addiction – to bowls. Knowing this, we had asked Edinburgh-based potter Borja Moronta to make us some special tiny footed ones, with a green glaze reminiscent of the moss that 25 perfect Cambo snowdrops are packaged in. And there it was: what to do with 25 snowdrops, a bowl, a garden full of skeleton treasure, some winter light and a camera.

After an early morning wander, to rustle through the grasses and breathe in the soothing sea air, and with mugs of warmed Feragaia and Eva’s almond biscuits we settled down in the stables studio for a camera chat. On my list of top stuff to chat about, photography is up there with vessels and flowers. Already I could feel the cotton wool that protects my brain in winter floating  away as a soft Hungarian voice spoke about creating painterly visions using the garden as a backdrop and blurring the boundaries by shooting through leaves or grasses. 

And then came the quiet time. The silent half an hour as everyone made what Éva will refer to as “their things”. The “things” turned out to be tiny floral/botanical sculptures reflecting the Winter garden to perfection. All very different but with that common thread woven through…the humble snowdrop, lighting the room like a couple of hundred candles and with strands of ochre coloured grasses or epimedium leaves or the orange seed heads of the common Iris providing shadows for the tiny white flowers to spring out of. 

Photos by Éva Németh

The idea was for everyone to photograph their own work. A window ledge with a nice bit of side light was found. The Cambo tunnel never fails to provide the best backdrop. But, on this day, some sought out snowdrops in the wild to act as an authentic way to merge bowl and landscape. There’s a ledge in the garden that you can sit on where there’s a small raised carpet of snowdrops. Just near the water, behind the ramshackle shed that would make a good studio. I sat on that ledge a lot.

Photos by Éva Németh

It was on that ledge I finally realised why this garden is magic. At snowdrop time the place is packed. Overflow car park. Cafe at full, steaming tilt. But when you walk through the gate into the walled garden, if you want to be, you are alone, in another world. It’s as if time stands still, and I can only assume some form of magic makes all of the other people invisible. Sounds daft I know, but it’s the only explanation…unless they are all just there for the vegan haggis sausage rolls in the cafe. 

As if by magic we ended the day smiling, and, dare I say, inspired. “A day spent with like-minded people does the world of good,” wrote Sophie on Instagram. She’s not wrong. And I’d also add this: time spent looking at light through snowdrops in winter is never time wasted. Very soon it will be Spring and we’ll wonder where time has gone. 

Useful information: 

You can buy snowdrops on line for next day delivery via Cambo Gardens – https://www.cambogardens.org.uk/product-category/mail-order-bulbs/single-snowdrops/

Borja Moronta, potter – https://www.borjamoronta.com

Éva Nemeth, photographer, holds regular classes around the country including two here this year – https://www.evanemeth.com/

Feragaia is an alcohol-free botanical-type drink that originates in Fife – https://feragaia.com/

Cambo Classes: there’s one mid summer on 26th June – https://simplybyarrangement.co.uk/shop/cambo-early-summer-class/ – and there are just a couple of places left on our annual September class with Hedgerow.