A Year at Brandywine Cottage

Six Seasons of Beauty, Bounty, and Blooms


By David L. Culp

Photographs by Rob Cardillo

With Denise Cowie

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“If you've been looking to be inspired by nature and everything your garden gives you, you'll be enriched by the tips and wisdom presented in this book.” —Garden Design Magazine

There has never been a better time to dedicate yourself to a life enriched by nature. In A Year at Brandywine Cottage, David Culp inspires you to find that connection in the comfort of your own backyard.

Organized seasonally, A Year at Brandywine Cottage is filled with fresh ideas and trusted advice on flower gardening, growing vegetables and herbs, creating simple floral arrangements, and cooking seasonally with home-grown produce. You’ll find suggested tasks for each month, including advice on when to plant and harvest, how to weed and water, and what to plant for year-round beauty.

Packed with glorious photography by Rob Cardillo and brimming with practical tips, A Year at Brandywine Cottage is your guide to living your best life in—and out—of the garden.


If I had a crystal ball, I could tell you what the gardening year would hold. But how much fun would that be? This February taboret features a glass globe that reflects the forked trunk of a Magnolia virginiana.



Crocus tommasinianus seeds itself wherever it wants, imparting a sense of naturalism.


I cannot understand people who put their gardens to bed in October and don’t give them another thought until somewhere between St. Patrick’s Day and April Fools’. I would like to take them for a walk around my garden in February. At the beginning of the month I could not see a single Crocus tommasinianus. By month’s end the “tommies” are in full bloom, their lovely shades of lavender to lilac blanketing the hillside. I planted bulbs just once, about 20 years ago, and they did the rest. They are prolific seeders and come up all over the place. I think I bought a hundred bulbs originally—one of my better gardening investments. The deer, squirrels, and chipmunks don’t seem to bother them. And even if they wanted to, I think the tommies seed around so readily they could outrun them! Near the barn, the tommies have grown up through the moss, creating a charming scene around a bench. Some people complain that these little crocus get into places where they’re not wanted, but I think it’s a mark of success in gardening when plants start doing their own thing. It means you’ve created the right habitat. On a February day when the sun is shining, the tommies open their petals to reveal glowing orange stamens, heralding delights to come. But they don’t hang around. By May, the foliage is gone.

The long-awaited and much-anticipated Galanthus (snowdrop) season gets into full swing in February. This is a cause of great celebration at the cottage, as snowdrops truly signal the beginning of spring, evoking the opening notes of a symphony that plays out over several months: crocus are the prelude, snowdrops recapitulate the theme, hellebores introduce a variation, and daffodils and tulips are a crescendo.

Crocus tommasinianus comes in wonderful shades of lilac, pink, mauve, and variations thereof.

Simplicity is one of the things I like best about snowdrops. They are not large-flowered or brightly colored, but snowdrops inspire passionate devotion and covetous tendencies. The subtlety and diversity of their flowers is a large part of their appeal—this is one plant that drives me to my knees, to Look closer! It’s also one of the plants that allows me to say I have something in flower at every season: they start blooming in fall and, depending on the species, go all the way through winter and spring.

Bright yellow of Hamamelis ×intermedia ‘Angelly’. Witchhazels come in a variety of colors and bloom over several months.

In February I tend to like plants that have such moxie that they take whatever nature throws at them and bloom anyway. Despite the continuing threat of frost and snow, they provide food for early pollinators and are in turn pollinated by them. You may think of this as genetic evolution; I think of it as gambling everything for love. Even though I love the bulbs and perennials that behave this way, you cannot build a garden on a genus or two. You need a variety of plants—including shrubs and trees—to complete the picture we call a garden. Nothing does this so well in late winter and early spring as Hamamelis ×intermedia on the tree level and our native Leucothoe axillaris on the shrub layer.

Over winter, the green foliage of Leucothoe axillaris gives way to burgundy, which works beautifully with the purples of the tommies.

