After a bleak winter, there is nothing more magical in the garden then the sight of the first daffodil greenery pushing up through the ground. This activity signals that everything is good in my garden; another year has passed and life continues.

Although most gardeners would have trouble picking out a favorite plant (akin to choosing the favorite child), there is not a gardener on earth who will not smile broadly and wax poetically, as William Wordsworth did, in describing a bed of daffodils:

When all at once I saw a crowd

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Daffodils will improve the darkest mood, whether it is the bright color and endearing shape of the flowers or their wonderful habit of moving with every change in the air currents.

I am compelled to plant them wherever they will thrive. I want to be able to look out the window and know there will be a daffodil to admire, to cheer, to comfort, to convince me that there is still a lot right in this crazy world.

Daffodils can start blooming as early as late January. I remember a couple of winters when the magnificent yellow trumpets sat surrounded by a ground covered with snow, as if the flowers were wearing white robes.

A rainbow of colors

If you choose wisely when you buy your bulbs, your garden can have daffodils blooming from the cold days of winter to the warm days of spring.

I try to shy away from buying large numbers of early bloomers, as I have watched too many cold snaps cause their faces to fall down and no longer stand straight up toward the sky. I prefer those that bloom mid- to late-season, in hopes that a wicked cold spell will not ruin their beauty.

Over the years, I have had daffodils in a rainbow of colors from peach to orange to butter-yellow to white. Mount Hood is a gorgeous all-white daffodil. Some shades are intense while others are pastel.

I have grown daffodils with huge trumpets, and I have planted dozens of miniature daffodils with tiny little faces that seem to drink in the sun’s rays.

Then there are the showstopper daffodils, the ones with double ruffled trumpets.

Years ago, a friend shared ‘Butter and Eggs,’ an old-fashioned beauty with double flowers; each year I watch for it to bloom again, and it does not fail me.

Daffodils whose trumpets are one color and whose petals are another color are a joy. A daffodil whose trumpet is outlined with a tiny band of a contrasting color is captivating; Poeticus Recurvus is an example of this charmer.

A garden without bulbs that produce multiple flowers on one stem is not complete. Many, such as ‘Yellow Cheerfulness,’ are highly fragrant.

Daffodils are also available in varying heights. Mix the sizes for the grandest display.

When to buy, when to plant

The hardest part of planting daffodils is looking at a catalog and deciding what to buy. You may see daffodils referred to as "narcissus" — same thing.

According to bulb catalogs, some daffodils are better suited to our climate, especially our hot and humid summers. ‘Carlton’ is a good one and has stepped into the role that ‘King Alfred’ once occupied as "the" daffodil everyone planted.

"The Southern Living Gardening Book" also recommends ‘Carlton,’ along with ‘Ceylon’ and ‘Ice Follies,’ among others.

The best time to order your daffodils is early fall, before the ones you want are sold out. I waited too late this year and was shocked to see how many people know it is essential to order early to get the best choice.

Daffodils are a delight in a cottage garden or in an area where they are naturalized and planted in mass. Planting time is best after we have our first frost, so the bulbs do not immediately start to sprout. My target planting date is around the first of December, although one year I was late and planted New Year’s Day.

The care and feeding of daffodils

Daffodils are not overly picky about their conditions, but a few simple steps will help them perform their best and continue to bloom year after year.

Daffodils will grow toward the sun; planting them in the wrong spot may mean that you spend your blooming season looking at the back of their blossoms rather than their front.

A nice loamy bed with well-drained soil and six hours (or full) sun makes the best home for your daffodils.

It is possible to plant them under the shade of deciduous trees, allowing them to receive winter sunshine. However, those have not always done as well for me. I end up with lots of greenery but not a lot of flowers.

Daffodil bulbs should be planted at least 5 inches deep for big bulbs and 3-5 inches deep for smaller bulbs. Bulb retailers often sell special tools to help the gardener easily get the bulbs in deep enough.

Years ago, the advice on fertilizer was to use bone meal, but I have read that special bulb fertilizers containing nitrogen are better for your flowers. I usually mix some bulb fertilizer into the soil when I plant them. One bulb company recommends a little low-nitrogen fertilizer just as the bulbs start coming up, to keep them healthy after the first year.

The most important tip

Perhaps the most important lesson for spectacular daffodils is to let the foliage yellow and remain on the bulb until it is dried out. Do not braid the foliage, bend it over with a rubber band, or cut it off; just let it mature naturally.

The garden neatniks will want to remove the foliage as soon as the flowers fade, but that is bad for your bulbs. Removing the fresh green foliage may reduce next year’s flowers.

Pinch off the spent flowers to keep the daffodils from going to seed; you want the bulbs to use all their energy to produce another banner crop of bodacious beauties the next year.

Another positive for daffodil-lovers is that squirrels, chipmunks and other small creatures will not spend their days digging up the bulbs. Fortunately, these varmints recognize that daffodil bulbs are not good to eat and will instead spend their days searching out your tulips and crocuses for snacks.

Daffodil-lovers agree wholeheartedly with William Wordsworth as he reflected on his feelings toward this special flower:

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.

Sherry Blanton is a member of the Calhoun County Master Gardeners Association. Contact her at sblanton@annistonstar.com.