With the sun starting to make itself felt and the days lengthening, March is when I feel my spirits lifting. I, and it seems many gardeners, have a heightened sensitivity to light. Maybe that’s why we’ve chosen to spend our lives gardening.
I like winter hibernation, but even in the south of England it goes on too long for me. November and December are fine, as is the quiet withdrawal of January, but in February, with the drear continuing, I sometimes find it hard. March 1, and even better the spring equinox towards the end of the month, feels good.
The banks on the lane and edges of the woods around us start to fill with primroses and the bluebell leaf spears pierce through and lengthen week by week, while the goat willows flare like lightbulbs amongst the silver-browns of all the other trees.
Changes in the garden seem slow at first, then everything rockets. With growth curves steepening day by day, March is the month of mass propagation and getting plants going. It’s the peak time for sowing seeds, potting up dahlia tubers and planting out hardy annuals such as sweet peas.
There are, thank goodness, a few early tulips, but above all, daffodils (Narcissus) are this month’s optimistic flower family, the first to truly fill the garden and give us huge armfuls of stems to bring inside.
We can have colour in January and February, but on the whole, it’s on a miniature scale; come the daffodil in March, our garden starts its colourful, flowery performance in earnest.
My favourites are the delicate, close-to-the wild-species types, such as ‘Segovia’ and the new, unflatteringly named ‘Xit’ – both are small, not in any way overblown and as cool as a ballerina. I’m always on the lookout for multi-headed varieties, which are good for cutting and have a better-than-usual vase life.
They’re guaranteed mood enhancers, particularly when scented. In March, we have ‘Avalanche’, which can throw up stems 60cm tall – it’s been in the same place for 20 years and the bulbs must be enormous. ‘Geranium’ flowers now too, with one of the best scents in the plant world.
As colour in March is still quite minimal, fragrance is crucial.
Daphnes and sarcococcas give plenty, and hyacinths of course, which are flowering in the garden. I love the delicate, bluebell lookalike Hyacinth ‘Anastasia’ best of all. These all give scent in spades, but Perch Hill would be a lesser place without its beautiful daffodils.
The great daffodil hunt
Adam and I got married on Dec 31 some 30 years ago and had a party in my mother’s house on the west coast of Scotland. We decorated every table, fireplace and window ledge with deliciously scented daffodils, the only British flower grown outdoors and available cheaply in the depths of winter.
The flowers arrived in long white boxes on the overnight train to Fort William, via Penzance and London, from the Isles of Scilly. We put them in old Victorian marmalade jars with a few lichen-encrusted branches. As you moved from one room to the next, you walked in and out of pockets of intensely sweet scent. I’ve loved paperwhites (Narcissus papyraceus) and ‘Grand Soleil d’Or’ ever since.
It was our wedding that spurred me on to choose highly scented, multi-headed, good-vase-life daffodils as the first group of plants to trial at Perch Hill in the late 1990s.
Buying almost any plant from a picture (in a catalogue or online) is tricky. You don’t get a feel for each plant’s scale and habit, and obviously no idea of scent. With a genus like Narcissus, there are so many species and varieties, how on earth do you know which to choose? That’s why trialling seemed essential – the same goes for tulips, sweet peas, roses and dahlias.
With daffodils, I knew from a visit to the Isles of Scilly that there were plenty of varieties which lasted not just two or three days once cut, but more like a week if kept cool. However, I also wanted to know which were the prettiest and most deliciously perfumed (some can be a little camphory).
We sourced the bulbs mainly from Cornwall and Scilly, where there’s been a history of daffodil breeding and flower growing for 150 years. The islands at the far south-western corner of England have the ideal climate for these bulbs.
Winter and spring are very mild – the mean spring temperature is the same as Barcelona, rarely dropping below 10C (50F), even at night – and the summers are usually hot, dry and bright. It’s the ideal climate for initiating flower formation in the bulb.
The main ones I wanted to trial were the Tazetta types. Unlike other daffodils, that have stems with just one flower that lasts for two or three weeks, the Tazetta group is bunch-flowering, with up to 10 flowers on one stem. They also have the ideal cropping pattern: light and over a long period of up to three months.