Witchhazels—the common name of Hamamelis species, because surely some magic must be involved in having them bloom when they do—can take more frost on their blooms than any other tree I know. Certainly the yellow-flowering H. ×intermedia ‘Arnold’s Promise’ is the best known, but thanks to the de Belders, Robert and especially his wife Jelena, who was internationally known for her breeding work with the genus over many years at Kalmthout in Belgium, there are many new cultivars and colors from which to choose. I also have H. ×intermedia ‘Angelly’ and ‘Pallida’, both yellow-flowering. In early spring there’s an argument for using lots of yellow, because Mother Nature seems to be working with this color. It’s easy to underplant with yellow-marked snowdrops, winter aconites, and hellebores, as well as the yellow-variegated Carex elata ‘Aurea’, yellow-spotted ‘Gold Dust’ aucuba, and yellow acorus. However, of late I have been expanding my witchhazel collection to include soft reds and oranges, for the same reasons—to create color harmony with the apricot hellebores, Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ (bloodtwig dogwood), and the bronze fertile fronds of Matteuccia struthiopteris (ostrich fern). This makes my color compositions more varied, less monochrome. Among my favorites are H. ×intermedia ‘Harry’, ‘Orange Peel’, and ‘Spanish Spider’; their colors seem easier on the eye. My gaze falls upon the color, as Victorian writers used to say—it doesn’t bounce off it, as it might off an acid yellow.

Fragrance is another plus for witchhazels. Few plants at this time of year reward you with such fragrance as you walk by outdoors, and cutting branches for indoor arrangements will help keep your trees manageable in size. Some gardeners fear hamamelis will grow too large for smaller gardens, but judicious pruning is the answer. Wherever the bloom stops on the stalk, I prune it. This is standard cutback pruning, and it will keep trees down to size. There’s a little extra work involved in pruning, but it’s worth it to have a witchhazel blooming in the landscape at this time of year. In addition to providing color, fragrance, and beauty indoors and out, this tree has the added bonus of fall foliage color. Definitely a plant for all seasons.

Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ is another color to play with in the garden’s tree layer.

Hamamelis ×intermedia ‘Orange Peel’ provides cheery color on an early spring day.

Hamamelis ×intermedia ‘Spanish Spider’ is an unusual soft red.

A stroll around the garden late this month shows that the mahonias and Jasminum nudiflorum (winter jasmine) are also blooming, along with Iris reticulata, Eranthis hyemalis (winter aconite), Chionodoxa (glory-of-the-snow), and a handful of hellebores. Not only flowers make a statement in the February garden. The bark of some trees is startlingly beautiful, including the exfoliating bark of Stewartia pseudocamellia, one of my favorite trees, and Acer griseum (paperbark maple). Even the spent flowerheads of hydrangeas, with their antique coloring, have a delicate, lacy quality at this time of year, and of course there are the evergreen trees and shrubs, testament to ongoing life in the garden. Green is one of my favorite colors in any season.

February is also a time for starting seeds, planting up seasonal containers, and doing mundane but essential chores like sharpening tools and cleaning the glass cloches that become decorative elements later in the season. Michael sows seeds of Lilium formosanum (Formosa lily) and starts many seeds for the vegetable garden, including sweet peas, which have to soak for a day or so before being sown into long pots (not short ones: sweet peas don’t like to have their roots checked). I plan what to sow in the new meadowette; both chicory and poppy seeds require a frost scarification to germinate, so I sow these seeds in situ, just tossing the seeds on the ground or the snow. The snow works with me, pulling the seeds down into the earth. I’m aiming for a different look in the meadow, seasonal waves of color, as though natural populations have seeded up there, one succeeding another. The question is, when to cut the meadow down? It still looks pretty, but you have to take it down so that the new growth can come up. I don’t want the old grass there with the new grass coming through, so I cut my meadow by early February. If I wait too long, the early snowdrops will be coming through.

Snowdrops are great subjects for containers, too. Here they are paired with winter aconites, variegated ivy, and Arum italicum.

