Aiming for 50,000 daffodils ☑

My dad, Tom Koerner, on the lessons he’s learned over six ambitious decades of elbow-grease gardening.

My dad grew up in a house full of animals and brothers out in “the boonies” of Vermont, on the eastern shores of Lake Champlain. He talks about his childhood all the time, often recalling memories like “the time Fritz [his med-student brother] performed surgery on the dog at the kitchen table,” or “when we caught a seagull with a broken wing and put it in my mom’s bathtub,” or “how the pet racoons would eat all the ants out of our sugar bowl.”

Anyway, his upbringing informed mine, and I was lucky to spend tons of time immersed in Vermont’s wildness—whether that meant collecting hundreds of storm-injured monarchs at the beach (and bringing them home to heal in the “butterfly hospital” in my room), or building forts made out of rusty junk I dug up in the woods, or plugging my ears while my dad cracked the necks of the perch that “swallowed the hook” while we fished at the pond down the road from us.

Me and my dad and some old nails from our yard.

My dad is now a mostly-retired architect, and at this point he’s definitely a lone-wolf type character. He prefers to spend the majority of his time on personal projects like restoring rusty-but-classic cars, building new rooms onto his house, and almost-domesticating the crows and chipmunks who frequent his bucolic yard.

My dad also plants a lot of flowers. And by “a lot,” I mean A LOT: literally thousands upon thousands of daffodils, tulips, iris, peonies, gladiolus, hyacinth, crocuses, and lilies. In the spring, people driving by his house will see the flowers, throw their cars into reverse, and back up for a better view. It’s impressive—and it’s a lot to live up to.

When Daniel and I first moved to our house, in the summer of 2018, it was the first time we had our own yard. That fall, my dad wasted no time in sending us about 700 bulbs to plant. We were not prepared—we didn’t have a crowbar or a pickaxe, two tools you absolutely need to dig any size of hole in the ground here, which is, I kid you not, at least 80% rocks. I remember planting October bulbs well into November that year, maybe even December, struggling to dig down deep enough to cram a bulb in here, a bulb in there, as the first snowflakes of the season blustered around us.

Even though we only managed to plant about two thirds of what my dad sent us, come spring, we were delighted. All that effort truly paid off, and from then on I, too, was hooked on bulbs.

For Father’s Day, I thought I’d share this interview with my dad, Tom Koerner, age 72, about his foray into gardening. He mostly plants non-natives in the form of bulbs, which is a little different from my approach to gardening these days (I’m riding high on the native-plant train), but: Because of my dad, I will probably never stop planting ornamental bulbs.

Below, we talk about how he got started, what he’s learned over time, and what his yard is like nearly 40 years after he planted his first thousand daffodil bulbs. It’s a nice reminder that improving the land you live on can be—should be—a life-long pursuit.

I hope you enjoy 🙂

~ Willa

Willa Köerner: When did you first start gardening? What was your first project? 

Tom Koerner: When I was 15, me and my younger brother made a big vegetable garden around our house, just for something to do. My father subsidized it with the caveat that we’d grow him some corn. We did a pretty good job and got some good stuff, until the raccoons found it. Even though we put up a fence and chained our dog to it, and put fake snakes and a radio in there, nothing worked. The raccoons climbed right over it and tore out all the corn and tomatoes.

Were these your pet raccoons, or wild raccoons?

They were the wild ones. We did manage to grow some right-angle carrots, because we only had three or four inches of topsoil. The carrots would grow down until they hit the hard clay, and then they’d grow sideways. We didn’t care. It was something to do, and it was pretty fun.

My dad (center) with his parents and two brothers, plus two of their dogs, two of their cats, and one of their pet raccoons (at right).

When did you plant your first flower garden? 

My first flower garden was up at your mother’s house, when I was first fixing it up. I got some random catalog in the mail that advertised daffodil bulbs, and I bought a hundred of them just to give it a shot. Come spring, they were beautiful. Then some kids drove up on Mother’s Day and cut ’em all down. 

And that first attempt made you want to keep planting more?

