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Naturalizing Daffodils

colorful daffodils in bloom
When given room to spread and multiply, Daffodils will fill in beautifully and provide cheerful color year after year.
 

Put Naturalizing Daffodils to Work for You

Is there a part of your property that’s difficult to garden due to a slope, trees or rocks? Do you have a place in your yard that seems in-between, not quite right for most vegetables or summer flowers? Is there an area of rough grass that will never be lawn? Do you have little space for and/or time for gardening but crave early spring color? Are you the kind of gardener who leans more towards natural and relaxed than formal and manicured?

If you’ve answered yes to one or more of these questions, consider naturalizing daffodils.

A naturalized plant is one growing wild in a region where it is not indigenous. Naturalizing is a technique used by gardeners and landscapers to establish plants outside of typical garden beds while encouraging them to multiply and spread. Naturalizing plants can be viewed as setting traditionally cultivated plants free to mingle with wildflowers and woods or allowing formally domesticated plants to become feral.

As long as you have a site with decent drainage that does not need to be mowed until summer that enjoys about six hours of springtime sunlight, you have a good place to naturalize daffodils.

Gardening is perhaps one of the most hopeful activities anyone can engage in, and planting bulbs in fall with the anticipation of enjoying flowers the following spring—and for years to come— may be the purest form of hope gardening has to offer. If you’ve ever visited an abandoned homestead or farmhouse in spring, and marveled at the flowers left behind by long past residents, you have experienced the lasting beauty and charm of naturalized bulbs.

 
yellow dutchmaster trumpet daffodil in bloom
Trumpet Daffodil Dutch Master is famed for its butter yellow hue.
orange and white large cupped daffodils in bloom
Large Cupped Daffodils are often available in contrasting bi-colors.
 

The first showy flowers of the season, the daffodil bears blooms with a cup or trumpet-shaped corona surrounded by six outer petals collectively called 'the perianth'. Flower sizes range from 1” to 6” wide. Daffodil colors include shades of white, yellow, orange, pink, and red. Flowers are borne singly or in clusters above strap-like leaves. Plant height varies from diminutive species that are just a few inches tall to sturdy hybrids reaching as much as two feet.

Perennial Daffodils Make Naturalizing Easy

The daffodil is an especially rewarding perennial bulb because once planted, there’s little to no work involved for the gardener, yet they can thrive and will multiply for decades without intervention. Many of the older tried and tested cultivars of daffodils can bloom for at least 30 years, and even up to 50 years when left to their own devices.

Keep in mind that one common characteristic of the daffodil is that all parts of the plant are poisonous. This is why deer and other mammals generally leave them alone!

Daffodils are an extremely useful and adaptable non-edible perennial. They offer the home gardener alternatives to battling back grass that creeps where it’s unwanted or even to exterminating garden pests who venture into the vegetable garden.

Daffodils are lovely in beds and borders, but when allowed to flourish beyond traditional boundaries, they can highlight the nature that is already there, and will even benefit your property ecologically. Daffodils hold a high level of nutrients that can benefit most neighboring plants, and they also prevent soil erosion.

Inspired by Nature: Naturalizing Daffodils Beyond Boundaries

Gently sloping fields, meadows or forest edges are ideal for naturalizing bulbs like daffodils. Daffodils can grow in just about any soil as long as it is well-drained and not too compacted. Daffodils need sun but little maintenance. Early-blooming cultivars of daffodils can be planted at the edge of the woods as they will receive enough sun to ripen foliage before most trees leaf out. Mowing will need to be delayed wherever daffodils are naturalized and be sure keep free range chickens of ducks away from where daffodils grow.

Once an area has been chosen for naturalizing, decide what color and how many bulbs the site will accommodate, as well as what cultivar will do well in that spot. Daffodil bulbs can tolerate some crowding, especially in natural areas outside garden beds, but they do best when they are spaced 3-6 inches apart. Remember, nature works in curves rather than rows, and naturalizing is a casual affair. To be sure to keep the end result informal, landscapers recommend planting bulbs in irregular clumps and drifts of like colors. A pleasingly relaxed effect can be achieved by tossing bulbs to be naturalized one handful at a time and planting each bulb where it happens to land.

daffodils combined with tulips, in bloom
Daffodils and Tulips look beautiful together in a mixed planting; however, the tulips will usually need to be replanted from year to year. For best results, plant Darwin Tulips which are the most long-lived variety.
 

Plant daffodils in the fall about 2-4 weeks before the ground freezes. Before planting in a grassy area, lower the mower for the last mowing of the fall to give the bulbs maximum access to sun and warmth when they will need it in early spring. Be sure to use bulbs soon after obtaining them, the best bulbs feel firm and heavy and show no signs of mold or rot.

Learn How to Plant Fall Bulbs.  

Planting naturalized daffodils in clusters and swaths not only creates a more natural look, but this will make it possible to mow around the plants in the late spring if the plants get too messy. In general, daffodils require deeper planting than other bulbs, and when planting bulbs in a natural area to be left undisturbed for several years, it is recommended that each bulb is planted even deeper than would be necessary for a garden bed.

Use a special bulb planting tool, a trowel, a tire iron, a crowbar or even a battery powered electric drill to make holes for each bulb in the soil or sod. Each hole should be at least 8 inches deep or approximately three times the height of the bulb. Free the soil in each hole and add some compost or soil amendment, then some sand and/or soil, and, finally, the bulb.

Place bulb so that the pointy end, or top, is up, and cover the bulb with sand or soil before closing the hole or replacing the sod. Exactness is not crucial, daffodils are not fussy plants. But planting deeply and adding some soil amendment to each hole can help daffodils thrive for years.

