Advances in over-winter storage of commercial lily bulbs have allowed gardeners to buy and plant lilies in the spring. But autumn is still the best time to get them in the ground.
Deeply planted and well-mulched, lily bulbs planted in fall will take all but the coldest days of the season to establish themselves before taking off in the spring. Fall planting assures bulb preservation and a good, strong start.
Lilies are unique perennials that give us tall, spectacular spring and summer flowers. The remarkable plants hoist striking, sweet-smelling blossoms above the other flowers, annual and otherwise, in our gardens. Careful planting helps guarantee you’ll have colorful, graceful blossoms come next growing season and many seasons thereafter.
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You’ll want to place your lilies where they will receive adequate sunshine. Full sunlight to partial shade is best. But the most important consideration in planting lilies is drainage. Sticking the bulbs in heavy clay soils can make for a lily disaster. Without proper drainage, lilies will be stunted and have less chance of surviving year to year.
Avoid places in your garden where water may collect. Lilies don’t like wet feet. Not only does saturated soil impair their growth, it allows fungus and and the few other diseases that attack them to gain a foothold. Yet lilies need a constant supply of water. Adding plenty of organic material that holds the moisture that roots can draw from is as important as maintaining good drainage.
To improve soil drainage, dig up the patch where lilies will go — they’ll be spaced 8 to 10 inches apart, 15 inches for larger types — and add sphagnum peat moss or coconut coir in an amount equal to 1/3rd the volume of soil dug. Turn up an area large enough to hold as many bulbs as you plan to plant and to accommodate the their multiplication from year-to-year. But make the space no larger than the space you want them to occupy. Planting lilies in raised beds or along walkways and borders helps confine them.
Turning the soil deeply — double digging — will help facilitate good drainage.
Adding perlite or vermiculite to your soil will improve both drainage and aeration, things that help keep bulbs from rot and disease. Mixes of peat, perlite and limestone with other minerals that help lighten heavy soils are a good choice as long as they don’t make existing soils alkaline. Lilies tolerate a range of pH readings depending on their type. Asian lilies do best in slightly acidic soils, 7.0 (neutral) down to 6.0. Oriental lilies are alkaline averse, preferring soils with a pH from 5.5 to 6.5.
Pine needles and certain leaf mulches can help keep soils on the acidic side. All soils should be amended with plenty of compost and organic matter to help keep them from drying out completely. This is especially important with sandy soils.
You can aid moisture drainage by planting you lilies on a slope where gravity helps carry away the excess. In addition to containing their spread, raised beds allow for heaping soil, something that also uses gravity to prevent soggy conditions.
There are a number of methods to determine how deep to plant your lilies. Some sources recommend three times the length of the bulb, other say anywhere from four to nine inches beneath the soil. Check growing instructions for the particular type of lily you plant. Some — namely the Madonna lily — need no more than one inch of soil to cover. We’ve found that five inches deep work for most regular sized bulbs. Smaller bulbs can be planted less deeply.
Spread the roots at the bottom of the bulb and stand bulbs upright on their bed. If you’re planting in groups, say in a side circle, plant no more than five or six in a cluster. Cover with soil then water thoroughly so that the dirt will settle around the plants roots. Label each plant in the group with a garden marker if you like, or just wait to be surprised in the spring.
Mulching over winter helps protect both your soil and bulbs. Regions where winters are continuously wet need less mulch, those with long cold winters — we’ve known folks who keep lilies year after year in cold zone three — need more. Don’t be in a hurry to remove mulch in the spring. Lily shoots are extremely delicate. Give them a chance to extend out of the mulch.
Once started, lily growing is particularly easy. Need a primer? Here you go.