You can pick a crop one week and then again a month later and again a month after that. They are also scented – that’s crucial.
I wanted the flowers and leaves of the varieties I chose to be relatively discreet and elegant, so that they would look good in a border, as well as en masse in grass. And I also knew which varieties I didn’t want in the trial: as a general rule, I’m not keen on the chunky Trumpet group – they tend to have great strips of almost leek-like leaves that look horrid by late spring, and vast cup-and-saucer flowers that seem double a daffodil’s natural size.
The daffodils I selected needed to be outdoor, hardy varieties, so I sadly had to exclude the ones we had at our wedding, which would not flourish in most of the UK. However, if the variety could be forced indoors and planted out in the garden once in flower, they made the cut. My final aim was to have a succession of daffodils flowering from the beginning of March until the middle and even the end of spring.
Based on those parameters, I selected 20 daffodils for the trial and the characteristics we scored them on included delicious scent, multi-headed flowers (so you could fill a vase with only a handful of stems), their ability to flower for a long period of time and also to become truly perennial, coming back year after year without needing to be lifted and divided.
Perch Hill, Sarah Raven’s garden in East Sussex, is open in April and May, starting April 14 (pre-booking only). For further information and dates, visit sarahraven.com.
Tips for vase life
We scored flowers on vase life, testing daffodils in vases filled with plain water, as well as some filled with water and a teaspoon of thick bleach.
It’s worth knowing, that unlike many cut flowers, bleach appears to make very little difference to the vase life of a daffodil. For most flowers, bleach or clear vinegar (which I now prefer to use) kills the bacteria that generate slime, and it’s the slime that blocks the stem ends, preventing the flowers from taking up water – but this process does not seem necessary for daffodils.
We also placed some vases in cool, dark locations and others in bright, warm spots. The results were clear: the flowers in the cool space lasted two to three days longer than those in the sunny one.
For the same reason I always try to put vases outside the back door when I go to bed to maximise any flower’s vase life.
The top 10 daffodil varieties for cutting
At its best in the first weeks of March, but often with a welcome first flush in February, ‘Avalanche’ flowers longer than any other on this list – it’s in the garden for five weeks at least. It is scented and lasts 10 days in water if picked in bud and kept cool.
The next top performer to flower is ‘Geranium’, sometimes called the florist’s daffodil. It has lots of pretty orange and ivory flowerheads topping each stem, which give a delicious scent. It will last a week in water if kept cool and out of bright sunlight.
Tall, elegant stems exude an incredible exotic scent; there’s almost nothing better than a large jug of these. This traditional variety is lovely in a border or grass and came top in the longevity trial, lasting longer in the vase than any of the newly bred forms.
Flowering about three weeks later than ‘Geranium’, ‘Silver Chimes’ has beautiful silvery white petals around a pale ivory trumpet. This is a huge producer. You can pick every bud and flower that you see one day, and five or six days later, new ones will have appeared.
Classy, discreet, pretty and with a delicious scent, this new variety is unmissable. Easy to grow in a pot, border or grass.
N. poeticus var. recurvus
Similar but more delicate than ‘Actaea’, with petals recurved on to the stem. This smells divine and cuts well. Arranges well with the larger-flowered ‘Polar Ice’.
Beautiful scent, and delicate flowers, like ‘Geranium’ but each trumpet may be half the size. This is usually early, and very perennial. Vase life of nearly a week if kept cool. We have bulbs perennialised in the greenhouse to pick all winter.
Widely used as a cut flower, I used to find this multi-headed double too fussy but its amazing stephanotis-like scent has won me over and the fact that you can force it inside to flower in January, or even Christmas if you get going early enough in the autumn.
More pink-trumpeted narcissi (in fact the colour of pink-grapefruit) are appearing and I like most of them, particularly if the trumpet is not too big as with ‘Bell Song’ which also has lovely scent.
One of the latest to flower here, with primrose-yellow flowers, incredible scent, lovely in a small vase, window box or container. This also naturalises well, with delicate chive-like foliage to fit well in grass.
From A Year Full of Flowers by Sarah Raven (Bloomsbury, £25). Buy now for £19.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514