Near a path from the gravel garden down to the cottage, twin containers hewn from tree trunks are planted with Hamamelis vernalis ‘Quasimodo’, a dwarf witchhazel that gets no more than 4 feet tall, underplanted with primroses and Ophiopogon japonicus ‘Nanum’, a mondo grass that grows 6 to 8 inches. Michael created this combination, which makes a really nice seasonal planting. Another ‘Quasimodo’ may go in the rock garden, and mondo grass among the stones. One of my constant mantras: repetition, repetition, repetition. A classical stone planter in front near the barn stairs picks up the seasonal theme with winter aconites, snowdrops, white-variegated ivy, and some Arum italicum that has been seeding around the garden. I just dig it up and put it in the pot. Same thing with the aconites—in fact, the container is planted entirely with things from the garden. I added a branch of curly willow to give it a bit of lift. When the aconites and snowdrops are done, we’ll dig them out, plant them back in the garden, and put something else in the container. Parts of the garden are constantly in motion—just like nature.

All is not done outdoors. Seen here are various forms of Arum italicum, which is evergreen.

Hamamelis vernalis ‘Quasimodo’ is a dwarf witchhazel suitable for both the open garden and containers.

Snowdrops are also featured on one of our taborets, the little stone tables scattered around the garden on which we display still-life vignettes as the fancy takes us. After all, we bring flowers in, or create still-life arrangements in the house. Why not create them outside as well? That’s my aim in this book—to blur the lines between indoors and out. Besides, my taborets are another place to celebrate nature. And the wildlife becomes part of it, too. Once, there was a wood thrush eating berries off the stone, and behind that the snowdrops blooming. It was Audubon come to life. This month, a pewter vase shows off snowdrops, flowers of Hamamelis ×intermedia ‘Pallida’, and a piece of Helleborus foetidus with just the beginnings of buds. And through the kitchen window, a flower box on the porch displays white-variegated ivy intertwined with the delicate apricot flowers of potted hellebores.

Classic combination for an arrangement is snowdrops and hamamelis. Both are very fragrant and perfume the air when you bring them into the house.

But despite all the variety the February garden has to offer, this month really belongs to snowdrops. When I pull into the driveway late at night from a business trip, my headlights hit the sweep of snowdrops, my little galanthus theater, and I feel I’m home. After hundreds of miles of asphalt, it’s a welcoming sight.

So you want to collect snowdrops?

People often say that they can’t tell snowdrops apart. Look closer! Once you can see the differences among them, chances are you’ll want to start a collection of your own—perfect for those with obsessive tendencies. As a bonus, you can take great delight in showing off your galanthus blooms to friends in January and February while exclaiming, “Look what’s blooming—in January!” Or February. The moment is even more dramatic if there’s a little snow on the ground.

A little background: snowdrops are a bulbous genus of plants belonging to the family Amaryllidaceae, which places them on the “not preferred” eating list for deer. All the approximately 20 species are governed by CITES, the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna; collecting in the wild is forbidden. I’m not going to attempt to describe all 20-some species; I’m just going to acquaint you briefly with three of my favorites.

Galanthus elwesii. Native to Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, and the Ukraine. Everything about this species (commonly called the giant snowdrop) is big. The many different varieties differ considerably in leaf and flower characteristics. Galanthus elwesii and its hybrids have long been favorites of mine. They are usually the first to bloom.

Galanthus nivalis. The most commonly grown species and the one most non-experts associate with the name snowdrop. Its native range is primarily European, especially western and southern Europe. This smaller-flowered snowdrop is among the most widespread, least complicated, and easiest to grow of snowdrops, with many different forms, varieties, and plant heights. There is nothing more beautiful than a large swath of G. nivalis, both in the garden and in the woodland. Usually blooms later than G. elwesii.

Although individual cultivars are highly sought-after and collectible, a woodland full of Galanthus nivalis is simply mesmerizing.

Galanthus plicatus. Native to the Crimean Peninsula, northern Turkey, and Romania. Relatively easy to grow and the only species with distinctive folded foliage. It has large round flowers and makes a good parent plant to many hybrid galanthus. Generally a little later than G. elwesii.

Most collectors focus on the unbelievable variety of the cultivated forms. Here are some of my favorite named snowdrops and a stellar base for any collection.

