By Stephanie Hudak, Columnist
t’s not even winter and I’m talking about spring! Actually I’m talking about daffodils now because they need to be planted in the fall and we are quickly leaving that season. Even if you don’t like flowers or gardening, daffodils create such a joyful experience in early spring after a long dreary winter that even grumpy ol’ Scrooge might break out in a smile. How hard can it be to grow something that even with total neglect pops out of the roadside ditches all over the countryside? Not hard, but with a little TLC you can have beautiful, healthy waves of flowers that range in color from white to orange. While I said they grow anywhere, actually they don’t grow in southern Florida. But hey, who needs daffodils when you got palm trees and citrus groves. They love full sun but will do OK in part sun. The early bloomers will come up in deciduous woodland settings and thrive since they get sunlight through the bare branches. They are pretty tough plants. You can dig a hole in our nasty clay soil and probably get decent flowers, but they really prefer a nice loamy soil – what plant doesn’t? They also prefer well-drained soil that is moist during the growing season. Most of the popular species prefer neutral to acidic soil but some actually prefer a slightly alkaline soil, so you might want to ask your local nursery what kind of soil is best for the variety you have chosen, or check online. First rule is to buy high quality bulbs. Make sure they are not dried out and the larger the bulb, the better. If a friend is sharing bulbs and you can’t plant them right away, store them in a bag with slightly dampened peat moss. Planting is best done in the fall about two to four weeks before the ground freezes. We’re pretty safe here for a while but don’t wait too long. The bulbs need to establish a good root system before they bloom. “How deep?” is the most often asked question. Put them in the ground two to five times their own length. If the bulb is 2 inches long then it goes 4 inches down into the soil. If you are putting these around your mountain cabin, it is best to ensure that there is at least 3 inches of soil covering the bulb. I don’t really need to tell you to be sure that the “pointy side” is up, do I? While daffodils seem to like growing in a crowd, it is best to space them 3-6 inches apart.
They will multiply over time and this spacing will help – overly crowded plants don’t bloom as well. And a little bulb fertilizer in the bottom of the hole at planting time will be much appreciated by the plant. Now that these delights of spring are in the ground, how best to care for them? As I said, you don’t have to do anything much, but some basic care will give you bigger flowers that will bloom for many years. If your plants are not performing well, apply a low-nitrogen (nitrogen makes leaves), high-potash (makes flowers) fertilizer after they are finished blooming. Some years we have a dry spring, so for those late blooming daffodils, be sure to water them. Dry conditions may cause the flowers to not appear. If you do have huge waves of daffodils, then deadheading is impractical. But if you can, remove the spent blooms – much more attractive than droopy, wet tissue-looking clumps. More importantly, allow the leaves to remain for at least six weeks. I know, you are all saying “That’s uglier than spent flower heads.” True. But it is critical for the plant to allow photosynthesis to occur in order to store energy in the bulbs for next year. And to have sufficient photosynthesis the leaves need as much exposure to the sun as possible, so resist the urge to fold those leaves over and tied up with a rubber band. Better to plant other spring/summer flowers around them to hide the dying leaves.
When it is time to remove the dead leaves, you can either snip them off at the base or twist and gently pull them off. As one last gift, add bone meal to the soil for next year’s blooms. Now here is the best news of all. Daffodils tend to resist deer, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks and other rodents. These critters don’t like the taste of any bulbs in the Narcissus family. That’s the good news. Like all plants, daffodils still have pests that can cause serious problems, but most of them occur underground: bulb scale mites, narcissus nematodes, basal rot, and fungal infections. If you are having serious issues with the above-ground portion of the plant, it is probably wise to dig up the bulbs and investigate what is happening there. Our county Extension Agent might be a good person to help with these mysteries.
Daffodils make for lovely cut arrangements. But do note that their stems secrete a fluid that promotes the wilting of other flowers in the vase. So soak the daffodils by themselves as long as possible and add them to the arrangement at the very last. Who would have thought that such a tough, ol’ plant would need this much care. But everything – and everyone – grows better with loving care; look at what happened to Scrooge at the end of the story. I’ll bet he even got a hug from Tiny Tim. Hard to hug a daffodil but easy to hug a friend – go for it. My thanks to Chris Lambert for asking me a simple question about her daffodils; it prompted me to share this information with you all. Christmas gift idea: perfect for planting bulbs is the Hori Hori knife. It is serrated on one side to help cut through roots and has inch markings to determine depth. Easy to find online. Be sure to get the stainless steel variety. “Daffodils, that come before the swallow dares, and take the winds of March with beauty.” William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale