I used to see snowdrops as the first sign that the icy grasp of winter might be slackening its grip on my throat, but sadly, over the past few years they’ve proved to be fickle friends: yes, they poke their noses out of the ground; they might even just manage to flower, and of course your spirits rise; but then the winds swing to the north and the frosts bite deeper than ever. That late burst of winter in January was devastating. Far colder than anything December 2009 could throw at us. Although we still don’t know precisely what it has managed to kill, it looks like young tree ferns, many fuchsias, and most of the formiums (those plants with long strap-like leaves, sometimes known as New Zealand flax) that were knocked back in 2009/10 have now been finished off. The late cold snap delayed the flowering of our daffodils which would otherwise have been well on their way in February. One of the varieties we grow is February Gold (and its far better, and more delicate cousin, February Silver) in most seasons manages to live up to its name, but this year it couldn’t manage a flower until March 3rd. Don’t get me wrong, I do like the early varieties, but without doubt my favourite daffodil of all, used to be known as the Lent Lily. It’s sometimes referred-to as the wild daffodil (although strictly speaking, daffodils aren’t actually native to Britain), and its scientific name is Narcissus pseudonarcissus.
Our Fenland garden has been blessed with a fairly heavy marine silt which grows superb daffodils – in fact the Lincolnshire Fens around Spalding are the centre of the European daffodil-growing industry. A few years ago the smaller roads around here would be choked with coach-loads of visitors, craning their necks at field after field of modern over-developed, scent-free hybrids. But nowadays we’ve become too sophisticated for such things. So we grow them in vast acreages, pick them with immigrant labour and silently despatch them off to urban supermarkets – where they last for days and smell of nothing.
But my friend the Lent Lily could not be more different. For a start, she has a wonderful, delicate aroma. And you must allow me my sexist moment: if you can’t assign a gender to daffs, then it’s a sad old world. She’s slightly modest at first, preferring to hold her head down, then, as she matures the bloom lifts, to stare you directly in the eyes. I love that week, this year it was in late March, when we enjoy our breakfasts in the company of Lent Lilies. They lift our spirits in the last two weeks of lambing, when a succession of very late nights and dawn wake-ups has started to wear us both down. This year, for some reason was particularly bad – hence the delay in the production of this blog – and believe me, those delicate flowers were more than ever welcome on our table.
The Lent Lily isn’t sold much in modern garden centres. The bulbs aren’t as fat and attractive as modern daffs, and it can be quite fussy about soil conditions – they hate it too wet or too dry. Sometimes too, they can go ‘blind’ and simply cease from flowering; but if you can manage to find them, and then to grow them, your efforts will be repaid in full. The flowers are the classic darker-yellow trumpet and paler outer petals, but for my money their biggest bonus is that they look superb in huge drifts. They were most probably what William Wordsworth saw in the Lake District (or was it actually his wife? But I digress…). Planting bulbs can be hard work. As I used to mutter when bent double, back in the early 1990s: ‘A host of bleeding daffodils…’.
I can remember as a boy going to various country cousins in the 1950s and looking-on while my relatives planted sackfuls of mixed daffs, they’d bought at an auction somewhere. You can still buy such sacks around here ‘for naturalising’: they’re a by-product of the industry and contain quite simply everything, from big blousy hybrids to very big blousy hybrids. And of course they’ll never ‘naturalise’ as it says on the label. They’ll always look like what they are. In two centuries’ time they’ll still be showy, over-yellow and crude. If you start with rubbish, you’ll end with rubbish. No, take my advice and do what I did. If you’ve got a suitable area of long grass, find some Lent Lilies (we use Avon Bulbs, most other good specialist bulb growers stock them). Plant the largest and best bulbs, then line the smaller ones out in the vegetable garden and leave them there for a couple of years. Lift them in the autumn and again, plant out the best. I’ve been doing this for twenty years and I’m not about to stop.
Another piece of advice. Daffs look good both alone and in drifts. So leave plenty of blank areas. In my meadow garden these are the places where thousands of cowslips and snake’s head fritillaries flower. These delicate plants would be hidden beneath daffodil leaves. All too often, a nice effect is ruined by being over-done. You’re after drifts, not crowds. Also be at pains to avoid regimentation while you’re outing them in the ground: once a straight line has appeared in a supposedly natural planting, it will continue to haunt you for years to come.
Finally, as any experienced gardener will tell you, natural effects take skill and artifice to achieve. So take your time. Treat bulb-planting as an exercise in Zen philosophy: think about the moment; think about each plant – and you won’t be thinking about your back. Bear in mind that they way you do it now will be reflected each springtime for the rest of the century, and beyond. It’s not generally recognised, but daffodils, like oaks, are planted for the benefit of your grand-children. It’s a job that’s worth getting right.