In the Company of Daffodils

The obliging and uncomplaining flower.

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Daffodil. Click image to expand.

Here is what is true of almost every green thing you plant: It will die, or it will do well and take up four times as much space as you planned.

The exception, thanks be, is the daffodil bulb. It takes effort to kill this flower, and growing it from a bulb is the closest thing in ornamental horticulture to a 100-percent guarantee. If you have never turned over a square centimeter of soil in your life, you can still succeed. Nor do daffodils take up a lot of room. They’ll bloom and make your heart sing, and then the leaves will yellow and slump down to nothing. And the following spring they’ll do it all again, obliging and uncomplaining.

According to the American Daffodil Society, you should have ordered your bulbs last April (for delivery in September) after attending a few daffodil shows to see what colors and shapes you like.

Relax, now is fine.

You need not go to a show. You can run a search on the Web and call up a picture of any daffodil, from the big bright obvious trumpets (“King Alfred” and “Carlton”) to the lovable miniatures (“February Gold”), and the subtle whites ("Thalia”). Over the last couple of centuries, about 12,000 varieties of daffodil have been developed by the hand of man from the original wild narcissus, native to the Mediterranean.

Speaking of making the heart sing, a brief digression by way of William Wordsworth. His famous poem, as you remember, begins, “I wandered lonely as a cloud … ” So our poet appears to be alone. First problem. In fact, he was with his sister, Dorothy, on the walk in question.

He sees

“a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils … “

Now he has some company, albeit silent and floral. Then the second verse begins. The daffodils are

“Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:”

The line of flowers is continuous because that’s the way daffodils reproduce, each bulb casting off bulblets so that empty spaces get filled in.

Then, alas, the poem turns sickly sweet. The flowers are not plants anymore but humanoids, “Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.” And again in the third verse:

“The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee … “

And yet again, in the poem’s closing lines:

“And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the Daffodils.”

Dorothy has to take some of the blame for the terpsichorean excess. In her journal entry for the day of that lakeside hike with her brother, she wrote that the flowers “tossed and reeled and danced. … ” Plants may toss their heads, but they do not dance. They do not reel. Such treacle is not faithful to the true qualities of the plants. The point of poetry is close and accurate observation. As any sensible person could tell you, i.e., someone who is not a Romantic poet, the essential quality of a plant is to be rooted. This is not Wordsworth’s best work.

Forget the poem and get some real daffodils. Some pointers:

1. Order your bulbs online if you can. You’re more likely to get fresh bulbs that way than if you shop at a garden center. Don’t be stingy. It takes 25 or more to make a splash. Plant the bulbs as soon as they arrive. If you can’t, store them in paper bags in a cool, dry place out of the sun. Not in the fridge.

It’s ideal to get the bulbs in the ground in fall, when the soil is still warm so that the roots can develop. (Though it’s true that in 2001, the year of the great Dutch daffodil gift to New York City, some daffodils went unplanted until after Christmas and they did all right.)

2. Pick a spot that’s in full sun or partial shade. A hill is good because the slope will drain. It’s also a good idea, though not an absolute necessity, to work the soil down about a foot, adding aged bark or well-rotted manure or compost. What you’re after is good drainage to prevent rotting, and enough organic matter to keep your flowers nourished over a few seasons.

3. Plant your bulbs 6 inches to 8 inches deep. You can do this one-by-one via trowel, but it’s easier to take a shovel and dig up a trench. Don’t dig in a straight line, though—more like a comma.

4. THE POINTED END GOES UP. The roots go down. This is the only mistake you can make. Amazingly, daffodils can sense which way up is even if you plant them upside down. The stem will grow down toward the center of the earth, and then curve back toward the earth’s surface. Don’t test this out; the plant will be too exhausted to flower.

Don’t follow the old custom of putting blood or bone meal in the planting hole. The bulbs have a season’s worth of nutrients in the oniony tissue surrounding the embryonic flower. You might want to work a little bulb fertilizer into the soil in the spring, as the plants are leafing up, to provide food for the flowers that come a whole year later.

5. DO NOT PLANT IN ROWS. Think of clusters, family groups, bouquets, comets with tails. Put the bulbs about 8 inches apart if you want them to multiply without getting crowded in the long run. Some gardeners advocate tossing the bulbs in the air and planting where they fall. I prefer to put four or five bulbs in a fairly close grouping, with the tails of two or three bulbs trailing off at both ends. This is how a mother bulb and her pups look growing in the wild.

6. Water thoroughly. You want to be sure the roots are in contact with soil that has no air pockets (which leave roots reaching out for soil with nothing to grab onto). Watering signals the roots to start growing. Leaving dry worked-over soil imbued with the scent of human beings signals squirrels to nose around. One of the great advantages daffodils have over other spring bulbs is that squirrels, mice, rats, and voles don’t eat the bulbs. And deer don’t eat the foliage or flowers. Over the eons, daffodils evolved to contain alkaloids that are poison to mammals. But if you haven’t watered the soil, squirrels will dig up your bulbs and take a bite before tossing them.

The drawback of daffodils is that after they’ve flowered, the leaves ripen to brown and yellow. We call this photosynthesis and we approve of it. The plant is turning sunlight into food, recharging the bulb for next spring. Either leave the foliage alone or wait at least six weeks after flowering to trim it off. To hide the withering leaves, plant a hosta or some ferns among your daffodils.

When you’re in a vacant or pensive mood next spring, the daffodils you plant may or may not your heart with pleasure fill. But you will have grown a flower that looks good and will survive.