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Bright, cheerful and deer-proof, daffodils grow well in this region

Saturday, April 08, 2000

By Susan Banks, Post-Gazette Garden Editor

What could be more pleasant than a bouquet of daffodils? How about a garden filled with them?

A Northern Sceptre Ballydom '76 was among the more than 1,000 daffodils that could be found in Dianne Mrak's garden last April. (Joyce Mendelsohn, Post-Gazette) 

Dianne Mrak of Upper St. Clair has a landscape full of these lovely plants, more than 900 varieties so far. Mrak, who was introduced to daffodil mania in the 1960s, is the vice president of daffodils for the Daffodil and Hosta Society of Western Pennsylvania. She will open her garden for a tour April 16 and participate in the Western Pennsylvania Daffodil Show 2000 on April 18 and 19 at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden in Oakland.

Besides being bright and cheerful, these plants are easy to grow and deer don't eat them. They're pretty close to being the perfect spring garden plant for this area.

With thousands of named varieties available, the sky is pretty much the limit for the collector. Even if you don't have a big budget for daffodils, you can still get some nice plants pretty darn cheap.

When Mrak started down the daffodil trail, she wasn't planning on having a garden full of these plants. She just wanted to find a pink flower.

That was in the early 1960s when she was living in Baltimore. When a friend mentioned pink daffodils, Mrak thought she was nuts.

"I had just never seen any pink daffodils. I went to the next spring show and she gave me one bulb, I think it was 'Pink Rim,' and it just blossomed from there," says Mrak.

When she moved from Baltimore to Atlanta a few years later, she picked up her collection of 25 cultivars and took them with her. A woman in Atlanta encouraged her to become a judge, so she began classes in judging daffodils.

When she moved to Connecticut, she moved 100 different bulbs.

"I know that, because to be a judge you must grow 100 different cultivars," she says. In fact, she told her husband that she wouldn't move unless her daffodils went, too.

"And I suspect if I ever move again, I'll move them and at least a good portion of my daylily collection," she says. The daylilies take over for the daffodils in Mrak's garden come summer.

Where to turn for daffodils

Diane Mrak goes back to certain mail-order nurseries year after year. "One of my favorites is Grant Mitsch Daffodils in Hubbard, Ore. Mitsch is good for the avid plantsperson who maybe doesn't want to show but wants some finer daffodils," she says.

Mitsch's prices go from very reasonable to expensive, Mrak says, and most bulbs are sold singularly. Reach them at Mitsch Daffodils, Box 218, Hubbard OR 97032 or by phone at 503-651-2742. Catalog is $3.

A few others that Mrak recommends:

Brent & Becky's Bulbs, 7463 Heath Trail, Gloucester, VA 23061 Phone: 877-661-2852. Web site: http://www. brentand

Old House Gardens, c/o Scott Kunst, 536 Third St., Ann Arbor, MI 48103. Phone: 734-995-1486. Web site: http://www.oldhouse
. Catalog is $2.

Oregon Trail Daffodils, c/o Bill and Diane Tribe, 41905 S.E. Louden Road, Corbett, OR 97019. E-mail: daffodil@europa.com.

Cherry Creek Daffodils, 21700 S.W. Chapman Road, Sherwood, OR 97140.

Mary Mattison Van Schaik, c/o Michael Salera, Box 86, Temple, NH 03084. (This is a flier, not a catalog.)

-- Susan Banks, Post-Gazette Garden Editor


And though Mrak has a huge collection of plants, some of them very pricey, she's not a plant snob. She advises gardeners to buy bulbs from a reputable garden center in the fall. Look for bulbs that are solid to the touch. Some bulbs have a rough appearance, but that doesn't mean they aren't good bulbs. Inspect the bulbs several times, she says, making sure there are no soft spots or rot.

The one problem with buying bulbs from a nursery and some mail-order firms, she says, is that bulbs are often misidentified. Different varieties get mixed together or they're switched intentionally, due to low supplies.

For instance, the popular variety 'King Alfred' probably no longer exists, Mrak says. Dutch growers are notorious for substituting varieties. So people would order 'King Alfred' expecting a prolific yellow daffodil. As long as that's what they got, they probably didn't care. And that's not all bad.

"If they have some interest in gardening and just want to have some daffs, and they are not going to enter shows with them, I don't think it really makes any difference if it's a correctly named variety," she says.

But for the collector, that's a huge problem. If people begin their collections in this way, they can end up with a garden full of incorrectly named plants. Mrak relies heavily on certain mail-order companies, including some that sell Dutch bulbs. She suggests avoiding Breck's of Boston, Spring Hill Nurseries and Michigan Bulb.

"I have a hard time with them because the bulbs are not of good size and quite often not labeled correctly. A beginner doesn't know what a good-sized bulb is, they plant it and maybe it will come up next year. They'll get lots of foliage and no flower, because it was an undersized bulb," she says.

Part of this is not the company's fault, but the fault of the Dutch growers. However, Mrak, who has just returned from the National Daffodil Convention, says that efforts are being made to correct this problem.

Mrak says that mail-order bulbs can be expensive. But if something interests you, don't be afraid to try just one bulb. She points out that collectors usually just buy one plant, because daffodils multiply quickly in the garden.

Once the plants arrive in the fall, put them in a place where the soil is decent and well-drained.

"If you have good drainage, they'll survive in almost any other type of condition," she says.

However, they don't like heavy clay. Gardeners with clay should lighten the soil a little bit.

Place them in an area where they get some sun. Although you often see daffodils naturalized in woodland settings, that's because they get enough light before the deciduous trees leaf out later in the season.

"If you have good drainage, [daffodils will] survive in almost any other type of condition," says Dianne Mrak, who has the California Gold variety in her front yard. Also, she advises that the flowers "really don't like deep shade at all." (Joyce Mendelsohn, Post-Gazette) 

"They really don't like deep shade at all," says Mrak.

If you have healthy bulbs, you can expect some nice green foliage and a flower the first season. And if it's happy, it will multiply. Some varieties multiply like crazy, says Mrak. Then, in three or four years, you can dig up the clump and spread it to several other areas.

Mrak divides her plants in the spring, because she can locate the clumps easier then.

"I divide them in the late spring, early summer. My rule of thumb is to try to give them six weeks at minimum, from the time they flower, before I move them."

She says optimal time to move them is when the foliage is just beginning to die back, which would be a little longer than six weeks after flowering. She says many people move bulbs in late summer, but she doesn't recommend that because they are not easily found then, after all the foliage is gone.

As for diseases, daffodils are usually not bothered by many. But Mrak says they can be attacked by viruses, causing the foliage to turn yellow, or the flower to grow too fast, or the leaves and flowers to become distorted. But, she says, the goofy weather we get also can cause some of these problems.

She advises homeowners to watch a plant if they suspect it has a disease. If it comes up year after year looking strange, get rid of it. If it is truly diseased, it will probably die anyway.

"Viruses aren't as much of a problem here as they are in warmer parts of the country," says Mrak.

Clearly these plants are easy to like. So plant them, kick back and enjoy.

For a look at Mrak's collection, visit her home at 124 Fieldgate Drive, Upper St. Clair, on April 16 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The garden is open on that day, and the tour is free.

Hours for the Western Pennsylvania Daffodil Show 2000 are noon to 2 p.m. April 18 and 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. April 19 at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden in Oakland. The show is free with a Phipps admission.

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