Nothing heralds the onset of Spring more than the bright sunshine yellow of the first traditional daffodil (narcissus) bloom. It is the Spring treasure that delights us all each year. In this article, we will explore why daffodils are a good and cost-effective choice for the homesteader to grow.
We will take a peek at some of the many hundreds of varieties available, and look at where, when and how to plant them. We will examine how we can get the most out of them by caring for them properly before and after they flower.
Benefits of Growing Daffodils
The daffodil is an easy to grow plant, giving a cheery show of bright colour every year. With a careful choice of a few varieties, it is possible to have flowers for three months of the year. They don’t need much care and providing they are given adequate conditions, will thrive for over 30 years.
They can increase in quantity each year and provide a cut flower early in the year. Daffodils are cut flowers which sell well; they are one of the earliest flowers to bloom and many people don’t wish to cut the daffodils that they have growing in their own gardens.
Daffodils last well as a cut flower, but not as long as when they remain on the plant and in the ground.
The traditional daffodil is a yellow, trumpet shaped flower – any shade from deep yellow to a pale, delicate lemony-white. Recent development by plant breeders is now resulting in plants with pink, peach, orange, yellow, white, red or bi-colored blooms.
Among the many varieties available, there are many which are sweetly perfumed, so if you are planning on planting the bulbs near a garden seating area or path, try to find one of these.
Narcissus Fragrant Rose is an example of a scented Narcissus that produces a blush pink flower in May.
Thalia is a small flowered white variety with a beautiful scent.
The most classic variety of all is probably the early to mid season flowering Narcissus Dutch Master. It is a true yellow trumpet daffodil which stands tall and proud. Very versatile too, it can easily be grown successfully in the ground or in containers and makes a perfect cut flower.
King Alfred is another classic, large yellow variety which is always popular as is Mt Hood which is similar in size and shape, but white in color.
Avalon is a very unusual and delightful choice; it will grow to around 15 inches (40 cm) in height and flowers early to mid Spring. No harder to grow than a common specimen, this is a large cupped daffodil with a white trumpet set into a circle of bright yellow petals. An added bonus – this variety is also fragrant.
For a large yellow daffodil with a difference, try Carlton. This is a sunny yellow petaled variety which provides the perfect backdrop for the trumpet cup in deep yellow, almost orange.
Narcissus Tete-a-Tete is a miniature which flowers in April and is only around 6 inches (15 cm) in height. This makes it ideal for planting in rockeries, small borders or in containers. Rip Van Winkle is another favorite miniature at around 5.5 inches (14 cm) in height and which also flowers around April.
For a beautiful cut flower, you can opt for the fragrant lemon-colored, double-petalled variety White Lion. Raffles, another excellent cut flower choice, is a mixture of showy blooms, a striking color and a rich fragrance.
Paperwhites are white daffodils which tend to be produced for the indoor pot plant market in winter and forced to flower early.
Planting, Maintenance and Care
Daffodil bulbs need well drained soil. If they sit in waterlogged soil, they will rot. The soil may require conditioning with good peat-free or garden compost as the soil should retain moisture.
If you are planting directly under trees or alongside the bottom of a hedge, the trees will take the moisture from the soil, and the bulbs will have a tendency to dry out. Dry positions should be avoided.
Try to select a sunny position, or at least somewhere that receives at least three hours of sunshine per day. The sunnier the position, the better.
When planting daffodils, plant the smaller varieties at the front of the border, or somewhere where they can naturalize. Mix taller cultivars into your flower borders or even plant amongst long grasses which will give you a natural look.
The bulb should be planted with the pointed side upwards. A normal sized bulb of about 2 inches diameter, should be planted around 4 inches deep. The general rule is to plant the bulbs two to three times deeper than the height of the bulb.
The size of the bulb depends on the final size of the variety you have chosen, but a standard trumpet-shaped, flowering daffodil grows from a bulb that measures around 2 inches in diameter.
It is always better to plant in groups rather than individually. Alternatively, you can plant in lines.
Unlike raising plants from seeds or seedlings, you buy daffodils as bulbs to plant in the fall. September through to November are the perfect months for planting, as this enables the daffodils to have the cool period they require, before they enter their period of winter dormancy.
During this initial phase after planting, the bulbs will develop a network of fine, fibrous roots which will give the plants the opportunity to acquire nutrients and moisture according to their needs.
The bulb acts as a container for everything that the plant needs to grow and flower; all the nutrients it requires are stored in the bulb.
The bulb is equipped to cope with the winter cold. A daffodil is considered hardy and will grow in US Department of Agriculture (USDA) zones 4 to 9. It will survive at temperatures as low as -15 degrees Fahrenheit (-26 Celsius). A chemical change occurs in the bulb so that it will not freeze and will remain dormant.
