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On the North Shore, timing can be everything

Want to learn how to be the first in the neighborhood to have a showy display of daffodils, the North Shore’s favorite spring flower?

Just ask around.

“The best way to get daffodils to bloom early,” says June Baser, vice-president of the Danvers Garden Club, “is to plant them on the south side of the house in full sun, next to the foundation.”

“Watch where the snow melts first,” suggests Danvers gardener Marge Huemmler. “That’s where you plant your bulbs.”

Daffodils (a.k.a., “narcissus”) love sunny spots in the garden. They will bloom in a cool, shaded spot, but not until later. That is why, Baser suggests, “every gardener has to watch the sun.”

But just watching the sun may not be enough. General climate also plays an important role. And as climate can vary significantly from one communities to another across the North Shore so too can the growing season in different communities. While the western section of our area often sees more snow and a later melting, for example, many towns closer to the Atlantic Ocean are more temperate because of the water’s moderating influence.

“It never gets as cold here in winter,” observes Fred Rice, a garden designer, photographer, and lecturer from Manchester-by-the-Sea, “but the ocean doesn’t heat up as quickly in the spring as it does somewhere else.”

That is why the blooms on Rice’s spring flowering bulbs tend to come later, but last longer.

“Being next to the water tends to work in our favor, generally,” Rice says.

Marblehead resident Claudette Taylor lives on a cliff overlooking the ocean. And while her perch position is great in the summer, the environment is too harsh for early bloom.

“I go into downtown Marblehead and it’s warm and cozy,” she says. “The daffodils there are blooming a good one to two weeks earlier than mine.”

On the other hand, Dan Bouchard, superintendent at Beverly’s Long Hill, has noticed that daffodils now bloom earlier than they used to.

“It’s certainly not as cold as when we were growing up,” he says, “but our gardens are also sheltered.”

Such protection can also influence both when and whether a garden grows. While many structures, such as the monastic garden walls of the Middle Ages, were created specifically to shield plants from harsh winds and extremes of temperature, others can frustrate contemporary gardeners.

“My side of the hill that I live on is colder than the other side,” Baser says. “Things come to bloom a week later on my side.”

As there is such variance even within our region, it may be a good idea to consult a local garden center before planting anything. As most North Shore shops sell only bulbs and plants that thrive right in that community, , check with knowledgeable staff at your favorite garden center for guidance on what to plant and when.

Even after careful planning and expert advice, however, a great deal of your success may be up to luck.

“I tell people that gardening is a crap shoot,” Rice admits, “so you might as well try to grow what you like.”

A registered Master Gardener with the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, Chris Young has been digging in the dirt for over 30 years. A member of Garden Writers of America, Young has written about gardening and other topics for The Lawrence Eagle-Tribune and Yankee Magazine.