By Stephanie Cavanaugh
I’VE GROWN to hate daffodils. While I’m perfectly happy if you grow them, maybe even share some flowers with me, I’m sorry I bothered planting them.
They’re such a nuisance in the small garden. Oh yes, it’s exciting to see the foliage poke up in the border—one of the first signs of spring. But it turns out that anticipation is 95% of the pleasure (of any event, when you think about it: What’s in the box, behind the door? They make game shows out of this).
The daffodil greens pop up, the buds open, and just as swiftly the flowers frizzle, leaving a mess of floppy foliage that distracts from whatever flowers are coming next, like the roses and peonies, far more beautiful and deliciously scented. It’s an unsightly mass, that foliage, ragged, unruly, and—the ultimate issue—long-lasting. It straggles on into June and sometimes July, and you’re supposed to leave it alone.
In some horticultural mumbo-jumbo involving photosynthesis, a word you might not have heard since high school biology, the foliage absorbs nutrients that feed the bulbs and ensures more flowers the following year.
The first year after planting, the bulbs will produce a few flowers, so you follow directions and leave them be, and the floppy foliage will be ugly, but there won’t be much of it. The next year, they produce twice as many, which is momentarily exciting, but the foliage is twice as thick. And so forth.
And that damned foliage is supposed to remain until the leaves yellow and soften, like so many banana peels strewn higgledy-piggledy about the border, then turn brown and die. At that point you can cut the leaves off at ground level.
Many people fold the leaves as they begin to soften, creating neat little nests that look like huts for pixies, I suppose, if you’re a hovering bug. This is a giant NO! NO! according to reputable gardening sites. Leave the foliage alone, they all say. To which I reply, Phooey! Fold away!
Tulips have a similar foliage issue, but with them the likelihood of a fine performance in subsequent years is doubtful. I just pull them when they’re done flowering, replacing them in the fall.
You can do the same with daffs, though the first year’s flowering will be puny. Give them a yank when they’re done and they’ll pop out easily enough. If you leave them in place, each year thereafter you’ll have a bigger, cheerier display—for the 10 seconds they’re in bloom. But as years pass, the bulbs become more stubborn, their little legs reaching far down and tangling with whatever is way down there, and anchoring themselves, so eradicating them is nearly impossible. I know this.
You can also just hack off the foliage after the bloom, in the hope of killing them once and for all, but the leaves will still pop up each subsequent year with fewer and fewer flowers and more mess. I know this too.
Best, I think, to just buy them as cut flowers at a market or flower stand, where they’re usually 10 for a buck or so. Stick the stems in those clever floral water tubes with the pointy bottoms that I’m always going on about, and insert them into the garden, where they’ll look just dandy.
In the 39-plus years since I planted the bulbs, I think I’ve gotten maybe five or six weeks of pleasure. Even with a snap to the air the blossoms rarely last more than a few days. And if the temperature soars, at it often does, they’re gone overnight.
That is not, I figure, a good payoff.