As soon as the soil starts to warm up a little and the days begin to lengthen, the daffodil bulb is ready to burst into life. The bulb swells with moisture in the soil from the winter rains and melting snow.
Shortly afterwards, the distinctive leaves appear above the ground. If the ground is unusually dry, then you may need to water.
Daffodil leaves are thin blades of bright green foliage which grow longer, wider and herald the way for the flowering stalks to appear. It is on these stalks that the flower buds form.
The flowers open in two stages. First the petals open flat and then from the center, the trumpet or corona opens.
Where and How to Plant Daffodils
You may decide that you wish to stick with the wild varieties which produce smaller, paler flowers and will naturalize and spread over time.
But be aware that you have to plant them somewhere you can leave the foliage to die down naturally after they have flowered. So for six weeks or so, after the colorful display has finished, there will be an area which can look scruffy and which you cannot graze.
For a neater appearance, you can dead head the flowers once the daffodils have finished flowering, but you must resist the temptation to cut down the foliage even though it will have turned yellow or brown.
You may decide to grow the cultivars. Some people are not happy about growing these non-native species directly in the soil, and opt to plant them in containers instead. This is to prevent native flower species being taken over.
Another advantage of raising your daffodils in containers is the freedom it will give you to place and move them to different locations at will. They will grow well in containers for up to three years.
To be successfully grown in containers, the container needs to be sufficiently deep to allow the roots to spread. Choose a pot which is as deep as possible, and make sure it has drainage holes in the bottom.
A heavy pot is ideal, as this will help to retain the moisture, and also be more stable. You don’t want your treasured blooms blowing over in the spring winds.
Select varieties which do not grow too tall, as these will not produce too large or too many leaves so they are ideal for containers and pots.
The variety Sweetness is as sweet as its name implies – sweet in looks and sweet in scent. Perfect for growing in containers, this charming daffodil will carry up to 5 golden yellow flowers per stem.
Narcissus Pipit is yet another delightful choice for container planting although this is equally suited to growing in shady, woodland settings.
Pipit is one of the toughest varieties you could choose, and much more adaptable to shady settings than many of its rivals. It flowers over a long period, and produces multiple blooms per stem.
Remember that unlike bulbs planted direct in the soil, bulbs in containers are susceptible to damage by frost. The cold will attack plants in containers from all directions. It is therefore advisable to cover the containers or wrap them in bubble wrap.
Alternatively, you could dig a hole or a trench depending on the shape of your container, and bury it in the ground just below the surface. You can lift out the containers early in the Spring.
Planting the daffodils can be done with a hand trowel or a bulb planter. It is a quick and easy process. Make sure the roots, if there are any, face downwards and the pointed end faces upwards.
Replace the soil and firm down gently by hand. Don’t tamp the soil too hard or stand on the newly planted soil, as you risk damaging the bulbs.
If you are planting a lot of bulbs in a row, the easiest method is to dig a trench. If you want to plant a group, you can dig a very wide hole, making sure you allow between 4 and 6 inches between the bulbs.
After planting, you need to cover the hole with a light mulch layer. To do this, you can cover with two or three inches of wood chips or bark. This will give a tidy look and more importantly, help the moisture retention properties of the soil.
Your daffodils may need extra watering if the soil is dry. Watering in the first few weeks after planting is the most important, as it is then that the bulbs are growing their first roots before they enter the winter dormancy period.
Once winter arrives, do not water your bulbs until they start growing in the Spring. This is the time that normally the ground is damp due to the winter rains and melting snow. So it will only be necessary to water the bulbs if your garden has gone without rain for two or three weeks.
After the flowering season has finished, allow the leaves to die down naturally, and apply a top dressing of fertilizer or bone meal. Do not water the plants at this stage.
Tip the containers on their sides if possible, as this will keep the water out of the container and allow the bulb to dry out until the fall when you will start to care for them again. After a couple of years you will need to dig up the bulbs and replace with new.
There are a number of ways to propagate the daffodils you are growing. You can, of course, just leave them alone and many varieties will multiply or naturalize without any effort on your part. But there are ways in which you can pro-actively propagate the daffodils too.
Once the flowers have finished and the leaves died back, you need to carefully dig around the bulbs and lift them out of the ground.
The small offsets growing from little bulbs on the stem, shoots and scales are known as bulblets. They can be immediately planted in the soil by the parent bulbs. After about two years they will produce their first flowers.
