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An act of Faith

Jan Hearne • Oct 8, 2012 at 9:15 AM

Planting daffodils in the fall is an act of faith. To enjoy the results of our labor, we must wait months, trusting the little bulbs will survive winter snows, spring freezes and our general ineptitude.

Whether this fall marks our first planting or fiftieth, there may be moments of doubt. We needn’t worry. Daffodils don’t ask a lot, but they have basic requirements. Dr. Susan Hamilton, director of UT Gardens, has said, “Few garden plants give as much pleasure with as little effort as daffodils.”

Her recommendations for daffodils that grow, thrive and rebloom for decades:

n Daffodils need soil with good drainage. Bulbs planted in poorly drained locations become weakened, fail to flower and often develop bulb rot.

So what does “good drainage” mean? Cornell University Department of Horticulture advises gardeners to avoid locating gardens and planting beds in places where water pools and stands after heavy rains. To test drainage, dig a hole about 1 foot deep. Fill with water and allow it to drain completely. Immediately refill the pit and measure the depth of the water with a ruler. Fifteen minutes later, measure the drop in water in inches, and multiply by four to calculate how much drains in an hour.

Less than 1 inch per hour is poor drainage, indicating the site may stay wet for periods during the year. Plants that don’t tolerate poor drainage will suffer. One to 6 inches of drainage per hour is desirable. If you have your heart set on a site with poor drainage, build a raised bed.

n Daffodils need at least a half day of sunlight to thrive and bloom year after year.

n Plant your daffodils in the fall so they can develop a good root season before harsh winter cold sets in. In our area, plant daffodils before the end of November for best results.

n Despite years of advice otherwise, Hamilton says do not use bone meal as fertilizer because it can attract rodents. (Squirrels and such do not eat the bulbs, but they will dig them up, the American Daffodil Society says.) Hamilton suggests incorporating 2-3 pounds of complete garden fertilizer such as a 5-10-5 into 100 square feet of soil. You can also use packaged bulb food (not bone meal) incorporated in the soil or applied to the soil surface after planting. Do not put fertilizer in the bottom of the hole; it can kill the new roots and encourage rot. For established plantings, Hamilton recommends applying fertilizer over the soil surface to give the bulbs a boost in the fall as they develop new roots.

n Here’s a biggie: What do you do with the unsightly foliage after the daffodils have bloomed? Nothing, Hamilton advises. The leaves manufacture the food that is stored in the bulb and helps produce flowers the following year, she says. Do not cut them down, do not braid them, do not wrap them with rubber bands. Let the leaves die down naturally. If you can’t stand the sight of fading foliage, interplant daffodils with day lilies or other later-blooming plants, making sure to give the daffodil leaves the light they need to manufacture food.

n Deadhead daffodils (remove spent blooms) before they go to seed.

With all the information available about daffodils, there is still one aspect of daffodil care that baffles the neophyte: How to plant them.

The American Daffodil Society says to plant your daffodils so that their top (pointed end) is at least two times as deep as the bulb is high. In other words, there should be 4 inches of soil above the top of a 2-inch bulb. The society does give a little leeway here, saying measurements don’t have to be exact because the bulbs will adjust.

Each spring daffodils send up their foliage, and each spring gardeners panic when the temperatures drop. Don’t, Mary Lou Gripshover of the Greater St. Louis Daffodil Society has written. Most daffodils can withstand cold; they originated in the mountains of Spain and Portugal, Gripshover said. The blooms may suffer but the bulb will survive.

In our area, daffodil blooms can withstand light snows, but not April freezes like we experienced in 2007. And yet, the bulbs themselves prevailed.

If you doubt the persistence of daffodils, drive by long-vacant home sites in the spring, and you will see daffodils blooming in profusion despite decades without care.

For more information, consult the American Daffodil Society at www.daffodilusa.org or UT Gardens at utgardens.tennessee.edu.

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