when daffodils don’t flower well

Why so few flowers?
Why so few flowers?
THE FIRST URGENT QUESTION asked on our new Urgent Garden Question Forums was truly the crisis of the moment: “My daffodil leaves are lush and green this year but I have a total of three that have buds/blooms. (This is out of about 70 bulbs in a garden bed.) Could it be over the last several years of wonderful blooms they have just exhausted themselves? Could they possibly now be buried too deep? (I did add several inches of soil/compost last fall.)”—Kenn What causes sparse flowering, as in the photo above?

When flowering plants don’t bloom well it’s usually an issue of either not enough light; too much Nitrogen (which makes green, not flowers) or not enough of the nutrients they need because of competition with other plants; or overcrowding. But I wanted to look it up and get more info, because I had always thought my daffodil drifts were “forever.” And forever just came to an end, apparently.


The American Daffodil Society website confirms that any/all of the above can be the culprit, as can a soggy location; cutting off the foliage too early before the bulb ripens; an early heatwave the previous spring that similarly prevented ripening; and a few more remote possibilities like viruses.

So I’ve been outdoors this morning examining my many drifts of non-blooming narcissus, versus the clumps that are performing well, to figure out who needs what from me. All the while I was hoping against hope the answer isn’t “overcrowding,” because with thousands of bulbs, I cannot imagine how they’re all going to get lifted, divided, replanted.

The ADS says to divide every three to five years, meaning many of my drifts are 10 years overdue. (Do I see any A Way to Garden volunteers stepping forward to participate in The Big Dig?)

I’m going to try feeding, but with an all-natural organic food that I know won’t be an instant answer. I’ve pruned the apple trees that some of the worst-performing clumps were under, to let in more light. I will water well while the bulbs are up and growing because I know the tree roots are depriving the bulbs of needed moisture—another reason bulbs fail.

Want to know more about growing Narcissus? The American Daffodil Society is a great place to begin. Or jump into the discussion on our Bulb Forum, where Kenn started the whole thing.

  1. GardenGuyKenn says:

    Okay Margaret, pack a picnic.. we’re digging daffodils! (as a last resort of course!) Thank you for the link and info.. here’s hoping next spring I can share good news in the Narcissus department!

  2. Terri Clark says:

    The old gardeners in Stanley Park, Vancouver, where I was the Communication person for many decades, put down non-flowering daffs to two prime reasons: the “narcissus fly” and soil that is far too rich. They planted drifts on park fringes in dry turf and left the leaves to die down before mowing in the fall. They purported that cutting narcissus too early made it easier for the “fly”, later grub, to invade the plant.
    I have nothing to backup their therory except the exceptional early daffs of all descriptions that they were able to foster season after season.

  3. jane says:

    I just moved onto my new husband’s property with an old neglected landscape. There are thousands of daffodils located all around the property. The ones along the many stonewalls bloom beautifully however there are hundreds that do not. I realize the issue of light, adequate water and the depths of the bulbs. The depth of these old bulbs may be the issue however I thought I might try feeding them first. Can you recommend a good fertilizer ( including organic and synthetic). Also, I was wondering if I should feed them in the fall to get them to bloom in the spring. This property would be unbelievable if I could get them to bloom. A show stopper! Thank you!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Jane. The products by Espoma are good (like Bulb Tone). They have been in the business a long time. You should feed when they are pushing up, before bloom, like now in my area. They need nutrition as they get up and growing. Then keep an eye out to watering, and perhaps some judicious pruning to increase light in the season to come. If no go still, you will have to divine and relocate them. Hope to see you again soon.

  4. Naomi says:

    I am a recent bulb-planter and I am uncomfortable with the implied damage to tree and shrub roots both when planting and when digging to divide. How can one avoid — or psychologically manage! — this issue?

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Naomi. It is potentially a rather brutal matter, isn’t it? I try to be as careful as I can, using only as big and invasive a tool as is necessary, but you are correct; roots will be disturbed and even cut. You can minimize when planting by using a drill auger (there are special ones for bulb-planting) that just cuts a bulb-sized hole in the soil, instead of digging big holes. Best of all is planting your bulbs before or with the woodies, so they can grow together, I suppose. I don’t try to make room for huge swaths of bulbs in well-established root zones (or if I want a little early color I tuck in minor bulbs that aren’t hard to make way for).

