Friday, April 29, 2011


      This has been a dark and gloomy April, with only a few bright spots. You had to move quickly to catch the magnolias between the moment of bloom and the decimation of heavy rains. I was away for the early part of the month in London and Jerusalem (more about that later) and when I returned there was nothing much to report on but daffodils.
That being said, there is hardly any plant more gratifying than the large family of daffodils; they are the true harbingers of spring. When the first yellow trumpets bloom, you know spring is really here. They are the same brilliant yellow as forsythia, but quite different from the earlier blooming jonquils. Their botanical name is narcissus, but they are often referred to as both daffodils and narcissi, but also sometime as jonquils (which you hear more often in the south), further complicating this large family of related plants.

Daffodils can be planted on both slopes and level ground. Their heads nod in the breeze, and appear to be nodding even when there is no breeze, seeming to drift across the landscape under their own steam. Daffodils are the most gregarious of flowers, multiplying at a great rate to keep themselves company. If left undisturbed they create large families in the process. They are comfortable in almost any location, prospering equally in sun or shade. Good drainage is their only requirement.

If planted in a woodland patch there no succession planting to worry about. You can leave them alone to fend for themselves, with the expectation that they will receive no further attention from you. A woodland setting will provide them with enough light to set blooms before the trees leaf out, and their foliage will courteously disappear into the forest floor as they die down.

If you are planting in a small garden close to the house you will have to conceal the yellowing foliage as it looks pretty dreary for a long time. Try braiding the leaves and tucking them under and around emerging plants. If your garden is in the shade and you have planted ferns, they will start to emerge as the daffodils are dying down, and you will barely notice the change-over. If your daffodils are in the sun consider flowers with low-growing contrasting foliage, something soft and fluffy rather than upright, and you can tuck the daffodil foliage in among the emerging flowers.

If you are not content to leave your daffodils to multiply, the time to divide is just after the bulbs have flowered, and when the leaves are still green. For most gardeners there is other more pressing work ahead in May, but if you wait until fall, you will never find them.
Daffodils with cowslips

My personal favorites are the bold ‘King Alfred,’ the classic yellow daffodil of spring; ‘Flower Record,’ a large-cupped narcissus with white petals shading to yellow; and ‘Mt. Hood,’ a trumpet daffodil as white as its name suggests. Muriel Peters of Staten Island, the most accomplished daffodil gardener I know, is partial to the split-cup varieties, with the family of pinks her favorites. She is more prone to subtleties than I, which happens to gardeners the longer they garden. Her daffodils are in a small woodland setting, planted with their feet in swaths of periwinkle (Vinca minor) and Cowslips (Caltha palustris), and after blooming they are left alone for the woodland cover to take over.

Peters' garden with armillary
Peters fertilizes after the bloom as the foliage starts to droop -– a trowel of bulb food for very clump. Beyond this they receive no coddling. At the end of the blooming she marks the gaps with red stakes and prepares her order for fall planting. She then just walks away and works in another part of the garden with her summer flowers and herbs.

In the fall, the new arrivals are planted in holes about two feet wide, with six or seven bulbs in each hole. Peters’ favorite supplier is Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, The pictures are excellent; the longer you work with a large family of plants, the more important it is to get a clear picture of what you will be adding to the mix.

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