The first sight of a daffodil, whether in your garden or in a store, is proof that spring is here. Even better, they’re practically foolproof to grow. They’re perennial bulbs, coming back year after year. They’re cold hardy and don’t need summer water to thrive. They’re also not a target for deer or gophers. If you want to enjoy these bulbs come spring, though, fall is the time to plant.
Caution: Keep daffodil bulbs away from pets, as they are toxic.
Botanical name: Narcissus spp.
Common names: Daffodil, jonquil, narcissus
Origin: Native to Europe and North Africa
Bloom season: Late winter and spring; rebloom every year
Where they grow: Hardy to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 40 degrees Celsius (USDA zones 3 to 9)
Light requirements: Full sun
Water requirements: Regular water when growing and blooming
Benefits and tolerances: Easy to grow; tolerate most soils and prefer dry conditions in summer; deer, rabbits, gophers, squirrels and chipmunks all avoid them.
When to plant: Begin planting bulbs when the soil begins to cool, approximately two to four weeks before you expect the ground to freeze in colder climates. That might be as early as September in the coldest climates but is more likely October in most locations.
If you live in a warm-winter climate where freezes are late or unlikely, buy the bulbs early when you have the best selection; then store them in a cool, dry spot out of sunlight until your soil temperature has reached about 60 degrees Fahrenheit, or 15.6 degrees Celsius, usually around mid-November.
Daffodil basics. Daffodil lovers and experts categorize the Narcissus genus into 13 divisions. If that is overwhelming, take the easier approach and use familiar common names. Daffodil is used for those with larger blooms, while narcissus refers to those with smaller flowers, which usually bloom early. The paperwhite narcissus, a favorite for forcing, falls into this latter category. Jonquil denotes the N. jonquilla species and its hybrids.
Choosing bulbs. Look for bulbs that feel firm and heavy and don’t show any signs of injury. Store in a cool, dry, airy spot out of direct sunlight before planting.
You might also find other daffodil species and hybrids. ‘Tête-à-Tête’ and fragrant ‘Tiny Bubbles’ are only about 6 inches tall and work well in rock gardens.
If your local selection is limited or you want something unusual, order bulbs online. They will be shipped to you when it’s the right time to plant in your climate zone. Some good sources for bulbs include Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, John Scheepers and White Flower Farm.
Where to plant. Choose a spot in full sun, although in the hottest climates they will prefer partial shade once they finish blooming. Daffodils will tolerate most soils as long as they drain well, though they prefer acidic to neutral soil. Amend your soil before planting if it doesn’t drain well.
How to use it. Plant en masse or set them among other plants in a garden bed or border. Daffodils also are good choices for containers.
Daffodils can be used to create a woodland or meadow effect. Simply toss a handful of bulbs into a prepared planting area in order to create a more naturalistic design. Adjust the bulbs as needed so the center and one end of the bed are more densely planted, giving the effect that the bulbs have gradually spread from a single spot.
Daffodils are popular cut flowers as well. They’re fine when used alone in an arrangement, but they emit a fluid that will cause other flowers to wilt. If you’re using them in a mixed arrangement, soak them overnight in a separate vase or container before adding them in with the other flowers.
How to plant. Set bulbs, pointed ends up, into the soil two to three times as deep as they are tall, between 3 and 5 inches deep for smaller bulbs and up to 6 inches deep for larger ones. Be sure there will be at least 3 inches of soil over the bulbs in colder climates. Space smaller bulbs about three times their width when planting and larger ones at least 6 to 8 inches apart. If you want, you can add a small amount of bulb fertilizer around the bulbs at this time. Cover with soil, and water thoroughly.
Growing notes. Daffodils are easy to care for once they’re in the ground. Provide additional water in fall if it is dry and through the winter in drought-prone areas. Provide regular water if Mother Nature doesn’t while they are growing and when they’re in bloom. Keep watering until the leaves start to turn yellow; then stop.
Daffodils don’t need summer water. If they get much rain, be sure the soil drains well to prevent bulb rot and other problems.
You don’t need to fertilize bulbs. If you do want to give the blooms some extra help, top-dress the area around the bulbs with a 5-10-10 granular fertilizer when the leaves begin to emerge.
Deadhead the blooms once they’ve faded if you want, but keep the leaves in place. Remove the leaves once they’re completely yellow, lightly work the soil around the plants and then add mulch. You can also add a small amount of 5-10-10 fertilizer around the bulbs at this time if flower production is fading.
Divide only when flower production begins to falter. The best time to do this is right before the foliage completely yellows. Simply dig up the clumps and divide into smaller sections. Replant immediately, or store them in paper bags or ventilated sacks (nylons work well) in a cool, dry, airy spot out of the sun.
Pests are rare, but the narcissus bulb fly can be a problem. Don’t plant any bulbs that are soft or damaged, and cultivate and mulch after foliage dies down to prevent them from finding their way to the bulbs.
Container culture. Daffodils are standouts in containers. You can plant a single daffodil in a 1-gallon container, three to four in a 2-gallon container or masses of them in larger containers. Add potting soil to your container so the bulbs will sit at the same depth as they would in the garden. Rather than spacing them out, crowd the bulbs together to get a massed effect when they’re in bloom. Water thoroughly, and provide water throughout the fall and winter and into the growing season if you don’t get regular rain or snow cover.
In warmer-winter climates, keep the container outdoors and provide additional water if you don’t have enough rainfall. In cold-winter climates where containers are vulnerable, bring into a greenhouse or unheated garage or shed. Water regularly if they won’t receive regular moisture. Bring the containers to the foreground of your garden when they’re in bloom. (You can even sink them into the ground.)
For larger bulbs, one season in a container is all you can expect. Smaller ones, however, can last several years. If you want to keep them going, move containers to an out-of-the-way, sunny spot after the blooms fade. Once the leaves are yellowed, cut them off and add a 5-10-10 fertilizer around the bulbs. Cover with mulch. Begin watering again in fall as needed.