It's time once more to think of flowering bulbs and to plant them this month and next, and (for tulips and lilies) well into November.
It has been 10 years now since I planted a batch of 25 daffodil bulbs, 'February Gold.' By now, some of them have died out, but others have increased greatly. In those years I have done nothing more than pull out an occasional maple or oak or dogwood springing up among these bulbs. I have not fertilized them or sprayed them for bugs or watered them or cultivated them; they have just sat there, in the substantial shade of a large old red maple, in a curve in front of some scarlet azaleas (which mercifully bloom after the intense yellow daffodils have faded).
For a month every year, from March 17 to April 17, I have this pleasant mass of yellow flowers, and then when they are done I let the leaves die down naturally. Maybe they are unsightly, but if they are I have never noticed it, since in front of the daffodils, along the slate walk, there are some box bushes and yellow epimediums, and behind the daffodils are the red azaleas, and once the daffodil blooms are gone, I am looking at these other things.
When I was quite young I planted daffodils in a neat row, the bulbs neatly and precisely spaced 10 inches from the next. They didn't look as bad you might think.
Next I planted (when I was in my early 20s) daffodils in a great mass, all kinds mixed up together. This also did not look as bad as some writers say, and in fact was lovely year after year.
Still later I planted daffodils in clumps of six bulbs of one variety along a border, and this looked fine. Once, in my 30s, I followed somebody's suggestion and planted daffodils in checkerboard squares alternating with tall bearded irises. That did not work well.
I notice English gardeners who are nuts about both daffodils and irises often recommend planting them together. The irises come along after the daffodils are past, and both are dug up after three years.
Which is fine, no doubt, in England. With me, in our Climatic Zone 70 and its continental climate, it did not work because the irises could not stand being left alone for three years without division and replanting, and the daffodils could be left alone longer.
Furthermore, the English know absolutely nothing about the American sun and the rate at which American weeds grow. I found I always needed to get in there after the weeds at just the wrong time for one or the other occupant, and I soon concluded it was far better to grow the irises and daffodils separately, not in one bed.
When I was in my 40s I concluded that Henry Francis duPont, Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson were right: daffodils look best when they follow some natural contour, spaced unevenly, not in neat globs with the bulbs equidistant. Miss Jekyll planted hers in old road ruts (needless to say, the road no longer ran through the garden) and Mr. duPont planted his in longish ovals, somewhat the proportion of a fish. This way the daffodil looks best, I think.
But the point is that over the decades I have planted them every way a daffodil can be planted, and have been delighted with them, so I would hate for anyone to think he is bad, bad, bad, because he plants them in rows, checkerboards or formal beds instead of in patches shaped like a fish.
Now the specialist or connoisseur of daffodils hardly needs any advice on which varieties to grow, for he will be growing perhaps 500 kinds and will be familiar with at least another 500.
But if the gardener is quite new to daffodils, I would suggest a handful of bulbs (say 5 or 6) planted as a clump at the edge of grass or the edge of woodland or the edge of a planting of shrubs, and I would start out with some varieties that bloom early, such as the yellow 'February Gold' or 'Peeping Tom.' Both these varieties, when left alone in the garden and not cut for the house, will provide pretty enchanting flowers for three to four weeks.
The inexperienced gardener often trots out to cut the daffodils when a freeze is predicted on, say, March 23. No. Do not do that. Leave them unprotected in the garden to take any freeze, any wind, any ice that comes. They will still be pretty into the middle of April, but if you cut them to save them from a March freeze, then of course they will not decorate the garden after you've hauled them all indoors. Where, by the way, they will look good for three days at most, instead of three or four weeks.
I have recommended these two early yellows partly because they are beautiful, partly because they are readily available at garden shops, and partly because they are both very early and last a long time outdoors.
It is later in the season, well into April or even the end of April, that some of the most beautiful of all daffodils bloom. Most of these are not to be had from garden shops or the average bulb catalogue. But if you run into them, such varieties as 'Daydream,''Arctic Gold,' 'Rashee,' 'Fairmile,' and 'Tranquil Morn' are uncommonly lovely. But then so are 100 others, and if you ask how you acquire bulbs of them, you find you order them from daffodil specialists, most of whom are abroad. The easiest and best way is to join the local daffodil society for the trifling sum of $3 a year and order bulbs from the list they send out in May (you pick up the bulbs in October). This saves the hassle of importing them yourself, and if you order only a few each year, or even order one of the club's several collections of bulbs, you will soon have good clumps of varieties lovelier than most of those sold in stores.
But back to the gardener who has a handful of 'February Gold,' what next? I think maybe 'Actaea,' a reliable old white with a short cup edged in red. It can sometimes be amazingly fine and perfectly suitable for exhibition--I had a flower of it two years ago that would have won a blue ribbon at most daffodil shows--but usually it is simply a good reliable garden flower blooming when the early yellows are past. Another good one on the late side is the white 'Thalia,' with two or three somewhat nodding flowers on a stem, and a divine constitution virtually immune to heat, overcrowding and so on. I had a clump of it that was untouched for 19 years and which still bloomed admirably every spring. Assuming courage and cash hold out, once you have these two or three kinds, it will do no harm to buy a single bulb (or maybe three) of a handful of other varieties offered at garden centers, hardware stores and so on.