Daffodils – the star of the show or the Cinderella of the garden?

April 3rd, 2021
Posted In: Gardening know how

Do we take daffodils for granted?

My Twitter feed is packed with people posting images of snowdrops in February. They’re beautiful. Snowdrops are so sweet and innocent – the first murmur of spring.

Then, of course, there is the show-stopping beauty of tulips from late March onwards. Both snowdrops and tulips are also all over Instagram, too.

But in between, the stars of the show are daffodils, which, comparatively, hardly seem to get a mention. (Do let me know if you disagree!)

Spring garden display

Daffodils are the star of the show in my garden for about 5-6 weeks, after the snowdrops have gone and before the tulips start properly showing off. Lottie (the saluki-cross) agrees.

Yet daffodils need almost no care and they come back year after year. The Daffodil Society says that most daffodils will outlive us in our gardens. In my garden, they grow where almost nothing else will because they are not fussy about soil.

How many types of daffodil are there?

Wordsworth’s ‘host of golden daffodils’  suggests that daffodils are all yellow. But there are 27,000 different recognised hybrids of daffodils. Or, as garden designer and blogger Carole from Here By Design says ‘depending on who you talk to, there are between 40 and 200 species of daffodil and 32,000 hybrids.’

Compare that to snowdrops. There are 40 different species of snowdrop and ‘only’ hundreds of hybrids. Snowdrop lovers are called ‘galanthophiles’ and those varieties are endlessly discussed and photographed by name.

But when I interviewed two daffodil lovers who used to open their garden for the NGS in spring, they said they didn’t worry too much about daffodil names. ‘Some have been in our garden for over 50 years. There’s no way we can keep track of what they’re called.’

Frilly double daffodil

This beautifully frivolous double-flowered daffodil may be either ‘Gresham’ or ‘Replete’. Daffodil-loving friends tell me that the double flowered ones don’t withstand rain as well, and that they may be more nibbled by slugs and snails. This one in my garden, however, seems fine on both counts.

So how to choose daffodils?

My daffodil loving friends suggest always buying a mix of early, mid and late flowering ones.  If you’re not keeping track of names (and I have yet to meet anyone who is completely on top of which daffodil is which in their garden), this will mean you always have daffodils out from early February to late April.

Otherwise, you can choose from single coloured, usually in either white or many shades of yellow from rich gold to pale primrose. Or pick bi-coloured daffodils, with a different coloured outer petals to inner cup.

All white daffodil

I think there’s something very beautiful about an all-white daffodil.

And the third thing to look for is whether it has a ‘short cup’ or a ‘trumpet’. Trumpet daffodils have a trumpet that is longer than the outer petals. Short cup daffodils have a centre which is more like a cup than a trumpet.

Daffodils with different cup and trumpet sizes

Look at the different trumpet and cup shapes and sizes on daffodils. It’s as a good as a meditation.

Go round your garden and spot the differences. It’s as good as a meditation.

And really, you don’t need to know much more than that. No wonder people don’t talk about daffodils much. They’re just not difficult enough.

How to spot a 'trumpet' daffodil

A ‘trumpet’ daffodil has a trumpet that is longer than the petals around it.

Do daffodils come back year after year?

There is much agonising over which tulips come back best, year after year. I have never heard much worry over daffodils. My daffodil loving friends have daffodils planted by their parents, over 50 years ago.

That doesn’t mean that every daffodil you plant will always come back. Daffodils can be dug up by squirrels or they can fail to flower. If you have exceptionally wet soil, they may rot. But, generally, most daffodils you plant will come back.

If you want daffodils to spread, not just to come back, look for varieties that ‘naturalise well.’ Most bulb suppliers will have a category of ‘bulbs that naturalise well.’

Why isn’t my daffodil flowering?

You may have tidied them away too early last year.

You always need to leave the leaves on after flowering has finished. They need at least 6 to 8 weeks to gather up nutrition from the sun and the earth, so as to make next year’s flowers. If you tidy away the leaves too soon, then they won’t flower the following year.

Sometimes daffodils ‘go blind’. They stop flowering, even if you leave the leaves on. If this happens two years in succession, daffodil lovers don’t think there’s much you can do. You could try digging them up, dividing them and giving them some fertiliser.

But if your daffodils really aren’t flowering after that, then dig them up and throw them away.

Do daffodils need dividing?

When daffodils grow into very thick clumps, they need to be dug up and divided. Otherwise they will be too crowded and won’t flower as well. That’s probably around every five years. It will give you lots of new daffodils for free.

Once again, ‘depending on who you talk to’, you can either lift and divide them after flowering, when the leaves are still on. Re-plant them immediately, add an all-purpose feed or some mulch and keep well watered.

Or I have seen it suggested that you dig them up in autumn when the bulbs are underground. I am not entirely sure how you dig up bulbs that you can’t see without slicing them apart with your spade. But daffodils are very easy going, so I suspect they won’t mind which method you choose.

Where to plant daffodils

This is where daffodils are so brilliant.

