By Julie Christensen
Lilies (Lillium) seem like exotic, tropical plants, but they’re actually hardy, long-lived plants that thrive as far north as zone 3. Day lilies and peace lilies are beautiful plants, but they’re not really lilies. True lilies grow from soft, fleshy bulbs that have overlapping scales.
Lily hybrids have been developed from native plants hailing from North America, Europe and Asia. In the garden, they’re show-stopping work horses. Year after year, they produce large, brilliant blooms with little to no maintenance. The blooms make excellent cut flowers and some varieties are sweetly fragrant.
The two most common types of lilies for the home garden are Asiatic lilies and Oriental lilies. Asiatic lilies, in particular, are very easy to grow. Hardy in USDA zones 3 through 10, these lilies tolerate almost any type of soil so long as it drains well. Once established, they tolerate dry conditions although they bloom better with consistent moisture. Asiatic lilies bloom on strong, erect stems and don’t need staking. Colorful 4 to 5 inch blooms appear from early-to-mid summer.
Oriental lilies need a bit more care, but most varieties are hardy in USDA zones 4 through 10. These lilies need rich, reasonably moist soil on the acidic side. Some cultivars reach 4 feet tall and may need staking. The payoff for this extra work is the extravagant blooms that appear in mid-to-late summer. The flowers can be up to 9 inches across and have a powerful scent.
When selecting cultivars for your garden, it’s helpful to visit a public garden to see the plants in person. Pick varieties suited to your climate and hardiness zone and think about the bloom time and mature height of cultivars too. With careful planning, you can extend the lily season for almost the whole summer. Lilies have thin, strap-like foliage and tall, slender stems. The bare stems look a bit awkward in the garden. Plant lilies with mounding plants to cover this liability. Try wild geranium, wild ginger, lamium or hostas.
Planting and Caring for Lilies
Plant lilies from early spring through fall. Amend the soil with compost, manure and peat moss, especially if you’re planting Oriental lilies. If the soil is heavy or soggy, consider using raised beds or planting lilies in containers instead. Select large, fleshy bulbs without any dark areas or soft spots. Lily bulbs never go dormant so it’s important to plant them quickly. Do not allow them to dry out. Plant them 4 to 6 inches deep in groups of three or four, spaced 12 inches apart.
In areas with warm, hot summers, plant lilies where they’ll get some afternoon shade. In zones three and four, plant them in full sun. Sprinkle a bit of 5-10-10 fertilizer on the ground at planting time and again each spring when new growth emerges at a rate of 2 tablespoons per plant. Water newly planted bulbs at least weekly during the first summer so the ground stays slightly moist, but never soggy. Mulch the soil with 2 to 3 inches of wood chips to conserve moisture and reduce weed problems. Divide lilies every three or four years as growth slows and they bloom less.
Potential Problems and Pests
Lilies are generally fairly pest-free, but slugs can be a problem in moist climates. Remove mulch and allow the soil to dry out a bit to discourage them. If the problem is severe, use snail and slug traps and baits.
The most common disease problems are root rots. Wet, heavy soils contribute to root rots. Don’t plant lilies where you’ve had problems with root rot diseases in the past and be sure to amend heavy soils so they drain well.
Cultivars Worth Trying
- ‘Connecticut King’ is tried and true favorite. This Asiatic lily has brilliant yellow blooms that appear in June. The plants grow 3 to 4 feet tall.
- ‘Corsica’ is another Asiatic beauty with mid-summer blooms in pink.
- ‘Black Beauty’ is an Oriental lily that grows 5 to 6 feet tall and produces dark red flowers in late summer.
- ‘Casa Blanca’ is a stunning Oriental lily that looks especially attractive when paired with shade-loving greenery. It grows 5 feet tall and produces pure white flowers that bloom in late summer to fall.
To learn more about lilies, visit the following links:
Lilies Add an Exotic Look to the Garden from the Colorado State University Extension
Selecting Lilies for Your Garden from the University of Minnesota Extension
Learn more about planting lilies on YouTube.
Better Homes and Gardens covers both lilies on YouTube.
Julie Christensen learned about gardening on her grandfather’s farm and mother’s vegetable garden in southern Idaho. Today, she lives and gardens on the high plains of Colorado. When she’s not digging in the dirt, Julie writes about food, education, parenting and gardening.