Text by P. Allen Smith | Photography by Mark Fonville
Daffodils are my most beloved harbingers of spring. I love the cheery flowers so much, I’ve planted hundreds of thousands of these narcissus bulbs over the years at Moss Mountain Farm. I tend to go overboard with daffodils and for good reason. The bright yellow beauties inspire me because so few flowers are as resilient. They’re so carefree and one of the first to pop up and brave the cold. They don’t require a lot of attention, and they persist on their own. You can go to an old farm site, and oftentimes, they’re the only sign of life around a crumbling foundation or walkway.
The vast majority of my bulbs are clustered on Daffodil Hill, and the first to bloom is ‘Rijnveld’s Early Sensation,’ which appears on the dot the first week of January. The next is ‘February Gold,’ and, as you might expect, it begins blooming in early February. After that, I can’t remember all of their names, but they bloom all the way through April.
A few years ago I began collecting bulbs. We planted 8,000 the first year, then 25,000, then 75,000, then 50,000, and it’s added up to over 300,000 bulbs planted over time. Whew! Daffodil Hill is only two or three acres, but now we’ve planted them in the orchard and all around the side of the house. They’ve spilled into other areas as well, and we decided to create a meandering path through them. I think of it as a labyrinth or a prayer walk and a place to ponder life and meditate. Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years that you might find useful if you’d like to create a field of daffodils to call your own.
Caring for Daffodils
For horticultural purposes, daffodils are split into 13 divisions based on their flower forms. Most thrive in full sun or dappled part-day shade. Those cultivars with red, orange or pink cups generally retain better color when planted in a little shade to protect them from the afternoon sun.
Plant daffodil bulbs in autumn after the ground cools a bit. In some areas this will be as early as September and in warmer climates as late as November. Most tolerate a range of soils but grow best in moderately fertile, well-drained soil that is moist during the growing season. Drainage is key, so hillsides and raised beds are sometimes the best places. I like to improve clay soil with well-rotted compost or other natural amendments. I plant them a little deeper in sandy soil and shallower in clay to help keep the bulb healthy.
Few pests bother daffodils. The bulbs are unappetizing to most insects and animals, including deer and voles. If you see any leaves with vertical stripes on them, dig up the bulb and throw it away. It is probably infected with a virus. Watch surrounding daffodils for signs of the virus, as it is spread by contact.
Daffodil Design Tips
For big impact plant large drifts of bulbs rather than a sprinkling here and there. Because their blossoms are spectacular but often fleeting, plant early, mid and late varieties to lengthen the season of bloom. In the garden, plant daffodils with companions such as hostas, daylilies and ferns or an evergreen ground cover such as periwinkle or mondo grass. These bedfellows will help hide the foliage until it dies down.
Keep in mind when planting that blooms tend to face the prevailing direction of the sun. In a border viewed from the north, they will look away from you. Where winters are severe make sure to cover the bulb with at least three inches of soil.
After They Bloom
It’s important to deadhead the plants as the flowers fade. Fortunately, they make excellent cut flowers. Keep plenty of vases handy to make arrangements to use around your home.
Water late-flowering varieties during dry spring weather as the flowers may drop off under dry conditions. Allow the leaves to remain until they yellow. Apply low-nitrogen, high-potash fertilizer after flowering if bulbs are not performing well. Continue watering for three weeks or so after they bloom then stop as they enter their summer dormancy. Water only sparsely, if at all, during the summer months.
Water during the autumn for good growth before freezing weather sets in. If the autumn rains are late, watering will help prepare the bulbs for winter and spring.
The great thing about daffodils is they will produce more bulbs over time. Lift and divide them when the clumps become large and flowering decreases. The best time to move or divide bulbs is when their foliage has withered, signaling the end of active growth. Lift them with a digging fork or a spade, taking care to avoid injuring the bulbs; replant them immediately at the same depth and water well.
For me, daffodils herald the beginning of spring tour season at Moss Mountain Farm, just outside of Little Rock. If you’d like to see these large swaths of gorgeous daffodil blooms, check available spring tour dates at pallensmith.com/tours.