‘Ballerina’. This formal semi-double was found in the 1990s by Phil Cornish, a British “immortal” (that is, someone for whom a snowdrop has been named) with a passion for snowdrops and a very keen eye. This one is similar to ‘Mrs Wrightson’s Double’, but on ‘Ballerina’, the green markings go up only a third of the inner petals. I must confess—I come to most double galanthus with a bit of hesitation; I find their flowers somewhat awkward, especially when they are irregularly shaped. I much prefer doubles like ‘Ballerina’, which are so full and regular, they resemble a pompom or a ballerina’s tutu.

‘Ballerina’ is a fine formal semi-double, appealing even to me.

The way ‘Blewbury Tart’ holds her face up and looks right at you is incredibly cheerful.

‘Blewbury Tart’. Found in 1975 by renowned English galanthophile Alan Street in a hedgerow in Blewbury, Oxfordshire. Fellow galanthophile John Morley came up with the perfect name: one backstory suggests a person inspired it; another claims the inner green segments look like little tartlets. The flowers are distinctly formed in a symmetrical green rosette. It is easy to grow and increases rapidly. It is a nivalis form—that is, its leaves are flat at the base (applanate) as they emerge from the soil.

‘Diggory’. A plicatus, meaning it has recurved margins on the leaf. Usually you have to open a snowdrop to see the inner petals, but the inner green markings on this one are easily seen without opening the outer petals. This is attributable to the length of the claw, the longer part of that outer petal that connects to the ovary (if you think of it as a spoon, it’s the handle). Found by Rosie Steele and Richard Hobbs in a field near Wells in Norfolk, England, around 1993, and named as a memorial to Rosie’s son, Diggory Birtles. This snowdrop received the coveted Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit (AGM).

Note how distinctive the outer petals of ‘Diggory’ are—they are rounded, curved under, and highly textured.

‘E. A. Bowles’. My original bulb came from Myddelton House in Middlesex.

‘E. A. Bowles’. Not only the name of a snowdrop but of an extraordinary British plantsman and author, and also the owner of Myddelton House in Middlesex, England. The snowdrop named for him was found at Myddelton in 2002. It is a beautiful snowdrop with a large flower, all white, poculiform (goblet-shaped), and even, with inners and outers of equal dimensions. It is a fitting tribute to one of my gardening heroes. Yes, this bulb was very expensive, but it now has ten flowers on it. It has increased more than my 401K has. Another AGM winner.

‘Godfrey Owen’. This easily recognized snowdrop, a selection of Galanthus elwesii, has six outers and six inners in an exquisite cylindrical arrangement. It was found in 1996 by Margaret Owen, a wonderful British galanthophile whom I never saw without a hat. I loved her—she had so much spirit. She named it for her husband. I like the more formal double-flowering snowdrops. Galanthus nivalis f. pleniflorus ‘Flore Pleno’ is fine for mass plantings, but I do enjoy the refined doubles like ‘Godfrey Owen’ and ‘Ballerina’ in my collection. ‘Godfrey Owen’ has added value for me because of how much I treasured Margaret. A recipient of the RHS Award of Garden Merit.

‘Godfrey Owen’ is a refined double with neatly arranged petals, six outers and six inners.

‘Grumpy’. A snowdrop I like for its whimsy. It may not be the most elegant or beautiful snowdrop, but it is distinct, and it makes everyone smile. ‘Grumpy’ has chubby-looking flowers, a pronounced claw at the base, and broad outer segments. The inside looks like a scowling or frowning face, so you can clearly see how it gets its name. Found in 1990 by plantsman Joe Sharman in Cambridge, England. The vernation (the way the leaves come out of the ground) is supervolute, one tightly clasped around the other.

‘Grumpy’ is easy to recognize. You can see his two eyes and his frowning face, like me before I’ve had my coffee or when I lose a plant label.

For me, ‘Primrose Warburg’ is the easiest yellow to grow.

‘Primrose Warburg’. This snowdrop is officially a plicatus (look closely at the leaf, with foliage turning under), but I believe it is a hybrid because the foliage is flat at the base (applanate). It has a yellow ovary and yellow (not the usual green) markings on the inner petals. Its name honors Primrose Warburg, who hosted many a snowdrop luncheon. A year after her 1996 death, galanthophiles gathered to pay her tribute at South Hayes, her garden in England, where they found this very unusual snowdrop. The very similar ‘Spindlestone Surprise’ is perhaps a little taller.