Yeah, it was easier than I thought it would be. I liked planting daffodils because they were the earliest flower we’d see in March or April, after a long Vermont winter. Daffodils are like a ray of sunshine that comes out of the ground. They’re kind of dorky, but they’re beautiful.

After that first year, I planted some more daffodils, and maybe some tulips. I didn’t get into the real big-time stuff until I started living here, in this house. 

Back then, this yard was a ratty mess of buckhorn and sumac and all kinds of weeds. So one day I went out there and just started chopping away at it. Once I’d cleared things out a little, I realized that the soil around the house was actually quite good. It was underneath all these big trees that had been dropping their leaves and nuts and apples, and making on-site compost for hundreds of years. And there used to be a farm here with cows, too.

My dad and mom at the house he lives in now, before he fixed it up, and before I was born (and before my parents divorced).

It was hard digging, because there was a lot of farm junk in the ground—barbed wire, rusty old cans, and steel odds and ends—but it wasn’t too rocky. So I planted a bunch of flowers on the hillside, and pretty quickly it looked really nice.

The next year I got enthused to really auger in. By then I’d gotten on the mailing list for a bunch of speciality bulb companies. It was very tempting to buy a couple hundred of this, or a couple hundred of that, because they were all pretty cheap. 

That year I remember I bought a thousand crocus bulbs. When they came, I dug some pretty good holes and buried ’em all in one day. Later I went up to work in my office, which looks out over the yard, and I saw three chipmunks come and dig up every single bulb. No matter what I did, they kept digging up all the bulbs and carting them off to a hollow tree.

Well, then what happened? 

I realized I can’t grow crocuses here. [Laughs] But I discovered that the squirrels and chipmunks didn’t care for the daffodils, and neither did the deer. So I figured, “Screw it. Forget everything else, I’ll just go to town with daffodils.” And I bought a thousand more daffodil bulbs and planted them all by hand with a shovel.

Daffodils are also known for multiplying over time, and coming up year after year. Are the first ones you planted still here?

Yep. At this point they’ve naturalized. They grow mixed in with tons of blue squill, which looks really pretty in the spring.

Daffodils naturalized with siberian squill—which is considered an invasive species, but sure is pretty!—in my dad’s yard.

About six or seven years ago, I established Daffodil Hill, my biggest daffodil planting. That used to be a big mess of buckthorn and poison ivy, but I got my friend over here with a backhoe and we cleared it all out. We started with 2,000 daffodil bulbs of all different varieties.

And then two years ago, after this big grove of elm and sumac trees all died, we put in another 5,000 bulbs in that spot—including daffodils, tulips, and hyacinth. That display is now this over-the-top, colorful carpet of spring flowers. In full bloom, it’s almost too much, like, “Gag me with a spoon.”

Side view of “daffodil hill,” where something like 10,000 daffodils now bloom each spring.

What else has been growing and multiplying around the yard here?

I’ve got a ton of iris, both bearded and Siberian. Around the same time when I planted my first thousand daffodils, a friend of mine was being evicted from the house he was renting down on Pond Road. He was mad about it, so he dug up all the Siberian Iris from that property as a way to piss off the landlord. He gave me a big chunk of what he took.

Iris are cool because you can just rip them apart and plant them all over the place. After letting those multiply and dividing them over time, I’ve probably got between 10,000 and 15,000 iris here now.

A bearded iris in sunset hues, one of my favorites.

Do you still have issues with animals eating your flowers? Or have they been overloaded by the sheer volume of bulbs?

The animals still do a pretty good job of eating things, especially the tulips. But I know the woodchucks, squirrels, rabbits, and deer have to eat, too. So they’ll eat things, and when they do, I’ll just put something else in.

After you go through the initial effort of digging a flower bed, it’s smooth sailing. Even if your bulbs get eaten, that hole isn’t going anywhere. It’s easy to replant, and it’s fun to try new stuff. Last year I got an assortment of dahlias and I just planted those around the yard, and a lot of ’em came up and did really good.

I’ve also had good luck with peonies and oriental lilies, both of which get bigger and hardier over time, and smell great.

Stargazer lilies, perhaps the most-perfumed flower out there.