  5. Donna says:

    I was at the Longwood Gardens symposium in February where I heard Brent from Brent and Becky’s Bulbs speak and he said not to use Bulb Tone but didn’t give an answer as to why not. I just finished reading “Homegrown Vegetables, Fruits and Herbs: A Bountiful, Healthful Garden for Lean Times” by Jim W. Wilson and he said to avoid bovine-based products like bone meal and blood meal, two organic soil amendments that could harbor the protein that causes mad cow disease in humans. I have never heard this mentioned before. Your comment, please.

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Donna. Yes, I do recall during the mid-2000’s headlines about “mad cow” and so on that the thought was that inhaling dust while using these products could theoretically be of concern to humans, though there has been no documented case that has made the headlines of that happening (which doesn’t mean it’s safe — just hasn’t happened).

  6. Georgia says:

    I have some narcissus that put up a large bud, but they won’t open. All the others around it are just fine. What’s the story?

  7. pamela brucker says:

    I have a daffodil problem that I have not seen before. I live in Western Maine and I planted about 40 daffies two years ago. They come up but do not bloom. I pulled up a bulb and it has shrunk to about 1/4 the size of the original bulb. About the size of a crocus bulb. By the way, my tulips bloom right on schedule. Can you help?

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Pamela. Competition (usually with tree roots), too much shade, not enough water, lack of nutrients — all can affect bloom and bulb vigor. Here’s my Bulb FAQ and it includes a link to the Daffodil Society, with more info on such troubles.

  8. Gloria W. says:

    I am wanting to plant daffodils this year- in pots, to aid my grandchildren in spring fundraising. We live in far Northeast Arkansas, and am wondering if we can plant and have any blooming for two events: Valentines Day and Easter-Palm Sunday. They might sell better if the blooms aren’t spent, and if they are actually in bloom. I do not know what planting dates we would need to use for a successful bloom on those dates. Thank You, Gloria

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Gloria. Normally the bulbs are only sold in the fall, so I think it’s to late to start them now — not enough time to “chill” them enough to prompt bloom, or fake a wintertime. However, I think the best thing to do is ask a daffodil expert (a catalog source like Brent and Becky’s Bulbs or John Scheeper’s) to see if there is a place to get pre-chilled bulbs for forcing as you want to do.

  9. Mary says:

    This might not be the right forum but for several years my camassia has not bloomed. They just send up leaves. The first two years were great. I always leave the foliage on hoping the bulb will replenish its resources. Any thoughts? Thanks, Mary

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Mary. I know that Camassia prefer moist (not wet) soil — is the spot maybe drier than they like? They can take a little shade (just a little, not darkness!) — how is the light? I had some that did well for a few years until shrubs nearby grew bigger and reduced the light and out-competed the bulbs for moisture resources.

  10. Mark C says:

    Take a sharp trowel and dig out the center of those clumps, replacing with compost. Then, take any surviving bulbs over to a new spot and plant them… even the damaged ones.

  11. William Jones says:

    I planted daffodil bulbs in the fall of 2021 in 4 spots all close by and in the same conditions(sun, drainage, etc). All came up and bloomed in 2022. I did not cut leaves too early…waited until brown & fallen. This year,, all bulbs (all spaces) have nice green leaves but only one spot is blooming and that spot fully bloomed. In addition, I planted new bulbs ( one space) last fall and they all came up and bloomed, as well. Bloomed before the older patch. Any thoughts? Thanks.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, William. One thing your anecdote makes me think of is how bulbs in their first year in a new home are still sort of primed to perform based on where they grew last season, so I have often found them on a different bloom schedule than older plantings (usually earlier as you saw too). Your bulbs’ 2022 performance was based on the conditions in the field they came from, where they nourished their underground parts in 2020 before they got harvested and came to you. Another thing is that we cannot really tell what’s going on underground from one spot to the next — how much competition for water and nutrients there might be from a nearby tree root, for instance, or how the drainage might vary from spot to spot. I always think things take another year at least after planting to really show me how they are going to settle in (unless it’s in a totally freshly prepared bed, maybe, where every inch is equal conditions). So I would watch and wait.

      1. Diane says:

        I also planted daffodils in the fall of 2021. In 2022 all sprouted and only a third bloomed. Now this spring 2023 all have sprouted and there are less blooms. I allowed the leaves to turn yellow before removing so that the bulbs could store the energy needed to flower. I also applied fertilizer in the fall. I am wondering if I received a poor batch of bulbs from the company I purchased from?? I am very disappointed that they are not producing the way I had hoped.

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