When I moved to the Hudson River Valley many years ago, my mother sent me a collection of daffodil bulbs. When I opened the box I was delighted to see ten different varieties of Narcissus, separated into bags of ten bulbs each. I planted them on the slope next to my driveway, and as they matured I divided and spread the bulbs over the garden. For the past twenty years the entire slope has been filled with daffodil varieties that bloom in succession from mid-April into June.
Long life is just one of the qualities that has made Narcissi a favorite for American gardens since the 1700’s. Their bright, clear flowers appear just when we need them most. But the fresh blossoms are followed by bare stalks, and floppy, yellowing foliage, causing gardeners to wonder how to handle the dreaded daffodil aftermath.
When I first began gardening, the end of the Narcissus season was greeted with cries of “Off with their heads!” It was standard practice to deadhead spent blooms so the production of seeds wouldn’t “take strength from the bulbs,” and for the sake of neatness the stem was always cut to the ground. It was a task I often didn’t get around to.
Consequently, I was happy to learn from a daffodil breeder that I didn’t have to deadhead, and the removal of the stem was actually a mistake. Doesn’t seed production deplete the bulbs? Well, for many Narcissus this isn’t ever a concern. Most daffodils are hybrids, either man-made or naturally occurring, and many of these don’t create seeds at all. When a fertile variety does produce seeds this does not drain the bulbs when the plant is grown in good, fertile conditions. Most gardeners can regard deadheading as optional.
After the flowers finish blooming, the stem and foliage continue to feed the bulbs underneath. These bulbs grow and multiply, and store the energy that will be required to produce next season’s flowers. If the plant’s leaves are cut before they naturally die down, the bulbs don’t get the nourishment that they need. Interestingly, the flower stems are also capable of photosynthesis, producing the same results as three to four leaves. So cutting the stems off does rob the plant of significant energy production. Cutting the stem to the ground is like removing foliage that could be feeding the bulbs for the coming year.
In the effort to keep Narcissus foliage neat, gardeners try all types of humorous, but perhaps misguided, foliage treatments. I’ve seen leaves bound up with twist-ems, tied in neat knots (daffodil macramé?) and leaf-braids held with bright colored yarn. To my eye, the traditional and less laborious solution is also the most attractive. Don’t touch the foliage until it’s dead, but use companion plants to draw attention away from the declining leaves. Once the leaves have wilted they can either be removed as you tidy the garden, or left hidden by neighboring perennials.
Inter-planting groups of Narcissi and later-blooming perennials is especially successful. Paeonia, (Peony), Nepeta (Catmint), Asters, and Coreopsis verticillata (Thread-leaf Coreopsis) are good choices; they bush out about the same time the daffodil foliage begins to decline. Perennials that don’t emerge from the soil until late spring, such as Hosta and Hibiscus moscheutos (Hardy hibiscus) are also good selections, especially as companions for Narcissus varieties that bloom later. Because these perennials don’t break dormancy until the ground is warm, they do not cover or detract from the flowering daffodils.
Routine garden maintenance keeps both perennials and Narcissi vigorous and healthy. Most important is an annual top-dressing of at least two inches of compost. Fertilizers should always be used with a light hand on perennial gardens, but an early spring or fall application of an organic fertilizer is beneficial, especially in poor or sandy soils.
Although daffodils can usually be left undisturbed for years, a reduction in vigor or flower production may indicate the need to dig and divide the bulbs. Clumps can be divided in early summer when the foliage begins to decline, or later in the fall. Separate the bulbs, and replant in soil that has been amended with compost.
When I moved from that house in the Hudson River Valley, I dug some of the Narcissi and brought them to Cape Cod. The original collection continues to grow and flower however, even though the plants are not routinely fertilized or deadheaded. When I was visiting in the area recently a former neighbor remarked on their beauty. “When I drove up and down the road this spring I enjoyed your daffodils.” She said, “I’ve always thought of them as a gift you planted for everyone else.”
Gardeners in the United States refer to most hardy Narcissus as daffodils, although it was originally only a common name for the large trumpet varieties. Although prominently featured in Gerard’s Herball (1633) and Parkinson’s Paradisus Terresticis (1629) two widely used garden references of the seventeenth century, daffodils were not commonly planted in Colonial gardens. However several varieties were introduced in the 1700’s and 1800’s and from this time forward Narcissus roots have been firmly planted in American soils.