How we grow scented narcissi at Churchtown Farm
The Isles of Scilly have long been famous for producing high quality, early narcissi. Here at Churchtown farm we specialise in growing the multi-headed and gloriously scented 'Tazetta' types of narcissi, instead of the more common unscented daffodil types. Narcissi are a bulb flower, they grow well in our sandy soil and mild maritime climate.
How do we choose which varieties to grow?
The narcissi that we grow here at Churchtown Farm are a mixture of established traditional varieties - such as Soleil d'or, Paper White and Golden Dawn, and newer varieties that have bred by growers on the Isles of Scilly. Some varieties are so new that they still only have numbers instead of names.
In order to be selected for cultivation at Churchtown Farm, a new variety must be high yielding and produce better quality flowers than any alternatives. It is also important that the new variety has a natural flowering season which fits in with our requirements, we are always on the lookout for strong varieties that will enable us to lengthen our season.
New bulb fields are planted in late summer. They are planted in a similar way to potatoes in prepared soil beds. Due to the exceptionally mild winter climate in Scilly, bulbs will start to grow as soon as the first autumn rains arrive, this ensures that our varieties will naturally flower between October and March.
At Churchtown Farm we are only interested in our narcissi for their flower crops - we do not as a rule sell any bulbs. For this reason we leave the bulbs in the ground for up to 4 years as opposed to the more usual 2 year crops associated with mainland bulb growers.
The first crop of flowers after the bulbs have been planted are often thin and of poor quality, so don't reach our stringent quality requirements. For this reason nearly all narcissi sent from Churchtown Farm are from 2nd, 3rd or 4th year crops.
How do we make sure we have flowers when they're needed?
In order to match our flower production volumes to our sales we plant varieties that flower at different times. We can achieve even greater control over flowering by using special techniques to make particular crops flower either later or earlier than their natural season.
How do we make the narcissi flower early?
To advance the natural flowering season we cover the portion of field which we want to flower earlier with a large sheet of polythene in May. During May and June, this has the effect of warming the soil. We also light fires using straw and grass at the edge of the polythene, the smoke is then blown under the polythene.
The ethylene in the smoke initiates the flower production. The polythene is then removed in early July to allow the bulbs to start growing. Driving slowly over the flower fields with a tractor mounted burner has a slightly lesser advancing effect but helps to improve the quality and flowering rate.
How do we make the narcissi flower late?
Putting polythene sheets over some fields from August to October keeps the soil and bulbs dry and therefore delays the start of bulb growth and flowering until later than it's natural season. We also put polythene over rows of flowers in the spring to 'retard' the crop in the hope of meeting the Easter market.
What happens when the bulbs have been in the ground for 4 years?
When the bulbs have been in the ground for 4 years we take them out, this is called lifting. We start to lift our bulbs in June after the foliage has died back. This is done to maintain the quality of the crop and prevent the build up of disease.
After ensuring that the field is clear of weeds and foliage our tractor mounted bulb lifter gently lifts the bulbs, separates them from the soil and drops them gently in neat rows on top of the soil. They are then left to dry in the field and then the bulbs are picked up by our 'bulb-picker-upper' and stored in large wooden bins before being brought back to the farm.
What happens to the lifted bulbs?
The dried bulbs are cleaned and sorted on a vibrating grading table or 'riddle'. Here we discard all bulbs that are too small, damaged or diseased to be of use in flower production. The cleaned and graded bulbs are then returned to their sacks for the final process. After this we subject the bulbs to hot water treatment called sterilisation. This involves immersing batches of bulbs for three hours in a hot solution of disinfectant to kill some important bulb pests and diseases such as eelworm or basal rot. After this they are ready to be planted again in a different field. The field the bulb have come from will be 'rested', often we plant turnips or grass for a small beef herd between flower crops.