Elsie’s Daffodils

Garden magic.

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ILLUSTRATIONS BY CHRISTINA HESS

Just down the hill from where I work in Glasgow, Scotland, there is a ruined garden in an abandoned churchyard. Graffiti is scrawled over the locked front door, rubble and trash are scattered all over the premises, and weeds flourish in every corner. And yet every spring this garden never fails to astonish and delight me. First you see the snowdrops: hundreds of them clustered together, tiny globes of flawless white peeking through the frost, snow, cups, and cans. A few weeks later, purple and gold crocuses pop up, blooming around and even over the top of crumpled cellophane packets and cigarette butts. They’re followed by the prettiest, most dazzling daffodils on the block. Next come the tulips, with narrow crimson and magenta heads that remind me of slender fluted wineglasses. They bloom majestically next to empty plastic ice cream tubs. Then there are blue and lavender grape hyacinths, followed by pink and magenta columbine that push up through parts of an old bicycle—and finally, a clematis and wild rose that clamber everywhere, smothering plastic water bottles and old magazines.

On my way to work in the morning, I am cheered and refreshed by this garden and the way it triumphs over human sloth and indifference. The church has been boarded up for the past ten years, so it is all the more amazing that the garden has continued to flourish. I like to imagine that whoever did all the hard work would be as gratified as I am to know that their creation is still beautiful.

Purple and gold crocuses pop up, blooming around and even over cellophane packets and cigarette butts.

Gardening, I am firmly convinced, involves as much magic as it does science. Sometimes gardens flourish against all expectations, even if they are neglected, ill-treated, or ignored.

Just like Elsie’s daffodils.

I met Elsie one spring as I was digging in the garden of our new house. She was at least 80 and leaning on a cane. Resting her bad hip, Elsie stopped by my gate and asked me what I was planting. I told her that I wasn’t so much planting as I was rearranging; I’d been dismayed to find self-seeded saplings growing in all the wrong places. I was digging up the saplings now, intending to plant them in our hedge, which was full of holes. “We’re on a budget,” I explained. “When we have a little more spare cash, we’ll splurge on bulbs and shrubs and get the hedge done properly.”

From that day on, Elsie—we were quickly on a first-name basis—stopped to chat when she saw me working in the garden. Elsie had her own garden, though a recent hip replacement meant she could no longer do much work in it, and she assured me that I was doing the right thing by digging out the weeds, stones, and saplings, and reshaping the beds. “You’ll get there,” she assured me. “It just takes time. Your garden already looks much better—you’ve made a big difference.” This cheered me considerably, as compared to the gardens around us, ours looked awful. I was ashamed of our scruffy turf, rampant weeds, and leggy shrubs.

One summer morning as I was pulling out creeping buttercup, Elsie waved me over. “We’re moving,” she said. “Our house has too many stairs—they’re too much for me.” She lifted her cane and patted her hip. “Anyway, I’ve got something for you,” she added breathlessly. “It’s nothing, really. But I can’t carry it by myself. Would you give me a hand with it?”

“They weren’t low quality,” I said between clenched jaws. “They were all new bulbs and very firm.”

Mystified, I followed her to her house. On her walkway, there were at least half a dozen plastic bags full of plants and cuttings. “Mainly saxifraga and day lilies,” Elsie explained, “because we have them coming out our ears! But there’s also a hydrangea, a variegated laurel, and a Virginia creeper.”

I thanked Elsie profusely for her generosity. “What are these?” I asked, pointing at a dozen egg cartons stacked in a box.

“Daffodil bulbs,” Elsie said. “I thinned our bed out. They’ll look grand in your garden—you said you were going to get some eventually, didn’t you? Now you’ll never need to buy any!”

I gratefully accepted the plants and bulbs. That weekend, I managed to plant all the shrubs and flowers around our yard, but I didn’t get around to planting the bulbs until late October, by which time the ground was cold and hard. When I finally went out to plant them, I noticed they were a little withered.

My husband regarded them doubtfully. “Weren’t you sup-posed to plant them in August, or September at the latest?”

I picked up a bulb, squeezed it gently, and felt it give. All the gardening books said that bulbs have to be firm and shiny, like good-quality onions. This one wouldn’t make the grade, and most of the others looked like it.

“I’ll plant them anyway,” I said. After all, Elsie had gone to the trouble of digging them up for me, despite her bad hip.

“Don’t put them in the front beds,” my husband said. “Those beds get a lot of sun, and I was hoping we could put tulips there.”

“Okay, what about the ones toward the back, then?”

My husband frowned. “We wouldn’t be able to see them from the house if you planted them there.”

In the end, I decided to plant Elsie’s daffodils under a couple of larch trees that were visible from our house. It seemed the best solution given the circumstances. The bulbs were shrivelled, after all, and they might not produce flowers. When we had more money, I would buy some good, healthy bulbs and plant them in the beds I was still digging out.