‘Robin Hood’. A personal favorite. Not only do I like the plant, I like the somewhat muddled story behind it: if gardening has taught me one thing, it is to be comfortable in a paradox. British galanthophile James Allen first mentioned this snowdrop in 1891, and the plant was described several times thereafter. Not all those descriptions fit the present-day ‘Robin Hood’, which resembles a line drawing done by E. A. Bowles in 1948. All stock today is derived from stock distributed by Elizabeth Parker, a galanthophile whose father, R. D. Trotter, received it from Bowles—who did that line drawing. It is tempting to think that it may have come from Bowles’ Myddelton House. The flower is rather large, beautifully shaped, and held on a very short pedicel at a jaunty angle. This gives it a distinctive poise. The outers have a long claw that is pointed at the apex. The inner markings look like crossed sabers (hence its name—the plant’s legendary namesake was supposed to have done quite a bit of sword fighting). The snowdrop’s emerging leaves, like those of many hybrids, are flat in some years, explicative (folded back, seemingly pleated) in others.

‘Robin Hood’ is instantly recognizable, for the angle at which the flower is held and its inner markings, which resemble crossed sabers.

‘South Hayes’, from Primrose Warburg’s eponymous garden, is a very distinctive and popular snowdrop.

At a distance, ‘Wasp’ suggests a wasp in flight.

‘South Hayes’. A very significant and distinctive snowdrop, named in 1992, when it was first seen by visitors to Primrose Warburg’s garden in Oxford, England. It has an oblong streak of green on the outer petals, which recurve in the classic pagoda-roof manner. The inner segments are green from the apex to the base, save for the white margins. It too received the RHS Award of Garden Merit.

‘Wasp’. One look at its open flower and you can easily see how this snowdrop came by its name. From a distance it looks like a white wasp in flight. The outer petals are long and narrow, and the inner markings suggest a striped thorax. It is a standout in any collection. Found by English galanthophile Veronica Cross in 1995, at Sutton Court in Hertfordshire.

Caring for your galanthus

People say that snowdrops will grow anywhere (except in moist sites), and Galanthus nivalis probably will. But if you want optimum results, you’ll take care of the soil. Galanthus really appreciate soil that is rich with leaf mold and humus. They do not like wood chips around them. They will grow in part shade to full sun, but they prefer deciduous shade, not evergreen shade. They like well-drained soil. I would never put my more-expensive cultivars into heavy clay.

Conventional wisdom had it that snowdrops be sold or moved “in the green,” while they were still growing. But that is a fallacy. The best time is when the bulb is dormant. You can move them in the green, but you must be very careful. If you damage a root, the plant won’t grow another root until next season. That being said, when is the best time to take a plant? When you are offered it!

One thing I’ve learned over the years is to feed snowdrops with half-strength liquid tomato fertilizer after they flower and whenever I move them, to make sure the bulbs have enough nutrients to bulk up and set their flowers for the following year. Most people don’t think about feeding snowdrops, but if you have paid a couple hundred dollars for a snowdrop, you are going to take care of it. I realize it’s a pain, but it’s worth it. Am I doing this every week? No! I feel like I deserve a reward in heaven if I do it once or twice a year. There’s ideal and then there’s real.

How galanthus grew into a gala

More than 30 years ago, Elizabeth Strangman warned me about galanthus. Elizabeth was my hellebore mentor, an internationally known plantswoman who co-wrote a monograph on hellebores and was on the committee for Royal Horticultural Society plant trials. “Beware with snowdrops,” she told me, noting that I had an obsessive interest in plants. “They are very addictive.” I have found that to be more than true, and my great delight has been to share this love with others. Back then, few people in the United States shared my enthusiasm; fewer than a dozen of us on the East Coast collected snowdrops. In the years since, I have watched the genus approach cult status.

