Monday, 7 March 2016

daffodil, thou art sick

The pots of Anemone blanda are blooming away merrily by the greenhouse, awaiting slightly warmer weather for me to plant them out.  The pots of Narcissus 'February Gold' went into the daffodil lawn two or three weeks ago, and I was half way through planting out the pots of 'Tete a tete' when the cold struck, while N. 'Golden Bells' was ready to go out into the grass so long ago I've practically forgotten about it.  The Scilla mitshenkoana 'Tubergenia' (a big name for a small plant) have found a home in the long border, and the Scilla sibirica and S. bifolia are hot to trot as soon as it warms up enough (for me, not them.  They don't look bothered).  Dwarf iris 'Sheila Ann Germaney' is ensconced in the gravel, and the purple checkerboard fritillaries went out into the fritillary lawn, while the bulbs of the white ones have been investigated and found wanting.  In fact, rule of thumb, if any bulbs planted in containers last autumn aren't in vigorous growth by now there's probably something wrong with them.

So it proved when I investigated the pots of Narcissus 'Pacific Coast' in one of the cold frames.  They were potted up last autumn, three bulbs to a one litre pot, at the same time and using the same compost as all the other bulbs.  I noticed a while back when I was checking the watering that their foliage was looking rather patchy.  At first I wondered if they were simply a late variety, slower into growth than 'February Gold' which is an early daffodil, but even a late variety ought so be showing leaf above the surface of the compost by now, growing in the protection of a cold frame.

I upended a pot with no top growth at all, and found an undersized collection of brownish roots, not a good sign.  Healthy daffodil roots are brilliant white and by this stage of the winter should be bursting against the walls of the pot.  I scraped the top layer of compost out of a pot with two sets of apparently healthy leaves rather than the expected three until I uncovered the nose of the third bulb.  It had no roots at all, and numerous small grey maggots wriggled over the surface of the bulb.  Definitely not a good sign.  The bulb itself was soft and brown, the outer layers falling away when pressed between my fingers.  I cut it in half, and it was brown and rotten all the way through, but not hollow.

If I were a proper horticulturalist I would have known exactly what was wrong with them, but as it happens, I didn't.  I am not an expert on daffodil pests and diseases.  We did one module on P&D at Writtle.  You wouldn't expect your GP to be able to diagnose any disease that walked into their surgery on the basis of one second year module, and they only have to treat human beings, while your generalist gardener has to know about lots of other plants besides bulbs.  I had heard of narcissus bulb fly, so that seemed a good place to start, but looking it up on the internet it seemed pretty clear that a bulb attacked by narcissus bulb fly should be hollow, containing maybe only one grub in its eaten-out core.  My bulbs were disintegrating from the the outside in.  I soon learned there is also a small narcissus bulb fly, which manifests itself in more and smaller maggots per bulb.  That sounded more like what I'd found, on the other hand traditional wisdom had it that the small bulb fly only attacked bulbs that were already weakened by something else.  And while the internet was pretty definite about the life cycle of the normal fly, it was annoyingly vague about the habits of the small one, so I couldn't work out whether it was likely to be already present in dried bulbs that looked entirely fat and healthy when planted.

My best guess is that the maggots were those of the small narcissus bulb fly, and that the bulbs were suffering from something else, possibly fusarium.  Whatever it was, I think disease was involved.  I considered whether I might have killed them myself, perhaps through over watering, but I don't think I did.  They have not been watered particularly heavily, all other plants in the frame were fine, and the three trays of bulbs were all affected despite not standing next to each other in the cold frame, so it's not as if they were all under the same leak in the roof.  The maggots may have been causal agents of death, but may have been simply feeding on the dead roots after the event.  Whatever was wrong, I didn't fancy rescuing the growing bulbs from among the others and planting them out in case they brought something nasty with them.  Especially I did not want to introduce fusarium to the soil in the back garden.

With some irritation I tipped every pot of 'Pacific Coast' into a plastic sack to go to the dump, eight quid's worth of bulbs down the drain, plus compost, plus time, plus valuable space occupied since last September in the cold frame.  Plus my disappointment, since I was looking forward to them. Primrose yellow with a deeper cup, lovely soft fragrance, very prolific in flower and a good naturalising variety, that's what the website said.  Hey ho.  Fortunately we gardeners are incorrigible optimists.  Next bulb season I'm sure it will be great.

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