Daffodils announce gardening season
Aspen, CO Colorado
I hate to see the daffodils go, even though it’s past time and the tulips are elbowing them aside with the perennial flowers hard on their heels. Timing is of little consequence for a lot of yard and garden work, but some things have precise needs. More reliably than the calendar, my flowering bulbs tell me when specific windows of opportunity open up. The rigid calendar doesn’t take into account yearly variations; usually my daffodils are finished by the end of April but this year I am still enjoying them.
The first signal to resume gardening comes from species crocuses defying weather, muck and rubbish. Last fall I mostly left the garden alone to retreat back into the earth as frost and snow took over. When spring and fall cleaning are synonymous, as they are for me, there is an awful lot to do and I need an early start to reassure the neighborhood that this is indeed a cared-for garden and not an abandoned lot. However, these crocuses shine so ridiculously early, even in a year like this one, that they’re really a false alarm. Before it is safe to begin removing last year’s protective growth, there will be many hard frosts and the hard, sharp feet of many hungry deer will pound my garden. Still, there are clippers to sharpen, windrows of debris and leaves along driveway and walks to be raked and swept, and broken branches to be pruned off trees and shrubs.
The earliest daffodils are the small Cyclamineus narcissi, with gracefully reflexed petals. I have Tête-à-tête, displaying its petite golden flowers in pairs, dainty February Gold and bright yellow Peeping Tom, with cylindrical flaring cups. When they bloom it’s time to start the tomato and pepper seedlings. It’s time to cut down the stalks of tough, almost woody perennials like yarrow and mullein and slash the liana-like vines like native clematis and woodbine to the ground.
Old-fashioned, classic, large-cupped King Alfred, Carlton and similar daffodils are next. Their shape and color are the image conjured up by the word daffodil. What is the word du jour used to describe everything from flowers to furniture in publications from Garden Design to The New Yorker? Iconic, that’s it. “Yellow” is the iconic color and “trumpet” is the iconic shape of daffodils. Now the clean-up proceeds in earnest. I try to remove masses of dead stems ahead of the burgeoning new growth. Meanwhile the earlier daffodils already need deadheading.
Here comes the fragrant multiple-flowering two-tone dwarf Pipit, telling me to go after the golden hops vine supported by the deer fence around the vegetable garden. For this I need to get out the ladder and try to keep my balance on the uneven terrain. Some years the old stems are so brittle they crumple and come away in my hands when I pull, but after this wet winter, many stems were still pliant and had to be clipped loose. The new shoots are supple but brittle and it’s impossible to take out the deadwood without damaging them. By the time the tulips bloom, the shoots must be guided up the fence as they elongate, before they harden and become unmanageable.
When sweet, purest white Thalia bloomed at the beginning of May I knew it was safe to cut back Russian sage, blue mist spirea and santolina, all subshrubs sensitive to pruning. The lavender, most sensitive of them all, had to wait until the recent flowering of the Poetaz Narcissus geranium, a juicy heirloom with a small orange cup backed by snowy petals. I checked the woody base of the lavender to be sure: yup, fresh grass green buds were popping. About the same time, the Jonquilla Narcissus Quail buds unfurled.
As Beebe Wilder said with characteristic accuracy, albeit about a different daffodil altogether: “I think (but how can one be sure?) that this is my favorite daffodil.” Long-lasting, effortlessly naturalizing with lovely slender foliage and multiple rich yellow flowers with funnel-shaped cups, this is my most reliable bulb and the backbone of my daffodil planting.
Once Quail peaks, the days of the daffodil season are numbered, no matter how long the rain and snow and cool, cloudy days have prolonged it. With the long spring and a lot of help my “crew” (Gerry and daughter Miranda), I’ve managed to get most of the urgent things done on time. There are still innumerable tasks (like bringing the houseplants outside) that will require good timing, but the cues won’t be coming from my spring flowering bulbs anymore.
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