The essential beauty of the snowdrop lies in the linear perfection of the single bell. Classically, they are planted in sweeping drifts beneath deciduous trees, demonstrating the awesome power of repetition. But they can also be used in stunning modern combinations. Of the 500 varieties of snowdrop (yes, really), Galanthus nivalis and Galanthus elwesii are the most common. They'll go with anything. Those with double bells need a bit more thought.
1 With Black Lilyturf: Galanthus gracilis, Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens'
This contemporary design classic of pure white flowers emerging from matt black strappy foliage exploits the drama of tonal extremes. The slender, linear thrust of Galanthus gracilis punctuates the black grass and lifts an otherwise dark, flat scheme. You could also use Galanthus ikariae (which is more suitable for drier situations) or my favourite, Galanthus 'S. Arnott', which flowers freely and increases easily. In the autumn, it's worth planting some tulips — I like the maroon Tulipa 'Recreado', which creates a suspended sea of colour against the black, once the snowdrops are over.
2 With red-stemmed dogwood: Galanthus 'Atkinsii' with Arum italicum 'Marmoratum' and Cornus alba 'Sibirica'
A haze of bare red stems draws the eye from a distance, but close up the combination of red Cornus against green foliage can appear brutal. Snowdrops — in this case Galanthus 'Atkinsii' — break up the harsh contrast. Plant a milk-white Narcissus triandrus 'Thalia' — for later.
3 With an architectural grass: Galanthus 'Atkinsii' and Stipa tenuissima
The bright dots of 'Atkinsii' bells appear to hover above Stipa tenuissima, as their stems disappear into the coat of grass. Catching the breeze, the Stipa shifts between an opaque mass and a transparent screen, peppered by the white points of the snowdrops. A smaller variety could get lost, but Galanthus 'Atkinsii' is a relative giant at 20cm tall. Try a burnt-orange foxglove — Digilatis parviflora — for later colour.
How to grow
Snowdrops can take a while to establish as dry bulbs, so are best planted "in the green" (that is just after flowering, while still in full leaf). Persuade a friend to let you divide a clump, or buy them mail-order from a specialist nursery.
Replant at the same depth — up to the white stem — with some sharp sand for drainage.