If you were going to start over, would you do anything differently about the way you’ve laid out your garden here? 

No, because I laid out my garden wherever I could get a shovel into the ground. It’s all ledge with pockets of farm garbage, like horseshoes and nails and hunks of old barbed wire. Wherever I can dig a hole, I’ve planted something.

At this point, I’ve got hummingbirds everywhere. I’ve got all the pollinators you could ask for. It’s so fun to go sit on the porch and watch the hummingbirds flying around, hiding in the flowers, attacking each other, and to see all the bees and everything else flying around.

What’s your approach to upkeep? 

None. No weeding. It’s just too hard, and it’s getting harder and harder. I mean, pretty soon I’ll be gardening while lying down. I wish I could weed, since if you have the strength to weed once or twice a year, the things you planted will have a better chance to get big enough to choke out the weeds. But it takes a while. Daylilies are good when you don’t want to weed, and so are Siberian Iris.

Bearded and Siberian Iris growing along a limestone stairway built by my dad.

What do you do with all your flowers once they’re blooming? 

Not much. I bring some into the house, and I give a lot away. I take some up to the hospital for them to give out, and I bring ’em down to the town hall, the ladies down there like them. People think it’s amazing, they get all worked up when you bring them some flowers. But it’s nothing. It’s not hard to grow flowers, you’ve just got to appreciate it and put in the elbow grease and time.

Some gladiolus at my dad’s kitchen table.

I don’t see why every high school doesn’t have a mandatory gardening class you have to take to grow food for the school. Most people will try to learn to garden by buying a $40 coffee-table gardening book and believe it when the opening page says, “You’ve got to have these seven tools, and you’ve got to have the knee pads, and you’ve got to have a college minor in horticulture.” That’s all bullshit.

I feel like the main thing you need to have a garden is just the vision for wanting one. The reality is, go buy a zucchini at the grocery store and just throw it in your backyard on some decent dirt, and soon enough you’ll have zucchinis everywhere. That’s just what happens.

You prepared to walk 50 miles (without stopping) on your 50th birthday by walking seven miles a day—or more—for months in a row. You’ve also been singlehandedly renovating what started as a falling-down old house into a really spectacular home, just by fixing it up a little at a time. And you’ve created this huge, yard-spanning garden by planting hundreds, sometimes thousands, of bulbs every year—for something like 40 years in a row now. It’s kind of amazing to see what you can accomplish over time, when you break things down into manageable, but still-ambitious, smaller goals.

Well, how else are you going to do it? With every goal, no matter what it is, you just have to keep working at it. You can’t expect to get it all done in a couple of years. The only other way to get something big done fast is to pay somebody else to do it. But if you’re making things happen by writing checks, it’s not the same as putting a shovel in the ground and trying to get through those rocks. 

My dad’s house in spring, seen from the back hill, after ~40 years of re-designs and fix-ups. He put the tower on when I was about 11, basically as a one-man project.

In January or February every year, I sit down with some vodka and do some impulse-purchasing of a bunch of plants that I really don’t need, but I’ll order ‘em anyway. And then when it all shows up in the spring, I’ll feel guilty because they’re living things sitting there in these boxes, so I know I have to come up with the strength to plant it all. And that’s what I’ll do.

My UPS driver showed up one day this spring with about 25 boxes for me in his truck. He goes, “What’s in all these boxes?” I go, “They’re flowers.” He goes, “What are they for?” And I said, “They go in the ground. To look pretty.” And he goes, “You are one strange man.”

Walking 50 miles, that was to honor my mom [when she was terminally ill with cancer]. But it does represent the same thing, where you start with 10 bulbs, work your way up to 100 bulbs, then 1,000—and you just keep going. 

Planting bulbs for me is a metaphor for hope—the hope that this brown lumpy little thing you plant in the ground can transform into a colorful, beautiful, and sometimes pleasantly smelling bloom, and the hope that you will be around in the spring to see that happen.

Before I croak, I’d like to have 50,000 daffodil bulbs planted on this property. My flowers will be here a long time after I’m gone. They remind me that every spring, so long as you’re still alive, you get another shot.

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