Master of the Daffodils

Planting Daffodils on Milestone RoadEach year, Nantucket’s Daffodil Festival Weekend brings abundance upon the island. Millions of daffodils bloom; the visitor season begins; antique cars arrive in droves; and extra ferry trips added to the schedules! Daffodil Weekend brings a wealth of happiness to the island.

But daffodils don’t plant themselves; who is behind this weekend of plenty? Mary Malavase? Mary Malavase of the Nantucket Garden Club offers an informed perspective: Dave Champoux is the expert the Garden Club turns to. For years, between the road and the fence around the Serengeti, [his team has] done a section of daffy plantings. That’s why our [Milestone Road] bike path looks as good as it does, it’s all due to him.

I set up a meeting with Dave at Champoux Landscape, his company’s home base. Champoux is Nantucket to the core and projects an appreciation for both the soil and the people of the island. “Over the years, I’ve probably planted about 300,000 bulbs here on Nantucket,” adding, “give or take a few thousand,” with a nod. Like the daffodil itself, Champoux is not indigenous to Nantucket but was brought here by luck or fate, then flourished! “When I first came out to the island, I had just graduated from high school. My next-door neighbors back home in Holyoke, Mass, the Leskes, had a house out here and they were always telling my parents, ‘Send your boys down when they re old enough!’ So during the summer of ’66, my brother John and I showed up on their doorstep and got landscaping jobs.” Champoux continues, explaining why he remains here in 2012: ”Ever heard the saying, Once you get Nantucket sand in your shoes, you can t get it out?”
Planting Daffodils on Milestone RoadIt took another 12 years, but in 1978, Champoux permanently moved to the island. He had landed a job as Grounds Supervisor for Sherburne Associates, (the company credited for revitalizing much of the downtown Nantucket area in the latter half of the 20th century) which allowed him to jump on the daffodil train just as it was hitting full steam. Champoux launches into a series of vignettes of the characters in Nantucket s daffodil scene. After living on the island for a couple of years, Champoux met Jean MacAusland, who was the driving force behind the daffodil planting. It wasn’t long before Champoux became the gardener at the MacAusland property. “Jean once gave me a handful of tiny bulbs and said, Be careful with these. They re $1,200 apiece! When I exclaim that every last one of those bulbs better have bloomed”, Champoux chuckles and affirms their success. “They were tiny pink daffodils that Jean had gotten from some big growers. I’m sure they re all gone by now,” he adds, his gaze drifting out the window and back a few decades.
Planting Daffodils on Milestone RoadBut MacAusland wasn’t the only big wheel propelling the daffodil bandwagon. Walter Beinecke, the founder of Sherburne Associates, was an island investment and embellishment extraordinaire. Though Beinecke indisputably gave a lot to the island, he was controversial character as a self-proclaimed elitist. When I wonder aloud if this was at all evident in his approach to planting, Champoux says,”He was always there for us. He wasn’t the pick and shovel type, but he recognized the value of beautifying the island, particularly through landscaping. And he paid us to do the work. He saw the business advantages of promoting the Daffodil Festival. ‘Romanticize it’! was one of his big sayings. He’d tell us, ‘Cover everything with roses.’ Without flowers, Beinecke believed, Nantucket homes were just a bunch of gray-shingled buildings. One year, he donated 800 young trees to the town,” recalls Champoux,”and struck a deal with my team and we donated our time. Town residents would get a tree, they’d dig a hole on their allotted section of town land, and we’d come put the tree in the ground for them. It was a community effort. ”
Planting Daffodils on Milestone RoadA grin spreads across Champoux’s face as he breaks out a short stack of photos from the late ’70s and early ’80s. ”Now there are some folks doing what we used to call the Sherburne Shuffle. When you’re planting daffodils in large quantities, you save time if you use a motorized auger to dig your holes. So one person drills a hole, and then someone else comes along and sticks a bulb in it and pokes it down a little further with a pole.” (Evidently a secret of daffodil longevity is planting them as deep as 10 inches in Nantucket’s sandy soil. Champoux says that due to this trick, he has planted some daffodils that have been blooming annually for more than 20 years!) “Then finally, the last person comes and kind of has to do a little dance around the planting site to pat down the soil properly. Hence the Sherburne Shuffle.” Next, Champoux points proudly to a picture of a little girl smiling shyly down at the daffodils along Milestone Road. “There’s my daughter when she was a kid, out helping us during a community planting time.”
Planting Daffodils on Milestone RoadWhile there may be an appreciable business aspect to the daffodils planted here, the root of the island’s daffodil planting lies in its community aspect. Every year, on a day in late November, Champoux and his team take to the roadsides and open areas of Nantucket and plant, plant, plant. “I’ve worked with various folks over the years,” says Champoux, offering up a roll of local names young, old, and in between. Most recently, the children at the Nantucket New School have become part of planting. “On our community day, we’ll plant 5,000 bulbs in three hours! A big, huge, mass planting that weaves, like the one out on Milestone. That s what we do as a community: drift planting.” According to the American Daffodil Society: A drift of one cultivar of bright yellow is eye-catching. A drift of fifty or so bulbs will turn the heads of those who are not daffodil lovers.
Planting Daffodils on Milestone RoadChampoux says modern Nantucket gardening has grown into a different shape than it was in 1966. It used to be a lot more laid-back. It has become very professional and the level of clientele has changed, too. But no amount of consumer conversion or shifts can change the accumulation of joy that many Nantucketers have taken in planting daffodils in this island s soil. Today, when Champoux sees the results of his labor over the past 30 years, from the vibrant yellow drifts to the trees that have grown from saplings into elders, an abundance of great memories springs up right alongside all 300,000 of his daffodils.