Since the apocalyptic twinning of the words 'global' and 'warming', daffodils that flower at Christmas are held up as symbols of imminent polar ice meltdown. But, with 26,000 cultivars coming from a gene pool of 56 species - with some that bloom in autumn, it is hardly surprising that their ‘when shall I flower’ wires get crossed, particularly if a cold patch is followed by a warm spell, triggering their wake-up call.
Daffodils hail from alpine pastures, they like cold winters, damp springs and hot summers but tolerate variations on that theme. The thirty or so here whittled down from 26,000 will see you through a fabulously long daffodil season whether you garden on dry, stony soil in the Scilly Isles or peaty loam in the Highlands of Scotland.
Daffodils are not as temperamental as tulips but their success depends on your soil, the ideal being that oxymoronic mix of moisture-retentive but free-draining. Some will increase with alacrity while others will dwindle and decline, you have to persevere and try the ones you like in various places.
Much of our garden is sticky orange clay and many are waterlogged all winter. Three years ago I even sank holes using a bread knife into our soggy mint patch to experiment with some snail-chomped stubs of ‘Cheerfulness’ left to dry by the woodpile. It may be fluke but they still flower. Then there are some bits of the garden that should tick all the right boxes but the success rate is patchy. White flowered varieties need more topping up than the yellows, possibly because the whites are more prone to basal rot so I should put a bit of precautionary grit into their planting hole.
Had I heeded the recommendations (such as to prepare for planting by double digging then leave for a season; to add grit and fertiliser; to always plant in late summer so the bulbs put roots down before autumn; to spray spent leaves with tomato feed and never cut the leaves back till they are yellow) I’d have been so put off by rules I would not look out on the sheets of daffodils I do today. Mine are lucky to get planted before the end of November, which means if I am adding to an area for a naturalistic effect, those most recently planted flower later than their established brethren the first year but reset their clocks and catch up in subsequent years.
All the daffodils I am writing about are good for both large drifts or as pot plants that brighten up the front and back doorsteps and come indoors where their length of flowering is two or three times longer than if they were cut.
Best of the early daffodils
The shorter the better with early varieties, as their stems are prone to flop over if hit by a sharp frost and tall daffodils are out of proportion with short spring grass. N. minor and ‘Little Beauty’ are so tiny they can even get a bit lost in short grass so are perfect for banks where cyclamen flourish. N. cyclamineus and N. bulbocodium are also both ground-huggingly short and will self seed if you have a loose sward of grass - on our beefy clay the sward is so dense they only increase if I keep adding bulbs.
Narcissus pseudonarcissus is a bi-colour i.e. the trumpet (also known as the corona) is a different colour to the outer petals (that are really tepals). This and a variety called ‘Topolino’ increase well in grass, not noticeably for the first few years until ta-dah! one spring you realise 100 have multiplied three fold. I prefer bi-colors to the all yellow Tenby daffodil Narcissus obvallaris, and its progeny such as ‘February Gold’ because their edge of orange in early spring jars with everything else around it. One indispensable very bright yellow early stunner though, is the diminutive ‘Tête-à-tête’. This plant is phenomenal for weeks. The perfect partner for late snowdrops.
Mid-height daffodils suit mid-season
The best is ‘Jenny’, with pale yellow trumpets that bleed to pure white as the days progress until they match the white outer petals that gradually reflex back. ‘Surfside’ is a slightly earlier and bigger Jenny, new to me but good in grass whereas Jenny is better in pots and perfect for borders and formal areas around the house. ‘Jack Snipe’ comes in this mid-season bracket, and is a good size for borders but some years I think the trumpet is too orange. Other stars of the mid narcissus season are ‘Trevithian’ a tall bright, but good, yellow with a scent of azaleas, graceful shape and leaves. ‘WP Milner’ is my all-out favourite short variety that increases as readily as Narcissus pseudonarcissus or obvallaris. ‘WP Milner’ is the same pale cream as a primrose, and together they are sublime. It is a bit taller under trees than out in open grass.
Later cultivar daffodils
‘Thalia’ is especially good under any spring blossom from sloes to amelanchiers, apples, cherries or pears as the bulbs look like pools of fallen blossom. ‘Pipit’ has lemon-meringue-pie colours, white where the corona and petals fuse and gradually getting more lemony around the edges.
A shortish, dainty late narcissus that is fabulous in pots and borders is the multi-headed soft sulphur-yellow ‘Hawera’, Divine under trees with bluebells, cowslips and white Pulmonaria angustifolia ‘Sissinghurst White’, or grouped in pots next to pale blue Muscari ‘Valerie Finnis’.
There are lots of good pheasant’s eye type narcissi but possibly the best two are ‘Actaea’ with large reflexed white petals and a button eye of yellow, orange, red and black with fabulous yellow pollen. It competes well in vigorous grass that helps hide its brash leaves. Its elegant shorter relation N. poeticus var. recurvus is so late it can get swamped by vigorous grass in some bits of our garden but is the perfect partner for camassias.
