Pacific Northwest

September, 2005
Regional Report

Favorite or New Plant

Dutchman's Breeches
The delicate, pristine white flowers of Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) are one of my favorite reminders that spring is here. This native wildflower can be found growing in deciduous woods throughout temperate areas of North America. The plants, which are 4 to 6 inches tall, emerge and flower when the air is still brisk and soil is still cold.

Dutchman's breeches flourishes in richly organic soil, where it multiplies from seed and forms new clumps. It flowers for several weeks in early spring, but once its glossy, black seeds have been dispersed, it slips into dormancy. Because Dicentra dies back by summer, it makes a good companion for shade-loving plants whose expanding leaves fill in the gaps. I have it planted in a shade bed surrounded by hostas, maidenhair ferns, and astilbes.

Clever Gardening Technique

Dividing Daffodils
Under good growing conditions, daffodils proliferate amazingly well. Overcrowding will reduce their vigor, so if you cultivate daffodils, you will almost certainly need to divide them at some point. The time to do this is well after they flower but while there is enough foliage left that you know where the bulbs are.

Daffodils "ripen" after flowering, storing starch in their bulbs to provide them with energy to grow next season. In addition, next year's flowers are starting to form. When this process is completed, the foliage yellows and pulls off easily. Don't tie up or braid the ripening foliage as some people do, because the plant needs every bit of the leaf area exposed to the sun and the air in order to photosynthesize the food that it will store in the bulb.

The first step in dividing daffodils is to fertilize them immediately after they finish blooming. The bulb has a lot of work to do and will need food to do it. I like to use a granular fertilizer with a 0-20-20 formulation, but any mixture very low in nitrogen (the first number of the three) is suitable. I apply 1 tablespoon around each clump.

Once the leaves have completely yellowed, the bulbs are ready to dig up. Care in digging is important. The best method is to put your gardening fork into the ground well outside the clump, sinking the fork to its full depth and then rocking it gently back and forth until you see where the bulbs are. Unearth the entire clump so you can break it up by hand. If you badly damage or impale a bulb, the best thing to do is throw it away.

I wash the dirt from the bulbs with a hose. Freeing them this way enables you to easily break apart the bulbs in the clump without too much damage to the roots, which are usually entwined. Examine the bulbs carefully and discard any that feel soft or have any symptoms of disease like basal rot (chocolate or reddish brown rot on the bottom of the bulb) or narcissus bulb fly (a fat grub in the heart of the bulb).

Once the bulbs are clean, put each variety or cultivar into its own mesh bag. For this purpose, I save the mesh bags that onions, oranges, and potatoes come in at the grocery store. Write the name of each variety on a plastic tag and place it in the bag.

Keep the bulbs in a cool, dry place until replanting time. If you must, you can replant the bulbs in their new spot immediately, but most growers agree that a period of rest is beneficial. In autumn -- September or October at my home in Seattle -- I prepare the soil. I dig as deeply as possible, sometimes as much as 18 inches, sifting the soil through a half-inch mesh screen built to fit over the top of my wheelbarrow. I add 6 inches of rough compost to the bottom of the planting hole and 4 to 5 inches of soil before setting the bulbs in the bed.

Most large daffodil bulbs should be planted 8 inches deep. The very small bulbs of the miniature species should be planted more shallowly. A general rule of thumb is to make the planting depths equal to three times the circumference of the bulb.

Newly planted daffodils will require some water, unless rainfall is abundant. If it is a dry year, plan on providing 1 inch of water per week during the fall months.

I fertilize again when the green tips first appear in spring. I apply a tablespoon of 5-10-5 granular fertilizer to each clump or dig some dried manure into the top inch or two of soil. As spring progresses, my daffodils come into full flower and are stronger than ever after being dug and divided.

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