Rain and the chill kept me indoors for a couple of weeks. Venturing out on a warm Saturday afternoon, I was pleased to see the first green tips in my daffodil bed rising through the mulch. I was proud of this until a friend told me hers were on the verge of blooming. Glad that mine are more or less on schedule, I searched for buds still hunkered down. That is OK; I can wait until late February or March for them to bloom on schedule.
But these green shoots of new leaves do signal one action for the gardener. At this time of year, the bulbs need a healthy dose of fertilizer that will encourage vigor and improve prospects for bloom next year.
Next year may seem a long way off, but nothing disappoints a gardener more than a bed of daffodils that is all foliage and no bloom. It is right up there with frozen camellias or a dying dogwood. This year’s flowers will develop from buds made last year, but safely stored in the bulb through the summer and autumn.
This annual application of fertilizer in mid-winter is one of the easier garden tasks at this time of year. And it does not take much fertilizer. The usual recommendation is about 3 pounds of 8-8-8 or 10-10-10 fertilizer on 100 square feet of bed. Or use a specially formulated bulb fertilizer at the rate directed on the package. Just sprinkle the granules over the bed. Rain will dissolve them and send the nutrients into the soil and down to the bulb’s roots. The timing for this activity tends to surprise people who don’t think about the bulbs growing actively in the ground. But they are, and the green shoots are the best and most obvious sign that the bulbs have shaken off their dormancy.
This fertilizer is also helpful in getting a second, possibly third year of bloom out of tulips. Use the same rate of fertilizer as with the daffodils, once the tips poke out of the ground. Even so, daffodils have far better staying power than do tulips. Animals also tend to avoid eating daffodils.
Fertilizer works at this time of year by helping the bulbs develop healthy, long-lasting foliage and gather strength to set the buds of next year’s flowers. This year’s flowers are already safely stored in the bulb, preparing to rise on their stems and open between mid-February and early April, depending on the variety.
You must not fret that cold will harm the foliage that is above ground. It is very hardy. A greater danger is that this foliage may get stepped on and squashed by stray feet. When this happens, the tissue in the leaves gets broken, reducing the bulbs’ health. A thin mulch of leaves or pine needles looks attractive, but don’t pile it on just because the leaves are rising and you think they might get cold. Covered up with mulch, the leaves will turn yellow, which is not good.
A second reason daffodils bloom poorly is that the clump becomes crowded over the years and the bulbs should be dug, divided and replanted. But this is a job for early summer, not now.
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