One Bulb At A TimePosted on : March 4, 2019
You may be sick of me fawning over Narcissus, but there’s a reason the poor Greek Arcadian lad ended up in a narcotic stupor. They have that affect on some of us. It wouldn’t be spring without them. I wouldn’t be me without them. The first flowers of spring are loved throughout the world and those in the Narcissus genus just happen to be my love.
A number of years ago I read something called “The Daffodil Principle” about Gene Bauer’s beautiful and expansive Running Springs daffodil garden in California. The article related that there was a poster at the garden that read: “Answers to questions I know you are asking.” “50 thousand bulbs.” “One at a time, by one woman. Two hands, two feet, and very little brain.” “Began in 1958.” I wasn’t 100% sure at the time that this garden or poster even existed, but the “daffodil principle” of getting big things done by starting on them and always working on them, sure stuck in my mind, especially when it came to a number of large naturalized bulb plantings that I’ve witnessed in my lifetime.
This recently came to light after eleven members of my Smith County Master Gardener bulb sale committee came to visit my rambling narcissus, daffodil, and jonquil plantings. Several of them asked, “Did you plant all these by yourself?” Yep, I did; one bulb at a time. Thankfully I learned at an early age which ones grew, multiplied, and bloomed well without any additional soil prep, fertilizing, watering, spraying, or dividing. So once I put them in the ground, the plan is for them to outlive me, getting better each year.
Most of my plantings consist of heirloom species and natural hybrids that I’ve propagated over the year from old family homeplaces nearby. My prolific stalwarts include Narcissus jonquilla (sweeties), Narcissus x intermedius (Texas star jonquils), Narcissus x odorus (campernelle jonquils), Narcissus pseudonarcissus (lent lilies), Narcissus pseudonarcissus telamonius plenus (scrambled eggs), Narcissus x incomparabilis (nonesuch daffodil), Narcissus x incomparabilis aurantius plenus (butter and eggs), Narcissus x italicus, Narcissus tazetta ‘Grand Primo,’ and another showy old Narcissus tazetta cultivar I haven’t identified. I also grow some more modern showy ones like ‘February Gold,’ ‘Carlton,’ and ‘Ice Follies.’ Almost everything I grow falls into the early or early-mid season varieties because they fit our mild winter and early springs better.
I’ve always liked daffodils, narcissus, and jonquils, but never really loved them until I saw large seemingly “naturalized” plantings. I say seemingly, because most of the things that do well here are sterile and don’t set seed, so technically can’t naturalize like a wildflower and spread on their own. The exceptions are sweeties and lent lilies which can slowly seed out into beautiful drifts.
So most of the spectacular scenes that I’ve seen during my career, and will continue to see, are planted by hand; one bulb at a time. These beautiful large plantings are sights to behold. The first I ever saw was a Mr. Butler’s place in the rural countryside not far from Shreveport, Louisiana. Next was Cousin Celia’s magical place in north Louisiana. Then came Thera Lou Adam’s bulb field in central Louisiana which she opens to the public one weekend each spring. Recently it was friend Dawn Stover’s “Jonquil Hill” at SFA Gardens in Nacogdoches. And in between, it was hundreds of sites along both country roads and interstates in Texas and the South. Many of these plantings along the highway were actually spread by dozers when the roads were constructed. All those in pastures are leftover from old homesites. I cringe when I see people digging and stealing these as they are historic markers and memories that belong to the place.
When I dig bulbs, including my own or those from family homeplaces my dad owns, I always put the largest blooming bulbs back into the same hole they came from and only take the excess divisions to spread around. Many old bulbs clumps have 50-100 bulbs in them, so all the blooming sized bulbs can be put right back where they were with the others being scattered about. I use the word scattered, as I’ve long read about folks tossing bulbs over their shoulder and planting them where they land. This insures that they look “naturalized” as if they had spread by seed on their own. I don’t have time for that. I’ve also seen many a specialized bulb digger and auger. But guess what? Every single bulb out of the thousands I’ve planted is just poked into the ground with a quick stab and wedge of a sharpshooter shovel.
I start by digging the entire clump generally in full bloom or when it’s just fading and gently separating all the bulbs. After placing 1-3 of the largest blooming sized ones back into the original hole, I place all the others in a five gallon bucket of water so the roots don’t dry out. I then just drift around the original clump (or into a new area entirely) and quickly stick them into crevices in the soil I’ve wedged open with my trusty sharp shooter. I step on the edge one time with my shoe to seal it in, paying no attention whatsoever to its depth, other than brown down and green up. The worst thing that can happen by moving them in full bloom is that they might not bloom next year. But as Jerry Clower once said, “What’s time to a hog?”
Yes, they only bloom for a few weeks each spring. But once again, they don’t require water, fertilizer, or pampering and get better each year of your entire life and beyond, if you choose the right varieties. This is critical because many popular, large, showy daffodils only bloom for a few years then make foliage forever. It also helps that these bulbs and anything else in the amaryllis family are rodent proof, deer proof, and cattle proof. As a matter of fact I love to plant them where cattle graze as the bovine burgers help keep the weeds down. Find something you love, and keep loving it till you die. My bulb plantings are not a chore, they are my horticultural therapy. And as long as I can keep wedging bulbs in the ground, I will; both spring and fall.
Written by Greg Grant
Greg Grant is an award-winning horticulturist, conservationist, photographer, and writer from Arcadia, Texas. Each month he writes an article for The Arbor Gate Blog where he is given free range to write about any topic that interests him. During the week, he is the Smith County horticulturist in Tyler for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and on the weekends, he and his wife tend Greg’s grandparents’ old farmhouse, his Rebel Eloy Emanis Pine Savanna and Bird Sanctuary, a small cottage garden, a flock of laying hens, four terriers, one German shepherd, and two cats.