Create a garden with daffodils by the thousands

  • By Martha Stewart Martha Stewart Living Magazine
  • Wednesday, April 30, 2008 5:42pm
  • Life

I have always wanted to create a daffodil display garden — a place where I could plant with abandon hundreds, even thousands, of one of my favorite spring-blooming bulbs, producing a couple of weeks of what I call “wow factor.”

Over the years, I have visited many such extraordinary plantings, where masses of many different varieties of daffodils have been set into the landscape to bloom with maximum effect.

My friend Shelby White has such a garden in Westchester County, N.Y.; June Larkin has an incredible planting in Greenwich, Conn.; and Winterthur, near Greenville, Del., boasts hundreds of thousands of flowers growing amid towering trees and spectacular azaleas. Of course, there is no prettier sight than the myriad beds of bright-yellow flowers in New York City’s Central Park.

I had no sooner rebuilt the dry-laid stone walls around the perimeter of my new property in Bedford — great delineators that stand 48 inches tall and almost as wide — when I started my annual bulb ordering.

I had thought I would plant my first display outside the wall bordering Maple Avenue, a rather scenic, unpaved town road.

Walking the terrain, I realized very quickly that if I planted as planned, I would most likely never see the flowers, for the wall obscured every bit of that view. All the joggers and hikers and drivers would see the daffodils but not me.

So I altered my original plan, and that first autumn, in 2003, we planted something like 20,000 daffodils in one giant, undulating mass inside the wall, in beds ranging from 12 feet wide to more than 20 feet wide and extending several hundred feet.

The planting has continued: in 2004, 20,000 bulbs; 2005, 20,000 bulbs; 2006, 15,000 bulbs. By 2007, we had almost filled the area and moved into the woodland. So I have learned a lot about this kind of mass planting, called naturalizing.

In fact, there are some varieties of daffodils and narcissi that are better suited to this than others. And each season during blooming time, I have tried to be systematic in my study of the garden — noting which daffodils reproduce and come back stronger each year; which weaken and return more sparsely; and, of course, which bloom first, second, third, and which are the shortest- and longest-lasting.

All of this is variable, however, depending on the weather. Warm spring? Cold? Late snowfall? Lots of rain? Drought? I file all this under the big category of “Gardening is fun, requiring patience and fortitude.”

Simply by reading the catalogs — from Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, Van Engelen, and Van Bourgondien Bulbs — one can learn a tremendous amount about planting, nurturing and landscaping with bulbs. Some of the strongest narcissi in my garden have been Actaea, Flower Record, Ice Wings, Hawera, Professor Einstein, Pheasant’s Eye, Thalia and Erlicheer.

More wimpy are some of the pinkish varieties and narcissi Serola and Suada. I have overplanted some of those swaths of weaker bulbs with others in order to maintain a full and luscious border overall.

There was no way to dig individual holes for 80,000 bulbs, so my helpers and I devised a method that really worked for a mass planting like this. First the ground was cultivated to a depth of 8 inches with my Troy-Bilt cultivator. Then 7 inches of the softened earth was scraped away. (We did about 40 feet at a time.)

Bonemeal was worked into the subsoil, along with an inch of good, rich compost. The bulbs were then set 5 inches to 6 inches apart in this nice, soft bed. The soil that had been scraped away was then carefully strewn back on top of the bulbs, covering them to a depth of about 7 inches. A great many bulbs can be planted this way in a relatively short amount of time.

In spring, after the daffodils bloom, we just let the foliage turn brown, and then it is raked away and put into the compost. More bonemeal is added to the top at the end of summer, and the bulbs, rejuvenated, rest until spring. If there is a lot of warm weather, as there has been this winter, I add an inch or two of compost to the entire bed to prevent the tender leaves from shooting through the garden surface — if they do, frost may brown the leaves and damage early buds.

Arrangements can be assembled from one type of daffodil or many, and additional foliage or flowers can be added. The resulting pleasure, in my opinion, is inestimable.

Questions should be addressed to Ask Martha, care of Letters Department, Martha Stewart Living, 11 W. 42nd St., New York, NY 10036. E-mail to

&Copy; 2008 Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc.

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