Planting under the trees wasn’t easy going, though. The ground was already seizing up with the rapidly cooling temperatures. The soil was dry and tangled with roots. Also, there were a lot of stones I couldn’t remove. I couldn’t manage to dig much deeper than two to three inches. I dropped the bulbs in anyway, some right up against each other, tossed on some fertilizer and a little compost, and hoped for the best.

“What happens when you don’t plant bulbs deep enough?” I asked a gardening friend.

“Well, they might bloom the first year, but they’ll probably be blind. That means they won’t produce flowers.”

“Why?”

She shrugged. “They freeze if they’re close to the surface. Also, if you don’t plant them deep enough, mice and voles get them.”

So I resigned myself to probable failure and few if any daffodils in the springtime. When I ran into Elsie in town, she asked where I’d planted the bulbs. “Oh, they’ll look lovely under your larch trees!” she said. This made me feel even worse.

After a long, hard winter, I went out one morning in early March and was amazed to find dozens upon dozens of green shoots poking up under our trees. Had Elsie really given me that many bulbs? Had I planted that many? A few weeks later, the first flowers appeared, each one a clear, sunny yellow. Before April, every tree I’d planted daffodils under stood in a circle of gold and yellow flowers that lit up the entire garden.

“What an improvement!” the neighbors said.

“I knew they’d look grand there,” Elsie said, smiling.

That autumn I decided to splurge and buy more bulbs. I would plant daffodils in the larger beds I’d prepared, reasoning that if Elsie’s second-hand bulbs had done so well despite being buried in shallow holes and planted too late in the season, the bulbs I planted in properly prepared beds would look better still. I dug to the prescribed depth of six inches, then carefully planted a selection of bulbs I’d ordered from a reputable nursery. I planted at least 80 bulbs in one bed alone. It was hard work—my knees and back ached afterwards. But as I covered up the bulbs and settled down to wait for spring, I was filled with anticipation. Imagine how great my garden would look in six months!

Finally spring came. Although the new daffodils were lovely and of a greater variety than Elsie’s, I couldn’t help but notice that hers looked just as healthy—maybe even more so. The stems seemed stronger and the flowers appeared to stand up straighter. This was odd. From everything I’d heard and read, it was almost a miracle that Elsie’s bulbs had bloomed once, let alone twice.

My new daffodils bloomed part of March and most of April. I let their foliage die back naturally, fertilized them, and waited in great anticipation for the next spring. Eight months later, to my great dismay, there weren’t as many daffodil shoots as I’d expected in the new beds—only about half as many as I’d planted. “Be patient,” gardening friends told me. “Sometimes they just take a little time to come up.” By mid-March, however, there were no new green shoots. I dug in the empty spaces and found nothing. What in the world had happened? Could the voles and mice have gotten them even though I’d buried them six inches deep?

“These old ones you planted are doing fine!” my husband called as I mourned my failed bulbs. I looked and saw that the three places I’d planted Elsie’s bulbs were filled with perfect-looking flowers, radiantly yellow.

The next spring, out of the three large beds I had filled with new daffodil bulbs, I got only a few dozen flowers.

“I didn’t know you planted bulbs here,” my husband commented, pointing to a patch just inside our gate. We’d piled this particular spot high with dead leaves and gardening trash, but through it all sprang half a dozen vibrant-looking daffodils. I stared in amazement. I had a vague recollection of tossing some of Elsie’s leftover bulbs there when I ran out of places to plant them, but I had done nothing else for them. No fertilizer, no special attention, no weeding—just loads of rubbish piled over them. And yet these daffodils were easily the prettiest in the garden!

I asked my gardening friends what could have happened to my new bulbs. None of them could give me a satisfying answer.

“Sometimes that just happens with low-quality bulbs,” my friend Dina said. Dina knows that I tend to be a cheapskate who’ll buy anything on sale.

“These weren’t low quality,” I told her between clenched jaws. “They were all new bulbs, and very firm.”

“Did you make sure to dig deep enough?”

“I dug six inches!” I wailed.

Dina shrugged at my empty beds, then looked over at Elsie’s daffodils under our larch trees and the ones that sprang joyfully through our garden refuse. “Well, those look great,” she said. “Maybe it wasn’t you—maybe it was the bulbs.”

Who knows? Maybe it was. Maybe those lovely new bulbs I bought were imbued with built-in obsolescence. Maybe Elsie was actually a good witch who’d put a longevity charm on her bulbs. Maybe whoever planted that church garden blessed it with a special prayer that has kept it beautiful and vibrant for years, untended, fed on nothing more than leftover fast food, cigarette stubs, and plastic bottles. Gardening, like I said, involves a fair amount of magic as well as science. As such, many things may be possible, and miracles can occur.

This past spring, only a dozen of my expensive nursery daffodils came up. Elsie’s, on the other hand, are still going strong. And the garden in the abandoned church? It still takes my breath away every time I walk past it.


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