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Planting and caring for lilies

Lilies are favourites of florists, landscape designers, and home gardeners alike.

Lilies are favourites of florists, landscape designers, and home gardeners alike.

Lilies are as easy to grow as any other perennial if you select varieties that are suited to your growing region and follow a few simple rules

Choosing the bulbs and preparing the soil

Most lilies will grow in any well drained soil. If possible, choose a north facing position (south facing in the northern hemisphere), on a slight slope to help drainage. There should be shrubs or small trees nearby to provide shelter from strong winds. Some of the best lilies for beginners are the Coral lily, Madonna lily, Regal lily, Tiger lily, Olympic hybrids, Aurelian hybrids, and Mid-century hybrids.

Most lilies do well in sunny positions, but there are a few species, such as the North American Lilium superbum, which prefer dappled shade.

Before planting the lilies, you should dig the soil thoroughly to a depth of 60 cm or more, breaking it up well. If the soil is light, fork in some leaf mould, well‑rotted garden compost or peat (a large bucketful to the square metre). If the soil is especially heavy, treat it in the same way but add coarse river sand at the same time. It is important that you never use fresh manure around the roots of lilies, because this can cause them to rot.

Ensure that the bed is well drained, as lilies will die if their roots are constantly moist. If the garden is flat and tends to flood, make raised beds of prepared soil about 30 cm high.

It is probably safest to buy bulbs from a reputable nursery or garden centre. Choose only plump, healthy-looking specimens. They should have firm, closely‑packed scales and a good root system.

If you have been tempted by bargain lots of late‑season bulbs, which may be bruised or limp, remove the outer scales, bury the bulbs in moist peat for a day or two, then plant them in the normal way.

Young bulbs are best, because they form strong roots that pull the bulbs down to the most suitable level.

How and when to plant out the bulbs

Most lilies can be planted between late summer and early spring. Plant Lilium candidum (Madonna lily) as soon as possible after the stem dies down in autumn.

Some lilies root only from the base of the bulb; others also produce roots from the bottom of the stem. Lilies that root only from the bulb should be planted in early autumn.

If planting is delayed, grow the bulbs temporarily in pots, or store them in shallow boxes of slightly damp peat to prevent the bulbs from drying out.

For most lilies, dig the planting hole twice the depth of the bulb. The exceptions are Lilium candidum (Madonna lily) and Lilium x testaceum (Nankeen lily), which should be planted only just below the surface.

Line the hole with coarse river sand or fine gravel. Spread out the roots of the bulb, sprinkle more sand over them, and then fill in the hole with soil. Insert a label to mark the position of the bulb.

After planting, use a fork to prick in a handful of sterilised bone‑meal for every square metre of soil.

Staking, watering and cutting

Lilies that are over one metre tall may be spoilt by strong winds if they are not staked, and those with arching stems look better if supported.

Use a bamboo cane for each plant, about two thirds of the estimated eventual length of the stem. As the lily grows, tie the stem to the cane.

The soil must never be allowed to dry out, and should be mulched well during summer. Water the plants thoroughly during dry spells in the growing season.

Pinch off the flowers after they have faded to prevent seeds forming and so weakening the plant. If you want to save seeds to increase certain varieties, leave one or two seed pods on each plant.

In autumn, let the stems die down naturally. When they are dead, cut them off at soil level and burn them. Do not use them for compost — if they have a disease, it will spread.

Lilies are excellent for flower arrangements, but the same plants should not be cut in successive years, as this weakens them. Take blooms from one third of the plants each year, giving each plant two years’ rest.

When cutting lilies, sever only the top one third to half of the stem. Cut them when the blooms are half open. Water the plants well the day before and do the cutting before the sun reaches them, when the stems are still full of moisture.

The blooms will last longer if they are stood up to their necks in cold water for 12 hours before arranging.

When arranging lilies, strip the lower leaves from the stems. Any that are left under water will foul it.

Growing lilies in pots and tubs

Lilies can be grown in pots either as indoor plants, or simply to start them off when conditions are not suitable for outdoor planting. Earlier flowering kinds are best for growing in pots, such as the Mid‑Century Hybrids ‘Enchantment’ (orange), ‘Cinnabar’ (maroon), and ‘Harmony’ (orange).

Potting can be done between autumn and spring, but the earlier the better. Use a 15 cm pot for a medium sized bulb — about 5 cm across with a 2 ‑ 3 cm layer of drainage material at the bottom of the pot.

With base‑rooting lilies, half fill the pot with ready‑mixed potting compost. Mound the compost in the centre, place the bulb on top and spread out its roots. Cover the roots with compost and firm them in with the fingers, then fill up the rest of the pot with compost to within 2 cm of the rim. Then label the pot.

Place the pot outdoors, buried up to its rim in sand or peat, then cover the whole area with the same material, to a depth of 10 cm.

With stem‑rooting lilies, quarter fill the pot with compost before inserting the bulbs, so that the bulb is deep in the pot. Just cover it with compost and then place the pot in a frost‑free position. When the shoot reaches the top of the pot, fill with compost to within 2 cm of the rim.

In early spring, when the. young growth of base‑rooting lilies has appeared, plant the bulbs outside or bring them inside to a light position with a temperature of 12 – 16oC. Do not bring them in to a warmer room until the flowers start to open.

Regular and moderate watering should now start. Overwatering is harmful —  the aim is to keep the compost constantly moist. Once a fortnight potted lilies should be given an application of liquid fertiliser.

When they have finished flowering, indoor plants can be planted out or kept in the pot for another year. If kept in the pot, the top 4 cm of compost should be renewed, and the pots should be kept outdoors through the winter under a layer of sand or peat. Make sure that they are kept moist.

Lilies can also be grown in tubs outdoors. Plant them in the same compost as used for pots, but look after the plants in the same way as those growing in the open garden.

This is Part Two of this series on Lilies. Part three will soon be posted and will deal with Propagating your own lilies.