Many plants that are called lilies are not. There are daylilies, canna lilies, calla lilies and water lilies, for example, none of which are true lilies. True lilies are of the genus Lilium, and include many different species and hybrids. Examples of true lilies include "Easter" lilies, Turks-cap lilies, Asiatic lilies, Oriental lilies, Michigan lilies, Carolina lilies, Leopard lilies and Tiger lilies.
Lilies are among the most impressive of flowers and always delight. Their elegant appearance might make one think they are difficult to grow, but they are not. Provided that they will succeed in your region, this guide should help you grow them successfully.
Plant breeders have produced many different varieties of lilies in many different forms, colors and sizes. There are lilies that bloom at different times during the growing season. You'll find many suitable for container gardening, perennial borders and cutting gardens. You need only choose from the vast array of lilies available, which may be the most difficult task of all.
Lilies are grown from true bulbs, as are onions, tulips and daffodils. A bulb is a flattened or compressed stem called a basal plate, usually growing underground, with a growing point on top and surrounded by enlarged, fleshy scales or layers that store food. The layers or scales are the bases of leaves. Onions are bulbs with layers. Lilies are bulbs with scales. Roots grow downward from the basal plate. Root scars or dried roots may persist on the bottom of the basal plate.
Bulbs may or may not be covered with papery structures called tunics. Tunics help to protect bulbs from drying out. The onion is a good example of a bulb with a tunic. Lilies do not have tunics. Bulbs without tunics lack protection from drying out, so special care must be taken to keep lily bulbs moist until they are planted. For this reason, lilies that are grown and traded locally are usually harvested and re-planted in the fall of the year. Gardeners and small nurseries usually do not have the facilities to store the bulbs for long. Bulbs that are produced by large commercial enterprises are usually available and planted in the spring of the year because those businesses do have the means to harvest, ship and store the bulbs properly for longer periods of time.
Lilies perform best within USDA climate zones 4 through 9, but there are exceptions. Some are cold hardy into zone 3; others suffer south of zone 8. There are more variables than can be addressed in this guide, so you'll need to research the species or varieties that interest you to learn whether they will work for you. As a rule, lilies do not succeed in hot, arid climates.
The planting site should be exposed to morning sun and afternoon shade. Soil should be moist but well-drained, high in organic matter, with pH between 5.6 and 7.6. The best way to determine if the pH is within that range and contains the proper nutrients for lilies is to have the soil tested. Your local Cooperative Agricultural Extension Service can help you. You can collect the soil sample yourself. For a nominal fee, they will send your soil sample to a laboratory for analysis. Be sure to call the Extension office for instructions.
Prior to receiving your bulbs, cultivate the soil to the depth of one foot and add plenty of well-rotted compost. Remove weeds and debris. Soil test results may recommend other soil amendments. Follow those instructions. The soil amendments you may use depends upon the type of soil you have in need of amending. Common soil amendments include sulphur for lowering pH, limestone for raising pH, sand for helping drainage, clay for slowing drainage, gypsum for breaking up caking clay and compost for enriching the soil. Bone meal is especially good for bulbs. There are others which I don't have the time or space to name. Which you should use depends upon your particular circumstance. If you use synthetic fertilizer, allow at least a week before planting so it can be incorporated into the soil by rain or irrigation and not burn the bulbs. The site should be ready for planting when your bulbs arrive.
Plant your lily bulbs as soon as you receive them. Do not allow them to dry. They do not have tunics for protection. As a rule, bulbs should be planted at least three times as deep as they are wide. For example, if the bulb is 2" wide, plant it 6" deep. That means the bottom of the hole should be 6" deep. Cover with soil and water deeply. A two to three inch layer of straw mulch will help to preserve moisture, suppress weeds and moderate soil temperature.
During summer, you may fertilize occasionally. Apply 2 tablespoons of 10-10-10 fertilizer per ten square feet of garden area every two weeks until flower buds appear. Do not allow synthetic fertilizers to come into contact with the plants. Irrigate if rainfall is inadequate. Soil should be moist but not soggy. When you water, water deeply so that moisture reaches the roots. Weed when necessary, but be careful not to disturb the lily bulbs. Taller lilies may need to be staked. Take care not to harm the roots when inserting stakes into the ground.
Growing lilies in containers is not much different than in the garden. Begin by choosing varieties with a shorter growth habit. Use the finest potting soil; cheap soil will give poor results. The best potting soils will be light-weight, peat-based with added materials to enhance plant growth. Select containers that will allow you to plant deeply enough and that will accommodate deep root penetration. Plant the bulbs at the proper depth. Because container gardens are easily affected by temperature fluctuations and can dry quickly, take steps to keep the pots cool and properly watered. Grouping pots together, placing them in areas where the pots can be shaded, mulching and companion planting, adding moisture retentive gels can be beneficial. Larger containers are not as quickly affected by temperature and subject to drying.
When the lilies bloom, especially those in the garden, you won't be able to resist cutting some for flower arrangements. They do very nicely as cut flowers. Remove no more than the top third of the stem. Taking more than that may inhibit the plant's ability to store adequate food reserves in the bulb for next year's show. Harvest in the morning or evening when temperatures are lower. Use sharp clippers or shears to make clean cuts. Immediately place the cut ends of the stems in a bucket of cool water.
As the flowers in your garden fade and drop, remove any seed pods that may appear. Allowing seeds to mature weakens the plant. Let the leaves yellow and brown naturally. The dry stem and leaves may be carefully removed in the fall.
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