Naturalizing Daffodils with Trees

Trees and shrubs can provide an ideal backdrop for the daffodil flower. Daffodils suppress the growth of surface feeding grass and are unpalatable and even poisonous to deer and rodents, qualities that make them ideal companions for most deciduous tree and shrub species. Lawns are not the best companion for most tree roots and daffodils out-compete grass and bloom long before a tree’s canopy can block the sun needed for these early spring bloomers.

 
daffodils naturalizing underneath a tree
Daffodils naturalizing underneath a tree.

A tree guild is a small community of plants that encircles a tree to provide a relatively self-sufficient system of support. Each plant member has a role to fulfill, such as fertilizing, attracting beneficial insects, providing a mulch source, and repelling pests. Planting a tree guild that includes early blooming cultivars of daffodils adds welcome spring color and helps keep most trees healthier year round. There’s no set recipe for making a tree guild because so much in gardening depends on location, climate and the time and effort each gardener is able to devote, however, most deciduous trees, including fruit and nut trees, will benefit more from a guild of living perennial plants than being surrounded by a stark circle of bark that must be replaced each spring.

An apple tree guild might include a mixture of spring bulbs including the daffodil, whose flower’s nectar attract spring pollinators that aid the tree with fruit set; chives for culinary use and to repel pests; bee balm or yarrow to attract summer pollinators; borage a nutrient accumulator that can tap into trace minerals—making them available for the tree and all plants in the guild; rhubarb for human use and on-site mulch, and finally, echinacea, a showy medicinal herb that attracts butterflies. A tree guild works best with a variety of plants that will flower at different times during the growing season and that are hardy enough for your zone. Choose plants that are mostly perennial or self-sowing or ideally, native to your area, and save money by using plants you already have on hand.

Plant daffodils around the trunk of the tree to discourage pests that chew bark and dig, such as gophers and squirrels, and also around the drip line (area beneath the tree’s outermost leaves at full grown size) to repel deer and other browsers. Most bulbs suppress grass growth and their shallow roots keep grasses from moving into the guild. Grass vies for the surface nutrients that are also important for the tree—an apple’s principal feeding roots are near the surface (where the most nutrients reside). Since daffodils bloom early, they will benefit from the sunshine that will later be shaded by the tree’s foliage. Also, daffodils will not rob water from the tree when the tree needs it.

While daffodils can offer a nice contrast to evergreen tree trunks, they should be planted some distance away from the base; daffodils cannot tolerate the poor drainage created by spring shade and the constant dripping of evergreen foliage when the weather is wet.

Naturailzing Daffodils with Vegetables

Flowers add beauty and interest to a vegetable garden and can be beneficial to other plants. With their ability to prevent soil erosion and high level of nutrient storage, daffodils are no exception. Plant daffodils along the borders of vegetable beds to act as sentries to fend off animals that can reduce harvest. The above ground parts of the plant discourage deer and other browsers and the below ground parts discourage gophers and other diggers such as rabbits and ground hogs. Daffodils can cause stomach upset, and some people have mistaken daffodils for onions, therefore, plant onions and their relatives far from daffodils so that there is no chance for mistaken identity.

Tree guilds are a relatively young science and companion planting requires some fine tuning with trial and error. Ecological gardening suggestions won’t solve every problem, but the advantages of these methods are clear— less toil for the gardener, less fertilizer and other amendments needed for each plant synergy for the plant community, beauty, and harmony between people and wildlife.

Types and Sizes of Daffodils for Naturalizing

Any type of daffodil can be naturalized but generally the smaller the bulb the better, in terms of expense and mixing with surrounding plants. Many species of daffodil thrive with little care when naturalized. The especially popular varieties are known to naturalize well because they form drifts and can make seeds and baby bulbs. These species include Carlton, Tete-a-Tete, Mount Hood, Fortune, Ice Follies, Barrett Browning, Salome, Juanita, Spellbinder, and Viking. The Farmer’s Almanac has a detailed and comprehensive list of the best bulbs for naturalizing.

For the longest season of blooms, consider mixing early, mid, and later blooming species when you naturalize. Earlier blooming species include Miniature Trumpet Daffodil Little Gem, Large Cupped Narcissus California, Small Cupped Narcissus Barrett Browning, and Cyclamus Narcissus Tete-a-Tete; mid-blooming include Trumpet Daffodil Mount Hood, Large Cupped Narcissus Delibes, Large Cupped Narcissus Ice Follies, and Large Cupped Narcissus Salome; later blooming include Large Cupped Narcissus Flower Record, Double Narcissus Cheerfulness, Poeticus Narcissus Pheasant’s Eye, and Triandrus Narcissus Thalia.

Though these spring-blooming bulbs are referred to widely as daffodils, they are all technically of the Narcissus genus. Narcissus is the only correct scientific name identifying the genus of this group of plants. Daffodil is typically used as a common and collective name for all these plants but is most often used to describe the larger-flowered types. Jonquil is a name sometimes used for this group, but this name actually only applies to a very small subgroup, Narcissus jonquilla, and related hybrids; according to the American Daffodil Society, jonquils typically have several small, fragrant flowers on each stem with flat petals and foliage that is narrow and reed-like.

The genus name Narcissus is derived from Greek mythology. The story goes that a vain young man named Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection and drowned in a pond as he tried to embrace himself. It is said that the narcissus plant first established itself where he perished.

Like all cultivated flowers, daffodils originated as wildflowers —the wild narcissus came originally from southern Europe. Classifying daffodils can be more difficult than one might think. The genus Narcissus is divided into 13 divisions all defined by foliage, flower color, and form. Twelve include the cultivated forms, the thirteenth form describes wild species and hybrids.

Naturalizing daffodils is a forgiving and useful tool of landscaping and ecological gardening, a way for home gardeners to experiment with designs inspired by nature.

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