How to grow lilies


African Queen, one of the entries at the Garden Club of Virginia's 70th Annual Lily Show in Burke, Va., June 21, 2012. (Adrian Higgins/ADRIAN HIGGINS)
July 11, 2012

Lilies grow from plump bulbs made up of soft fleshy scales, and the flower stalks will return robustly year after year if the bulbs are planted deeply in rich, well-drained soil. This is another way of saying, don’t dig a cursory hole in heavy clay soil and expect lilies to thrive. Plant them at least eight inches deep: This will give them the anchorage that they need and will position the bulb in cooler soil, which they like in summer.

But at such a depth, unless you have naturally sandy or silty soil, you will have to work the bed to improve drainage: I fork in lots of leafmold and sand with the existing soil.

Many of the new hybrids have thick stems that don’t need staking. Lilies will lean to the light when placed in partial shade, but they really require a sunny aspect to do their best.

Bulbs sold in the spring have been harvested the previous fall and stored cold. I prefer to plant lily bulbs in October, when they can initiate root growth and also get nice and cold in the ground. This chilling is required for them to flower well the next season.

Further, lilies planted in the autumn seem to be much more robust in their first season, and bloom earlier than if they had been planted in the spring. Mark where you plant them with a little bamboo stick so you don’t slice them when planting your spring bulbs.


One of the entries at the Garden Club of Virginia's 70th Annual Lily Show. (Adrian Higgins/ADRIAN HIGGINS)

Spring planting poses other problems: Unlike tulips or daffodils, lily bulbs can dry out if mishandled. The worst way to acquire lily bulbs is to buy small, cheap bulbs that have been sitting around a store where they can dry out and start sprouting.

Party-stopping factoid: Many lily varieties, like sweet corn, put down feeder roots where the stalks emerge from the ground. If a bulb has already sprouted on the shelf, the plant’s ability to later set those feeder roots is compromised, said Dianna Gibson, of B&D Lilies in Port Townsend, Wash.

After the flowers fade, it is helpful to remove the buds before the plant puts energy into developing seed. But keep the leaves and the central stalk, whose chlorophyll continues to feed the bulb. The stalk also acts as a marker if you need to lift and divide the bulb, or when you come to plant spring bulbs in November. (Can you tell I expect you to plant lots of spring bulbs?)

As with roses, tomatoes, azaleas and daylilies, to name a few, lilies are eaten by deer.

If you have voles, which are mouselike creatures that eat the roots of perennials, dig extra-large planting holes so you can surround the bulb with pea gravel.

Aphids are drawn to lilies, and they should be hosed off because their feeding not only damages the plant but transmits viruses. Most lilies go through life with a virus or two, but the best defense is to grow them well to avoid stress. They like ample moisture when they are growing and budding, and enriched soil will keep them sated.

When removing the old blooms, some fastidious growers dip their pruners in rubbing alcohol between snips to prevent virus spread.

Asiatic and L.A. varieties tend to get crowded after two to three years, with reduced flowering, and should be lifted and divided in early fall. Oriental and OT hybrids can go five years before dividing.

Where to get lilies

Garden varieties for fall planting are available from:

B&D Lilies, www.bdlilies.com, 360-765-4341.

Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, www.brentandbeckysbulbs.com, 877-661-2852.

The Lily Garden, www.thelilygarden.com, 360-253-6273.

John Scheepers, www.johnscheepers.com, 860-567-0838.

For bulb sales and advice, join the Potomac Lily Club. See the club’s Web site for contact information, at www.potomaclilysociety.org.

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