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closeup of orange lily

How to Grow Lilies

If you’re looking for a bright spark to re-ignite your garden beds, consider the lily.

Breathtaking in an arrangement and eye-popping in the garden, lilies are one of the easiest and most versatile flowers available to the gardener.

If you plan well in advance and utilize bulbs from different groups in your landscape, you can enjoy color from late spring through to the fall months. There are lilies for fragrance, for height, for sheer flower-power and for cutting gardens. And when you grow them as container plants, they can be moved and removed – perfect for gardeners who want instant impact without the downside of foliage dieback.

You’ll find traditional species varieties and many well-known and not-so-common hybrids from Oriental, Asiatic and Trumpet divisions. Whether you choose to grow some of the oldest lilies out there such as the tiger or martagon lily, or enjoy one of the hundreds of hybrids available to the home gardener, you’ll be thrilled with the colorful impact blooming lilies will make in your garden.

orange lilies and red bee balm
Orange Lilies & Bright Red Bee Balm glow warmly together under the sun in a summer garden.

When & Where to Plant Lilies

Lily bulbs are available to plant in both the fall and spring. They should be planted immediately, or stored briefly in a cool, dark space if you can’t put them in the garden right away.

Location: Find a site that isn’t exposed to strong winds, and that receives a bit of afternoon shade. You may consider planting your lilies in 10-12” pots that can be moved around depending on environment and bloom time. With very little exception, bulbs should be planted at a depth of approximately 2-3 times their height (approx. 4-8”), allowing them to root both above and below the bulb and provide stability to what can often be a very tall plant.

In climates with hotter summers, you should plant on the deeper side of this guideline, and vice-versa in climates with cooler summers.

Don’t forget to mark where you have planted your bulbs so you do not dig them up or cut through them during the planting season.

Light: Hybrids do well in full sun. They do even better if their roots are shaded by surrounding plants. Many will also tolerate part shade without becoming excessively leggy, and appreciate afternoon shade on their broad, tender petals (tepals) in areas with hot summers. Species lilies are very much at home in a part-shade environment.

Soil: Well-draining soil rich in organic matter is preferred. Lilies benefit from regular moisture during the growing season, but will rot if moisture levels are too high after blooming. If in pots, make sure that drainage holes are not blocked or turn pots on their sides during heavy rains.

Spacing: Between 8-12” apart in the garden – no more than 3 per 12” pot.

girl holding a sprouting lily bulb
Don't be concerned if growth is already showing, and continue to follow the planting directions that come with each delivery
girl planting oriental lily
Since some lillies can get big, it's extremely important to make sure they are planted at the proper depth.

Many lilies will form natural clumps, particularly the Asiatic hybrids. Some Asiatic hybrids will also form tiny black bubils in the leaf axils of the stems that fall off and create new tiny plants. Lilies are not an invasive species and multiply fairly slowly.

Planting: Lily bulbs can be planted in fall or early spring. If planting in the fall it is important to do so at least four weeks prior to your last frost date in order that they can put down strong roots before the ground freezes. Plant in early spring when the ground is workable but not muddy.

How to Grow Lilies Throughout the Season

Growth Habit: Most lilies grow as single or multiple unbranched, erect stems from the bulb. Flowers are held in clusters at the top of the stem but can also be borne along the stem in some species. They come in a multitude of flower colors, and the upward, downward or outward facing flowers can be trumpet-shaped, recurved or open.

Lilies are not grown for their foliage, but for their flowers, thus they work extremely well growing in between other fuller perennials and shrubs.

Staking: In general, Oriental hybrids with their large heavy blooms and 3-8 foot tall stems need staking, as do Trumpet hybrids (4’-8’). Asiatic hybrids which tend to form self-supporting clumps over time and are shorter (3-4’) do not. Growing lilies through other shrubs is a great way of providing a natural framework for the plant, whilst hiding their not-so-fabulous legs.

Watering: Lilies benefit from spring rains or a generous gardener during the middle of their growing season, but after bloom (or just before new growth in spring), they can be susceptible to rot and should not be watered excessively or allowed to sit in overly wet soil. If your summers are very wet or you have heavy clay soil, planting them in beds that have been amended with grit can alleviate this problem.

Fertilizing: A top dressing of well-rotted manure, compost or light dressing of a balanced fertilizer in spring can be beneficial.

Trimming & Pruning: Removing spent flowers after blooming at the base of the flower will allow the plant to concentrate its energy on bulb development rather than seed development.

Mulching: A light dressing of mulch is a good idea, but think in terms of compost, leaf-mold or well-rotted manure which provides trace nutrients as well as organic material.

growing stages of lilies
Illustrated above are the four growing stages of Lilies - notice how much work is going on under the ground prior to even seeing any green!

Lilies: End of Season Care

While it may be tempting to trim back lily stalks as they begin to turn brown, you’ll actually want to leave them be. Afterwards, you can be sure that the plant has shifted its focus towards storing energy back in the bulb – a process that’s best left uninterrupted for getting great growth next year. Once the stalks have died back in the fall, cut them to the ground to tidy up. However, do not forget to mark the spot carefully for next year.

Gardeners in zones 5-8 should have no problem with over-wintering their lilies in garden beds as long as they have planted them in an area that is well-drained. Many other hybrids and species are hardy as far north as zone 3. Check your variety for specifics.

Dividing & Transplanting: Creating more of a special lily can be achieved in one of several ways. Either dig up a sizable clump and carefully separate the new bulbs that have formed, replanting them at the required depth; or remove individual large scales from a large bulb, taking care to include a bit of the basal plate (base) on the scale. Plant these scales in flats, when they can be kept evenly moist and watched carefully as they develop bulbets that will eventually form new full size bulbs.

oriental lilies

Some lilies, such as the well-known tiger lily (L. lancifolium), create little bulbils along their stalks after flowering. These can be removed and individually planted shallowly in pots for setting out in the garden the next season.

Pests & Disease: Lilies can suffer from viral diseases (yellowing and dropping of the leaves) that occur when infected bulbs are purchased or brought into the garden from trades, swaps etc. If this occurs, the bulb should be dug and foliage and bulb destroyed, as viruses can be spread by aphids to clean stock. Many new hybrids are quite disease resistant.

Aphids can become a problem in late spring as buds are forming. Monitor your lilies closely and spray off aphids with a strong jet of water, holding the buds firmly with your other hand to prevent breakage.

Red Lily Leaf Beetles (aka Scarlet Lily Beetle or Lily Leaf Beetle) are a growing concern, especially for northeastern gardeners. Overwintering in the soil, this pest can be particularly devastating to the foliage and flowers of Asiatic, Oriental, Tiger, and Turk’s Cap Lilies. Best practices for control include hand-picking this pest, and laying light-colored cloth underneath the plant to clearly see where survivors have fallen.


Lilies: Extra Info

Favorite companion plants combos: Lilies paired with most mid-sized shrubs will make a winning combination. The shrub gives the lily bulb the shade and protection it desires, and hides its long (sometimes inelegant) stalks. The lily can add color and sparkle to shrub foliage, or complement its bloom.

Use lilies in pots, as they can be moved around as needed in the border (don’t forget to water them!) and “retired” to an out of the way nursery bed when the foliage is dying back. This practice allows me a great deal of flexibility with mixing colors and heights.

Additional Uses: Lily bulbs are used as an edible starch in many Asian cultures.

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