The proportion of most double daffodils is all wrong with a few exceptions including the early ‘Rip van Winkle’, that is good in pots, and ‘Cheerfulness’ and ‘Yellow Cheerfulness’, essential ingredients of my non-stop daffodil and tulip March-to-May mix. Flat corona daffodils look like an aberration especially when the trumpet splays into a bi-colour horror but the clear, lemon yellow ‘Tripartite’ is wondrous. I am not mad about daffodils with pink trumpets but the mid-height mid-to-late season ‘Bellsong’ is essential.
Which have I missed? Lots of late cultivars are great for pots but don't do well for me in the garden including 'Sundisc', 'Segovia', 'Minnow', 'Ice Wings' and 'Petrel', 'Xit', 'Baby Moon', 'Quince', Narcissus jonquilla and N.canaliculatus.
Quantities 250 is better than 25 but never less than that. And don't mix lots of different daffodils in one part of the garden. Even in an orchard it is better to have mixed drifts of an early, a mid and a late than a concoction where each fruit tree has a doughnut ring of different daffs flowering at the same time. Unless a long border is broken up by sections of yew or box, don't let 'Jenny' clash with 'Jack Snipe' or 'Bellsong' with 'Hawera'. Daffodils in borders can pose problems unless you disguise the dying leaves with cranesbills, hostas, days lilies or brunnera. Ignore advice to tie the dying leaves in horribly conspicuous bundles, let them flop. The late daffodil's best border partner is Euphorbia polychroma.
Daffodils in pots
Short-stemmed daffodils need small pots, 13cm x 13cm square-topped pots are ideal, with 12 or 9 bulbs in each. For larger varieties anything between 20-30 cm wide at the top and the same high is good.
Even treated to multi-purpose compost with slow-release fertiliser they have a fallow second year, so pots spend the summer dying back unwatered in my messy zone and when I need the pots for new bulbs they get put in the ground. I have special areas for each type so all the ‘Hawera’ and ‘Tête-à-Tête' go under the hazels, the ‘Cheerfulness’ and ‘Pipit’ under the birch trees etc, that way you are constantly replenishing and not tempted to dot them about randomly. Narcissi are poisonous to most creatures but slugs and snails will feast on crunchy bulbs left out to dry in summer and ravenous mice will have a go at them in winter, but nothing like the way they munch on tulips.
Planting bulbs in grass is a nightmare without the right tools. If you are doing a really large area then you want to lift the turf in patches of scattered not mechanical spacing. I fantasise about hiring one of the large commercial bulb planters used by councils that plant 100,000 bulbs in 90 minutes. The only bulb planter I have found with a good-enough blade to slice through meadow grass is the Sneeboer timber bulb planter sold by www.harrodhorticultural.com. I’d say even more important than getting daffodil bulbs in early is to plant them after rain when the ground has softened.
Best places to see daffodils
- Anglesey Abbey
- The RHS garden at Wisley
- The Savill Garden
- Brodie Castle in Scotland
- North Yorkshire Moors
Best of all, in your own garden towards the end of April, during a dawn or dusk chorus.
Where to get daffodils
I buy bulbs in industrial quantities from Peter Nyssen (www.peternyssen.com), Parkers (www.jparkers.co.uk) - also allow the public to buy from their wholesale mail order. But for small top quality quantities Avon Bulbs (www.avonbulbs.com) and Broadleigh (www.broadleighbulbs.co.uk) are fabulous family run specialist nurseries. A great vase for daffodils is the medium size Grass Vase by Normann Copenhagen sold by mail order from (www.bodieandfou.com). Keep an eye on topping it up, as hollow daffodils stems are like supersonic straws.
Non-stop daffodil recipe
This is a recipe for an infallible non-stop concoction of bulbs that flower in waves from February to mid May.
Take a pot with the capacity of a half barrel, put a layer of grit at the bottom, fill just above half with good multi-purpose compost, (I use Roffeys ‘Container’), then spread a layer of potting grit and push in 10 each of ‘Cheerfulness,’ ‘Yellow Cheerfulness,’ ‘Pipit’ and 15 ‘Tête-à-Tête' so they are just not touching.
Cover with a layer of compost, spread potting grit over the surface into which you push six each of the following tulips ‘White Triumphator,’ ‘White Emperor,’ ‘White Dream,’ ‘West Point’ and ‘Spring Green’. The first two are essential to cover early and late but you can ring the changes from year to year with the last three substituting with ‘Sapporo,’ ‘Spring Green,’ ‘Kikomachi,’ ‘Maja,’ ‘Mrs J Schleepers’ or ‘White Dream’ - any mix of yellow, cream and white. Cover with compost. In the top layer put 50 each of crocus ‘Snowbunting’ or ‘Cream Beauty’. Top with compost et voila.
NB Quantities may vary, sometimes if the bulbs are big and fat there is only capacity for six of each the narcissi, the trick is not to have them touching and put leftovers in a cutting row elsewhere.