I’m a big champion of winter gardens. Years ago, I led winter-gardening tours to England in February for Winterthur and Horticulture magazine. This helped people to see the possibilities of gardening in winter, initially with hellebores—my first passion—and then snowdrops. One of these tours grew into the “Bank to Bend” symposium on winter gardens at Winterthur, and now the Galanthus Gala, held each March during the week of the Philadelphia Flower Show.

An art installation by Gerald Simcoe at the 2019 Galanthus Gala.

Our longtime friend and gardener extraordinaire Queenie Northrop cheerfully displays one of her snowdrops at the 2019 Galanthus Gala.

International speakers are part of the gala’s draw: at left is Valentin Wijnen from Belgium; at right is Tom Mitchell from England. Yours Truly is in the middle.

In 2017, its inaugural year, the gala was an invitation-only affair for a limited number of galanthophiles, but extensive interest turned it public. It now features galanthus growers, juried specialty nursery vendors, and a lecture series by national and international experts. Hundreds of people from all over the United States flock to the gala, which is held at the historic Downingtown Friends Meeting, where I am a member. It is a boutique kind of event where we proudly let our plant geek flag fly. And it’s all based on snowdrops. Who would have imagined it, all those years ago?


  • A Year at Brandywine Cottage is Culp’s opus, his artist’s masterpiece… not only for the seasoned gardener, but for the newbie as well. Culp offers us many pearls of wisdom.” —American Gardener

    “Expect to find a new appreciation for seasonal standouts with this book, with tips on choosing and using them to best celebrate the passage of time.” —Horticulture 

    “This is a book to keep on your nightstand all year long… it proves you can enjoy a simple life at home with a gorgeous outdoor space no matter what the season.” —The News Tribune

    “Simply spectacular… no matter what the season or weather, you can tour Brandywine Cottage through David Culp's latest book.” —Garden Design Online

    “A delightful read.” —Bellwood Gardens
    “If you've been looking to be inspired by nature and everything your garden gives you, you'll be enriched to learn the tips and wisdom presented in this book.” —Garden Design Magazine

    “It took David Culp two years to write his book A Year at Brandywine Cottage, but more than 30 years of accumulated knowledge and devotion to produce it.” —The Washington Post

    “Tells—and shows, through the beautiful images of photographer Rob Cardillo—how Culp designs, plants for, and enjoys his garden every day of the year.” —The Columbus Dispatch

    “When I finished reading A Year at Brandywine Cottage, I wished it hadn’t ended. I wanted more—a sure sign of a keeper. If you are engulfed by winter doldrums, you will want to read!” —Cold Climate Gardening

On Sale
Mar 31, 2020
Page Count
296 pages
Timber Press

David L. Culp

David L. Culp

About the Author

Along with his partner, Michael Alderfer, David Culp is the creator of the gardens at Brandywine Cottage in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. David has been lecturing about gardens nationwide for more than 25 years. His articles have appeared in Country Living, Fine Gardening, Green Scene, and many other publications. He is a former contributing editor to Horticulture magazine and served as chairman of the Mid-Atlantic Hardy Plant Society. An expert on herbaceous perennials, David is vice president for Sunny Border Nurseries in Connecticut. He developed the Brandywine Hybrid strain of hellebores and was cited in the Wall Street Journal for his expertise on snowdrops. The garden at Brandywine Cottage has been featured several times in Martha Stewart Living and on HGTV. Visit him at davidlculp.com.

Rob Cardillo has been photographing gardens, plants, and the people who tend them for more than 20 years. Formerly the director of photography at Organic Gardening, he now works for major publishers, horticultural suppliers, and landscape designers throughout the United States. Visit him at robcardillo.com.

Denise Cowie is a writer, editor, and master gardener in the greater Delaware Valley area who enjoys telling stories about extraordinary gardeners—or ordinary gardeners doing extraordinary things. Visit her at denisecowie.com.

Learn more about this author

Rob Cardillo

Rob Cardillo

About the Photographer

Rob Cardillo has been photographing gardens, plants, and the people who tend them for more than 20 years. Formerly the director of photography at Organic Gardening, he now works for major publishers, horticultural suppliers, and landscape designers throughout the United States. Visit him at robcardillo.com.

Learn more about this photographer