Don't Touch Those Daffodil Leaves
Coast Gardener Newspaper and Web Column - April 13, 2009
Spring is one of my favorite times of the year in the garden as we begin the transition from winter to that of gardens in full flower in summertime. We have a multitude of plant species that bloom very early in the year when the temperatures are still cool. Daffodils, crocus, and hyacinth can color the garden when there are no other flowers available. There is a downside, however, to these wonderful spring flowering plants. After the plant is finished blooming the foliage remains and after a while begins to look ratty.
A commonly asked question I'm receiving these days is when to remove daffodil leaves, and other bulb species, after flowering. My response generally elicits a gasp of horror from the concerned homeowner when I say don't touch those daffodil leaves. The foliage, no matter how ratty it looks, is vital for flowering next year. There are advocates who recommend that cutting off half of the foliage, or folding the foliage in half and securing with rubber bands, will not affect subsequent years flowering. I tend to be a purist in my advice regarding daffodil foliage and remain steadfast in advising that the foliage be left alone. Once a week gently tug on the foliage, if it readily comes loose then it is time to remove it.
Those leaves are gathering sunlight from the lengthening days, and through the miracle of photosynthesis, convert light energy into chemical energy to produce sugars that replenish and increase the size of the bulb. The bulb and the leaves must remain intact for at least six weeks to replenish their reserves. Deadheading, the removal of spent flower heads, is also important for maximizing the stored sugars in the bulb. Hyacinths and daffodil are deadheaded to avoid energy being wasted on seed production.
Okay, now you know the reason I give homeowners this bad news, but what to do about it? To borrow a term from the apparel industry, we need to accessorize our spring flowering bulbs. A neat trick I learned while visiting the Missouri Botanic Garden (MBG) in St. Louis is to interplant with early spring annuals. MBG plants pansies once their tulips and daffodils have begun to emerge. By waiting for these plants to emerge, the garden staff does not damage any of the tulips or daffodils. This provides cover and color prior to the tulip flowering and will help hide the foliage as it begins its decline. You could also choose to interplant your bulbs with flowering perennial plants and as they develop, would hide the declining foliage of the bulbs. Perennials would reduce the work required in the garden compared to planting annual plants each year.
Remember, gardening should be fun. The garden is a place to try different plant combinations and different plants. Accessorizing your spring flowering bulbs gives you the opportunity to try different plant combinations. The worst thing that can happen is you do not like the combinations and the remedy for that is very easy. Next year try something else.
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Written by Dr. Gary R. Bachman, Assistant Extension Professor of Horticulture, Coastal Research & Extension Center.