Finally! At last! Autumn has arrived in East Central Mississippi! I know my brother, David, is enjoying the spectacular fall color in his central Tennessee home. I try not to think about that too much, and just enjoy being able to get outside without worrying about heat stroke. Besides, our color will show up in about another month. For now, I am grateful for temps in the eighties.
So…I’m celebrating fall by thinking…spring. The early spring garden relies heavily on flowering shrubs (azaleas, especially), cool season annuals like pansies, and bulbs. There are very few perennials that get blooming much before April, at least not here in the deep south. This makes me even more aware of the importance of bulbs, not to mention how early some of them get going! I get very, very hungry for flowers once Christmas is over. And nothing satisfies that hunger like Daffodils.
Did you know? By planting a variety of daffodil types, you can have those lovely golden and white trumpets coming continually from early February all the way into April. Not bad! The trick is to choose the right kinds. Many of the daffodils you see in bulb catalogs just don’t do well, at least not for very many years, here in the south. In general, the jonquils and cyclamineus divisions are our best bet. These tend to be smaller blooms, but don’t worry. They can still pack a real punch of color! Just plant them in groups and stand back and see!
Here is a list of my personal favorites. (This is not comprehensive of all the dafs that will do well here, but I can personally vouch for these.)
Campernelle (Narcissus odorus Linnaeus): Most years, this is my first one to bloom. It’s lovely, very fragrant, has fine foliage that disappears fast, and multiplies quickly. My very favorite one.
February Gold: Solid yellow and fragrant.
Mid Season bloomers:
Jetfire: Yellow with a red-orange cup. A real traffic stopper.
Ice Follies: Pale yellow with a white cup. One of the few large cup bloomers that do well in the deep south. Lovely!
Quail: Bright yellow, blooming in bunches.
Late Season Bloomers:
Thalia: a snowy white bloomer with lovely blue-green foliage. Naturalizes fast.
Hawera: Unique yellow-green tiny blooms that hang in clusters from grass-like foliage. One of my favorites.
“King Alfred” is probably the best known daffodil in the south, but in actuality, most King Alfreds are not King Alfreds at all. They may very well be “Carlton” which is another large cup bloomer that does well in the south. It’s the classic daffodil: solid yellow-gold, about twelve to eighteen inches high. It blooms early and naturalizes too.
And this brings me to my favorite source for reliable daffodil bulbs. Look around you in the spring. Are there daffodils blooming in ditches? Pastures? In your neighbors’ yard? Get permission to dig a few and transplant them into your own garden, being very sure to leave some where you found them to replenish themselves. The ones that grow locally are already proven winners, and they will appreciate an occasional dividing. Next spring, mark your calendar for about eight weeks after you see them blooming. Then go dig. That will be long enough for the bulbs to ripen, but you’ll still be able to find them.
So, you have your bulbs and you’re ready to go….Not so fast! Stop and think a moment. Where do you really want your daffodils? Some strategic thinking can really pay off. First of all, daffodils need sun and plenty of it. But only in the winter and spring. Once they die back and go dormant, they don’t mind shade at all. This makes them ideal to plant in deciduous woods. Also, keep in mind that although the blooms are beloved, you also have to contend with the foliage after the flowers fade and fall. If you cut back the foliage (because it’s ugly), you will kill your blooms for next year. Braiding the foliage doesn’t allow the leaves to be exposed to enough sunlight, so that’s a no-no too. You need to let that foliage stand, grow, and photosynthesize for several weeks so the bulb can grow, develop flowers, and have baby bulbs. You’ll know they’re ripe when the leaves turn yellow.
I have learned over the years to think deciduous. I plant daffodils (and other bulbs) under the branches of deciduous shrubs and under perennials that don’t wake up until later in the spring: roses, hydrangeas, hostas, and in between daylilies. Don’t be stingy. Plant lots of bulbs: four per square foot for daffodils. A small rose bush that is three feet high and wide covers nine square feet of space, giving you room for three dozen daffodils. I prune my roses in late December or early January, just about the time the daffodils are coming up. They bloom, then the foliage stands firm and green awhile; but the rose begins to put on new growth soon, and by the time the daffodil leaves start to flop over and look ratty, the rose is quickly stealing attention away from them. Not only does this method make better use of the space, and camouflage the rotting bulb foliage, it also fills in space in the garden that would look empty with the bare branches of summer blooming shrubs in it.
Another great place to plant daffodils is in groundcovers. If you have an area of jasmine, euphorbia corollata, vinca minor, etc. consider planting your bulbs in it. The ground cover will create a beautiful backdrop for the blooms and the dying foliage will just blend in to the ground cover. Some people plant daffodils in their grass lawns. Think twice about it. The grass wants to be mown most years before the bulb foliage has ripened. So, you have two choices, kill your bulbs or have a ratty looking lawn. I have a large area of euphorbia corollata. In the winter, it turns bright red, so I planted white dafs, not yellow in it. The first year, I learned to cut the ground cover back nice and short in the late fall so that it wouldn’t be unsightly before the bulb foliage ripened.
So…you know where to plant your bulbs. Now, how? You can, of course, use any digging tool to plant bulbs: a shovel, a trowel, etc. But, like most jobs, the right tool makes it easier. My least favorite tool for planting bulbs is the handheld bulb planter. It will work you to death and strain your wrist! I like to use a bulb planter that has a handle as long as a shovel. You just step on it, and it pulls out an ideal sized plug from the ground. But, the easiest way to plant bulbs yet is to use a hand-held electric drill with an auger attachment. This makes fast work, especially if you’re planting hundreds of bulbs.
Regardless, of how you dig your hole, here’s the process:
Dig a hole about 3 times the height of your bulbs, plus one inch (typically 4-6 inches deep), and three inches wide, removing the soil. Add a teaspoon of bulb food to the bottom of the hole and mix with about an inch of loosened soil with the fertilizer. Push the bulb into the loosened soil, roots down, pointed growing tip up. Add the soil you removed back into the hole and over the bulb. Firm it down. Done! Nothing to it! If your fall has been dry like mine, it’s a good idea to water your bulbs once they’re planted. Unless you have serious drought, they should be fine with the rain that falls after that.
I like to plant at least 3, and better yet, five bulbs to a clump. If you have room, make a larger clump and mix early, mid, and late bloomers together so that there will be color in the clump for an extended period of time. Put the early bloomers at the back of the hole, then mid, then the late ones up front. This way, the mid and later blooming bulbs will hide the empty foliage of the early ones.
Plant your bulbs about six inches apart. You will probably find that many of them are “doubles” or even “triples”. These are bulbs that were making baby bulbs (offsets) when they were dug. You can break these smaller bulbs off to increase the number of bulbs you plant, or you can leave them attached. You may get more than one bloom from the bulbs you don’t divide. These offsets are why you leave six inches between your bulbs. As they multiply, the new bulbs will need that space.
Once your bulbs are planted, the only maintenance they should need in years to come is a sprinkling of bulb food in the fall. Bone meal used to be the recommended food, but the new bulb booster formulas are better. They contain a slow release nitrogen, as well as some potash for healthy roots. Water the fertilizer in after you apply it. If you tend to be forgetful, it’s a good idea to make a note of where you planted your bulbs on your calendar to remind yourself each fall when it’s time to fertilize.
Update – I’ve noticed several inquiries here by people looking for one of the drill powered bulb planting auger widgets that Donna mentions in this article. I saw one for sale in our small town hardware store and looked up the company – it’s called a garden auger and you can order one by following the link. However you might check around – the “low factory direct prices” are about double the local off the shelf price.