How to Grow Daffodils for Spring Color

Updated on January 9, 2019
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Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.

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When most people think of spring, they think of bright yellow daffodils. Daffodils are easy to grow and last for years.

What are Daffodils?

Daffodils are perennial bulbs that are native to the Mediterranean area. They spread to Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. The Netherlands became a center of daffodil growing in the 19th century. Here in the US, they are hardy from zone 3 through 8.

The bulbs are planted in the fall when they are dormant. When the soil warms in the spring, the bulbs send up first leaves then a stalk the either has a single flower or umbels of multiple flowers depending on the variety. The flowers are characterized by a cup surrounded by 6 petals. The petals are usually yellow or white. The cups can be large or small. Their colors are more varied depending on the cultivar. Bloom time varies depending on the cultivar, anywhere from early to late spring. For the maximum amount of flowers, plant multiple varieties that will bloom at different times.

Daffodils can have single flowers or bunches of flowers on a single stem.
Daffodils can have single flowers or bunches of flowers on a single stem. | Source

Daffodils are extremely long lived. No one knows exactly how long they live. Even after a house has fallen into decay and disappeared, it is easy to tell where it once stood by the daffodils blooming every spring around where the foundation once was.

Are Daffodils Poisonous?

Those of us who have a problem with deer eating our gardens, know that they stay away from our daffodils. They are also rodent-proof. Daffodils contain alkaloids which are poisonous so both animals and insects stay away from them. They are also poisonous for your pets so be sure to keep them away from your garden in the spring.

The alkaloids are absorbed through your skin, so always wear gloves while handling the bulbs and the plants. If you want to display the flowers in a vase, display them alone. The alkaloids in the stems will cause other flowers to wilt. If you want to use them in an arrangement with other flowers, soak the stems while you are arranging the other flowers and add the daffodils last. Pre-soaking the stems rids them of most of the alkaloids.

Daffodils can be planted under deciduous trees which leaf out after the daffodils have finished blooming and their foliage has died.
Daffodils can be planted under deciduous trees which leaf out after the daffodils have finished blooming and their foliage has died. | Source

How to Plant Daffodils

Daffodil bulbs should be planted in the fall, 2 to 4 weeks before the ground freezes. This is usually after your first frost. You want the soil to be cool so that the bulbs stay dormant. If you plant too early while the soil is warm, the bulbs will start to sprout and the plants may not survive the cold winter weather.

Daffodils need a period of cold before they will germinate. In southern parts of the US where the winters are not cold, gardeners can fool their bulbs by chilling them in their refrigerators for 3 to 4 months. They can then plant their bulbs in early spring.

Choose a spot with well-drained soil. Daffodils will rot in soil that is too wet. You can plant your bulbs under deciduous trees because they will grow and flower before the trees leaf out. Do not plant them under evergreen trees which do not lose their foliage in the winter so they shade the ground under them year round.

Dig a hole 3 to 5 inches deep depending on the size of the bulb. The rule of thumb is to plant the bulbs twice as deep as they are wide. The pointy end should be pointing up. Because the plants can grow to 12 to 18 inches in height and up to 9 inches around (depending on the variety), plant the bulbs 5 to 6 inches apart. Smaller bulbs can be planted 3 to 4 inches apart.

Daffodils are extremely long-lived.  These daffodils came with the my house when I bought it.  I don't know when they were planted, but they were still going strong when I sold the house 17 years later.
Daffodils are extremely long-lived. These daffodils came with the my house when I bought it. I don't know when they were planted, but they were still going strong when I sold the house 17 years later. | Source

How to Care for Your Daffodils

Daffodils require very little care. They are Mediterranean plants so they prefer drier conditions. There is no need to water them while they are growing unless you are having an unusually dry spring. When the flowers have finished and start to die, it is a good idea to remove them rather than allowing them to go to seed. It is better that the plants put their energy into storing food in their bulb rather than making seeds.

How to Care For Your Daffodils After They Finish Blooming

After their bright yellow flowers are gone, it’s tempting to cut down their leaves. Resist the temptation Those leaves are important. They are feeding the bulb so that it will grow and bloom next year. Some people leave the foliage, but they braid it or tie it into bundles to make it look neater. It’s best to leave the leaves alone. The entire surface needs to be exposed to the sun.

The leaves should be left alone for at least 6 weeks after the flowers have finished. They can be ugly, so plant other late spring blooming plants such as peonies, hostas or daylilies that will hide the foliage. After 6 weeks, the leaves should be dying and it is safe to finally cut them down.

My favorite daffodils, the Poet's Daffodil.  The cup is tiny and rimmed with orange.  They bloom in late spring.
My favorite daffodils, the Poet's Daffodil. The cup is tiny and rimmed with orange. They bloom in late spring. | Source

How to Grow Daffodils From Divisions

Daffodils are not only long-lived, they also spread. Each bulb will produce smaller bulbs around the base. After a few years, your plants will become crowded and have fewer flowers than previous years. It’s time to divide your bulbs!

After the leaves have died, take a garden fork and gently dig up your bulbs. Gently break off the small bulbs and plant them separately. You might want to put them in a nursery bed. It will be a few years before they are large enough to bloom. Replant your larger bulbs 5 to 6 inches apart.

Be sure to replant your bulbs immediately so that they do not dry out.

How to Grow Daffodils From Seed

If you do not remove the flowers when they are finished, the flowers stems will develop green seed pods. Some gardeners like to hybridize their daffodils and hand pollinate their flowers. Other gardeners like to be surprised by the new daffodils that arise from their existing bulbs. Either way, they do not remove the flowers and allow the seed pods to mature.

When the seed pods have turned brown, you can remove them from the stem and break them open revealing the seeds inside. Plant the seeds either in a nursery bed or in your garden, lightly covering them. They will germinate the following spring. Daffodils grown from seed take 5 to 6 years to bloom. That is how long it takes them to develop a bulb that is large enough to support both foliage and flowers.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Caren White

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      • BlossomSB profile image

        Bronwen Scott-Branagan 

        7 months ago from Victoria, Australia

        What a lovely article about one of my favourite spring flowers! In this part of the world the daffs seem to begin flowering even before it's officially spring and are a great reminder of the joys to come in our gardens. I love your images and useful information, too, and although I like growing plants that have edible leaves and flowers, they're too lovely to not have a place in my garden.

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