When Larry Force decided to stop fighting the pesky voles that regularly devoured his lilies and hostas, he turned to daffodils, plants with roots so vile-tasting no animals will eat them.
Eight years later, Force is immersed in growing, showing and hybridizing the miniature daffodils he cultivates on his 7-acre property in Southaven, Miss.
He regularly walks away from regional shows with many blue ribbons and his miniatures have won high honors at several National Daffodil Shows.
He swaps stories and pollen with international growers at two World Daffodil Conventions, held every five years. Force traveled to Australia last year for the most recent convention.
He doesn't know exactly how many varieties of daffodils he grows, but estimates at least 500 - all precisely labeled. That doesn't include the hundreds of seedlings he propagates by moving pollen from one to another in hopes of getting a unique and improved flower.
"Daffodils love good drainage, and the soil is rich here," said Force, who enjoys creating hybrids. That takes patience since it takes three to four years to get a miniature bloom from the time of cross-pollination.
"I select parents to get certain characteristics," Force said. "In miniatures, the smaller the better."
He's particularly fond of daffodils in the cyclamineus division, one of 14 botanical groupings of daffodils.
"They look like a strong wind is blowing them back," he said.
Standard-size daffodils, which have been hybridized for a long time, have highly varied flowers. There are tall daffodils with double blooms and colorations of pink, red and deep orange.
"Breeders of standard daffodils have been working on bigger is better for years," Force said. "But miniature hybridizers are just a few generations away from the species."
So there is less variety in flower types and no pinks, reds or oranges - yet.
Developing new hybrids takes patience. It takes three to four years to get a miniature bloom from the time of cross-pollination. Standards require five to six years.
Miniatures are among the earliest blooming daffodils. Some of Force's miniatures flower as early as December.
Clumps of daffodils grow all around his property, but the most concentrated plantings are on a gently sloping hill.
Force, who has been a
pipefitter with Honeywell for 39 years, grew up on a farm near Brownsville, Tenn.
"My job was taking care of the garden (vegetable)," he said. "When I retire, I'll raise vegetables again."
He used to grow orchids, but found them too demanding. He was also big into lilies and hostas until he gave them up to the voles. Fruit trees, including several varieties of pawpaw, are another passion, as are Japanese maples and wildflowers.
For the average gardener, daffodils are prized for performing well with little maintenance.
To keep them blooming to their potential, some varieties benefit from being dug up and divided every three or four years.
Force sprinkles the beds with ashes from his fireplace, leaf compost and an occasional feeding with 6-12-12 (fertilizer).
"Some of the standards will naturalize and bloom forever," he said. "If they're doing well, just leave them alone."