You can plant daffodils under the canopy of deciduous trees and shrubs. Nothing much else will grow there over the summer because when the leave are on, there will be so much shade. But when the trees and shrubs lose their leaves in autumn, they won’t get them back until late spring.

This gives daffodils the chance to fill the spot with beautiful flowers.

Daffodils for difficult places

I have a cluster of deciduous trees and shrubs which lose their leaves in winter. The daffodils and other bulbs grow well under them, providing a wonderful focal point in spring. For the rest of the year, this part of the border is too shady for much else to grow.

In summer, my main display is my sunny main border. But it’s too crowded with perennials to fit daffodils in too. In spring, there is a glorious display of daffodils in a different part of the garden, under the silver birch, the cotinus and a small hibiscus shrub.

But you can also plant daffodils anywhere else in the garden. They won’t grow well under evergreen trees and shrubs. And they won’t like a very shady north-facing border. I’ve planted daffodils all over my garden in the past, but not a single one is flowering on my north-facing border, which is filled with evergreen trees. Even the obliging daffodil has its limits!

They’re not fussy about soil type.

Narcissi growing under a tree

This is probably the trickiest area of my garden to plant. A huge tree and an old wall make it shady and dry. However, it is in a south-facing spot so these narcissi get enough sun to flower when the leaves are off the trees.

You can plant daffodils in the lawn, but only if you’re prepared to let the lawn grass grow for at least 6-8 weeks after they have finished flowering.

There’s more advice on where to plant spring bulbs here.

How to plant daffodils

The Daffodil Society says that planting daffodils is very easy. ‘Dig a hole and drop them in.’

There’s varying advice on how deep the hole should be. I have seen advice that says ‘plant daffodils so that there is 2″, 3″ or 4″ above the top of the bulb.

Some people recommend planting the bulbs at a depth that is twice the height of the bulb. Others say three times the height of the bulb.

Or you are recommended to plant the bulbs at a depth of 4″ or 10cm.

So we probably don’t need to worry about the difference between two and four inches. You get the picture. I suspect all or any of these recommendations would work.

If you plant too deep (presumably around 10-12″), then the daffodils may not come back as well.

Pretty daffodils

These daffodils were planted by our predecessors in this garden. Or even, perhaps, by the people who lived here before they did. So we’ve long since lost the names!

Can you grow daffodils in pots?

Yes, daffodils grow well in pots.

After they’ve finished flowering, you can plant them in the garden if you want to.

If you’ve got daffodils that have been ‘forced’ (made to flower early for indoor use), then they probably won’t flower the following year. But after that they will probably flower.

Or you can put the pots aside and leave them. Always feed and water plants in pots when they are growing, as the soil in the pot runs out of nutrition very quickly.

But once the foliage has died back, they don’t need any other care. I have left pots of daffodils entirely unattended for a whole summer and they have still flowered the following spring.

What’s the difference between daffodils and narcissus?

There isn’t one. Daffodil is the common name for narcissus.

What is a narcissus

The smaller flowers at the top, growing at the base of a silver birch tree, are commonly recognised as ‘Narcissus ‘Paperwhite”. But, in fact, both pictures are of ‘Narcissus’, which are commonly called daffodils.

See more of my garden, plus mini meadow update, in video

You can see more of the daffodils here in this video, with the spring garden tour. There’s also an update on the mini-meadow and some easy, cheap potting shed storage tips. If you want to go directly to any part of the video, there’s a list of contents, plus a time-stamp. Click on the time and you’ll go straight to that part of the video:

Shop my favourite garden tools, books and products

I’m often asked for recommendations, so I’ve put together lists of the gardening books, tools and products I use myself on the Middlesized Garden Amazon store. Note that links to Amazon are affiliate, so I may get a small fee if you buy but it won’t affect the price you pay. And I only list things I use myself or which have been recommended by people I trust.

I’ve also launched Middlesized Garden tote bags and t-shirts. They all feature my favourite gardening saying, which is that ‘gardeners learn by trowel and error.’ Not everything works, and even the experts kill plants. But often your garden will surprise you, and be just as beautiful as you hoped, even if you did ‘get something wrong.’

Middlesized Garden tote bag

The Middlesized Garden tote bag, hanging in my shed.

Pin to remember that daffodils are just as beautiful as tulips and snowdrops!

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6 comments on "Daffodils – the star of the show or the Cinderella of the garden?"

  1. Colin says:

    Always co case and accurate, Alexandra. Is that white trumpet Mount Hood? Perfect balance of parts, perfect poise.

    1. Thank you! I’m not sure what the white one is, as I got it in a mixed bag, but it does look very like Mount Hood

  2. Kathy says:

    Daffodils are definitely a must for the spring garden. My all time favorite is the poetaz daffodil called “Geranium”. It is so sweetly fragrant, can’t live without it.

  3. Marianne Everett says:

    Do you feed your bulbs?

    1. I haven’t until now, but everyone I speak to says that they are better the following year if fed, either with an all purpose fertiliser or a tomato feed. But I do always add garden compost or well rotted manure to the border at least once a year, so I hope my soil is in good condition and fairly nutritious.

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