You can encourage your parent bulbs to produce more bulblets by cutting them into six to eight pieces with a sterilized knife. After dusting with an antifungal powder, store the bulbs in moist sand in the dark until the fall when they can be planted. Discard any that have a bad smell, or are shriveled or black.
If you want to propagate from seed, you’ll be in for a long wait before you are rewarded with a flower for your patience.
First, collect the seeds from the daffodils after the flowers die back and a seed pod appears. Plant these seeds in a pot or deep tray in a greenhouse or cold frame.
After several years, a bulb will be produced which eventually can be transferred and planted to produce a daffodil. It is also possible to divide clumps of daffodils once the flowers have finished and the leaves turned brown.
With a garden fork dig about 4 inches away from the clump of plants and when the soil is loosened, lift the bulbs out of the ground. Checking that the bulbs are not damaged, soft or shriveled, you can break the clumps of bulbs apart.
The smaller of the bulbs will probably not flower for a couple of years, but bulbs that are around 2 inches in diameter should flower the following year. They should be planted in a sunny spot, and kept moist but not wet for the first season.
This is the practice of planting different plants close together. Sometimes, the benefit of this is to give a more beautiful combination of colors and designs.
It is important to choose plants carefully so that the different plants will not compete for nutrients in the soil. Choosing plants with differing heights means that you will not block sunlight or crowd your plants.
The greatest advantage of good companion planting with daffodils is to hide those unsightly leaves whilst they are feeding the bulbs for next year’s floral display.
Azaleas and rhododendrons are able to provide the most spectacular color contrasts, and really provide a floral display in conjunction with their vibrant green leaves. They should also be able to provide a bit of a screen for the scraggly, yellowing daffodil foliage.
Daylilies are a good choice; their tall leaves and later flowering blooms provide a choice of color, and will shield the dying daffodil leaves from view. Daylilies are also planted in the fall and they both have the same requirements for sunshine and fertilizer.
For a beautiful striking color contrast, try underplanting the daffodils with grape hyacinths. The piercing blue looks so great against the yellow daffodils.
Tulips, iris and peonies can all be planted in front of daffodils because their wider leaves are good for hiding the daffodil foliage and they flower later.
Pests, Diseases and Other Problems
Because the bulb is poisonous, deer won’t touch daffodil leaves or flowers. Keep an eye on your pets too, as daffodils can be toxic to animals if they eat the flowers or foliage.
The daffodils contain oxalic acid, and it is this substance which makes them disagreeable to pests. So rats, mice and other rodents won’t dig up or eat the bulbs, either.
If you get the sap of daffodils on your skin, you may find you develop a skin irritation or rash; this will be more pronounced if you have an existing skin allergy, or particularly sensitive skin.
The most common pest you will encounter is the Narcissus bulb fly; there are other insects which can also cause damage such as bulb scale mite, slugs, and narcissus nematode.
The main disease problems will occur if the ground is too wet or waterlogged; these are the fungal infections, bulb rot and viruses.
Daffodils can produce healthy foliage, but fail to flower. This is known as daffodil blindness. Of the many causes, the most likely cause of the problem is not planting the bulbs sufficiently deeply, or planting them too deeply.
If the bulbs have become overcrowded, they may stop flowering. As a general rule, it is a good idea to separate the clumps ever three years. You can divide the clumps after they have finished flowering and the foliage has died back.
Not leaving the foliage on the plants for six weeks after flowering will stop the daffodils from flowering the following year because it is the foliage that puts the energy back into the daffodil plant.
Insufficient sunshine and poor soil conditions are also causes of daffodils coming up blind. Make sure your daffodils are not planted in shade. They do need some sunshine if they are going to bloom.
If the soil is not adequately drained, then you can condition the soil with compost or manure.
Each Spring, just when the daffodils start to flower, give the plants some granular, high potash fertilizer, and sprinkle it around the base of the plants. Give a second application after the flowers have finished and you are leaving the foliage to die back naturally.
Make sure that you do not use a fertilizer that is high in nitrogen, as this can cause our daffodils to concentrate on developing foliage instead of flowers, leading to daffodil blindness.
Once you have treated the root cause of the problem, it will probably take a couple of years before you succeed in having flowers again.
Almost fool-proof, the daffodil is one of the easiest and hardiest perennial plants you can grow. So announce to the world that Spring has arrived and get planting!
Sally is a retired English lawyer who spent 20 years homesteading on the Welsh hillsides in the U.K.
Semi-retired, she moved to France 15 years ago, where she and her husband set about restoring a 14th century watermill which came with 5 hectares of woodland, riverbank, and pastureland.
Using the skills and experience gained in the U.K, they continue to enjoy working on their land, woods and water.