Tuesday 25 June 2013

Down daffy lily. Cutting back daffodils

It’s been a good year for daffodils. My post in March examined the start of my own daffodil season. This post now examines how the season progressed. In particular I want describe how I try to ensure strong daffodil bulbs for next year. 

It’s ironic I posted a picture of an early narcissus in mid January when we had a warm spell. Two months of cold dehydrating biting winds that  followed held later varieties back. Never have I known standard varieties to be so late but how magnificent when they eventually flowered. My advice to remember to water bulbs in outdoor containers and not let them dry out in dehydrating winds proved particularly sound. The reward for a gardener’s patience was that when flowers eventually appeared, in the prevailing cool conditions they lasted well.

 Rip van Winkle

How to let daffodils die down
Don’t cut them back too soon. Preferably don’t cut them back at all and let them die down naturally. Thousands of daffodils in my cemetery gardens just fade away without any attention at all.
Inexperienced gardeners sometimes do not realise that leaves need to photosynthesis and build up strong bulbs for the next year. After flowering the leaves need to remain green. For bulbs in containers, or those that have been lifted (not recommended) watering is still needed. Don’t let them dry out until they seriously yellow. Give them full natural light. Do not tidy them away behind an old shed! 
Some gardeners imagine the leaves just need to die down and translocate their stored reserves to the new bulb. Not true, the leaves need to continue working in the sunshine for as long as possible. It horrifies me how people who have had bulbs in the house (itself a great cruelty) just dump them outside in the cold in a shady corner and wonder why they do not flower again!

It's the middle of May. It will be many weeks before this variety can be cut down

Do you know there are still some people who after flowering tie the tops of their narcissus in knots? Yes really! How ugly, how decadent! Apart from being visually repulsive those poor leaves cannot do their essential work. I sometimes hear protestations to my ire, “but they still flower”. They might, but next year there will be less flowers, they will be weak and insipid and not last very long. Flowers should remain in their pomp for at least three weeks if the bulbs are strong (unless the weather happens to be very warm).
I once had a client, dear Mrs Blunt. Her daffodils really where too tall for her small spaces. Of course I refused to strangulate the green leaves. After my maintenance visit the arthritic the old lady would be down on her knees….
Another acquaintance said he thought tying in knots is what you had to do…..

Also relevant to building up a strong bulb is nutrition. When naturalised in the open ground daffodils normally need no fertilizer at all. In tubs and containers, although feeding will do little to improve flower quality in the current season, it is worthwhile if a sturdy bulb is to be achieved for the next year. I apply a top dressing of fertilizer to my tubs in September when my bulbs are building their root system and again in January when the foliage starts to grow.

Does dead heading help?
Ready to dead head soon

Well ready to deadhead
Dead headed. I like spiky green leaves.

None of the thousands of daffodils in my ‘natural gardens’ are dead headed but they still flower well in the next year. At home Brenda cuts off the dead flowers (but not the stalk). It probably helps that energy is not diverted into the seed head. The bulb production industry would seem to take this view with all those otherwise unwanted flowers, profusely displayed at spring bulb festivals. There are many bulbs such as my own native lenten lilies, dwarf tulips, scilla, chinodoxa et al that set viable seed. Do not dead head them!

I have never found Narcissus bulbocodium to naturalise from seed

Why bulbs ‘go to grass’ and fail to flower.

Apart from the obvious, when men on their ride-on-mower toys cut back too soon to achieve their wretched stripes, there are more subtle reasons why daffodils don’t flower. Usually the reasons involve excessive shade.
  • Planting under evergreen trees.
  • Diminishing light levels over the years as neighbouring plants in a developing garden grow tall.
  • Failing to properly manage bulbs in containers after they have flowered.
  • Being overgrown by tall weeds.
  • Following the calendar as to when to cut down. The leaves  should be distinctly brown and this will vary with the season and whether they are early or late flowering varieties. This year my lenten lilies were mown  on the seventh June. Now at the end of the month several varieties remain uncut.
  • Sometimes when light levels are marginal and the spring weather is dull some bulbs might miss flowering for just one year.

If your bulbs have ‘gone to grass’ providing they are healthy and are not infected by an endemic pest or disease, do not throw them away. It might take a year or two but they will  return to flower -  if you let them have the sunshine they crave!

Although this is planted in grass under my ceder it has plenty open sky to give enough light to flower well each succeeding year

Mowing strategy
As mentioned in my earlier daffodil post when I plant in grass I like to do so in clumps which you can easily be mown around. You will see in one of my pictures, if you choose, you can mow very tight to the bulbs to allow very little long grass. In other places the tufts of longer grass look rather nice. As the leaves start to fade at the end of the season I tend to mow closer to the bulb. In some cases mowing a clump completely down is a gradual operation over three or four succeeding mowings and I do not need to adjust the height of cut of my unboxed rotary mulch-mower. For larger grassy clumps when I make the decision to completely cut down I do raise the height of cut so the engine does not stall! Because I have a wide range of daffodils some early, some late, the whole process is gradual and is spread over about five weeks. When long grass is suddenly cut short it will remain yellow for a while. By my open day in mid July  in a normal year the last scar is just about gone! 

Little long grass where I mow close to the bulb

I will have to raise the height of cut when I soon mow this

The next cut these will be shredded and mulched to the ground. Not the one on the right, its too soon

Another pet hate
Just as bad as tying in knots is cutting green leaves half way down. I go to the Worsbrough cemetery and on some graves I see it has been done  and  I cringe…..


  1. We only grow the mini daffodils in the garden as the leaves of the large varieties would be too dominant but we grow the larger standard varieties on the plot and I am happy to say we mow round them so can we have a Brownie point?

    1. Yes and I am sure you have good daffodils Sue.
      When we moved to Seaton Ross I intended to limit myself to dwarfer types but it did not work out....

  2. Thanks for the advice, Roger. This is the sort of practical advice that you seldom find in any gardening books. I imagine that you have more experience in this particular field than all the "Celebrity" gardeners put together!

    1. Careful Mark, I will start to get big headed. Don't worry, Brenda keeps putting me in my place!

  3. Good information. I love the varieties you have, especially seeing the newer ones which are so beautiful.
    Cher Sunray Gardens

  4. Great article but difficult to read due to the pink flowers on the page


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