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Selecting lilies for your garden

Anne M. Hanchek and Jane E. Bolla

Lilies provide an easy to grow, colorful addition to your garden and landscape. By choosing a combination of early, mid-season, and late-blooming cultivars, you can have lilies in flower from mid June through mid September. These hardy bulbs require only minimal care. Each has the capacity to grow, eventually, into an large cluster of flowering stems.

Orange-red group of flowers

Figure 1. Enchantment Asiatic lily

What are true lilies?

Many plants that have "lily" as part of their common name (such as daylily or peace lily) are not "true" lilies. True lilies belong to the genus Lilium. They grow from bulbs made of fleshy, overlapping scales with no protective covering.

True lilies have stiff stems with relatively narrow strap like leaves from top to bottom. Large, showy flowers develop at the tip of each stem. These flowers may be trumpet-shaped, bowl shaped, or bell shaped with reflexed petals. They may nod downwards, face outwards, or turn upwards – and they come in a wide variety of colors. Many are also delightfully fragrant.

Deciding which lilies to plant

Many different species of lilies are available, but not all of them thrive in Minnesota. Choose lilies that are rated hardy to USDA zone 3 or 4 if you live in the southern half of the state, and USDA zone 3, if you live in the northern half. For local lily expertise, join a group such as the North Star Lily Society of Minnesota to share cultural information and lists of cultivars recommended by experienced lily enthusiasts.

Asiatic and Oriental lilies are the two most popular types of lilies for northern gardens. Asiatic lilies are among the easiest to grow. They're very hardy, need no staking, and are not particularly fussy about soil, as long as it drains well. Oriental lilies have become increasingly popular, due to their large, exotic (often frilly) blooms and heavy, sweet perfume. They can be grown successfully in much of Minnesota, provided the soil is organic and acidic with good drainage, and you mulch them heavily each fall.

When choosing lilies, consider plant height and bloom season as well as flower color. Make a point of visiting public gardens such as the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, where plants are labeled with their cultivar names. It will be easier to select lilies for your garden after seeing them in bloom.

Easter lilies, so popular as flowering pot plants, are not totally reliable in Minnesota winters, though some gardeners are able to carry them over for several years by mulching them heavily. If they survive, they'll bloom some time in August.

Here are just a few of the many true lilies that grow well here:

Cultivars Type Color Height (ft.) Time of bloom
Enchantment Asiatic Orange 2-3 June
Connecticut King Asiatic yellow 3-4 June
Corsica Asiatic pink 3 June/July
Crete Asiatic deep pink 3-4 June/July
Dawn Star Asiatic cream 2-3 July
Black Beauty Oriental dark red 5-6 July/August
Journey's End Oriental deep pink 4-5 August
Stargazer Oriental crimson-red 2-3 August
Yellow Ribbons Oriental white/yellow 3-5 August
Casa Blanca Oriental pure white 4-5 August/September

Where, when and how to plant your lilies

Lily bulbs may be planted in spring or in the fall, usually from mid-September through mid-October. If you find hardy lilies growing in containers, you may add them to your garden throughout the growing season. When buying locally, select firm, plump bulbs with roots attached. Plant them as soon as possible. Bulbs never go completely dormant so they must not dry out before planting. Plant mail order bulbs as soon as possible, also.

Asiatic and Oriental lilies grow best in full sunlight. In Minnesota, they need six to eight hours of direct sunlight in order to perform well. They'll grow taller, more spindly, and floppier in reduced light. Martagon hybrids, a group of turk's-cap lilies, are prized for their ability to bloom well in shadier conditions.

For best effect, plant lilies in groups of three or five identical bulbs. Space them eight to twelve inches apart, keeping groups three to five feet apart, depending on the vigor and size of the lilies. Plant small lily bulbs two to four inches deep and large bulbs four to six inches deep, measuring from the top of the bulb. Divide and replant large clusters of bulbs every three years or so – or when it seems they are not blooming as well as originally.

Never plant lilies where standing water collects after heavy rainfall. Well-drained soil is an absolute must. Add lots of organic matter to clay soil to create a raised area with improved drainage. Incorporate organic matter into light, sandy soil also, to help hold onto nutrients and prevent it from drying too rapidly.

Before winter, mulch over newly planted bulbs with four to six inches of loose, weed-free compost, leaves, or wood chips. This delays soil freezing and allows roots to continue growing longer. Mulch also insulates the soil against fluctuating temperatures, delaying the emergence of frost-tender shoots in spring.

Hardy established lily bulbs don't need winter protection where good snow cover is dependable. Considering Minnesota's weather history, however, it's always safest to apply a winter mulch. Wait until some time in November when the ground begins to freeze, before spreading it.

Caring for your lilies

In spring, leave mulch in place until the danger of hard frost has passed. If lily shoots grow through the mulch, start to remove it gradually – but leave it nearby so you can cover them again if another hard frost is predicted.

Fertilize the soil each spring with a phosphorus-rich formula such as 5–10–10. Slow-release fertilizers work well. Always follow label instructions when applying fertilizer.

Lilies usually have few pests, but rabbits and slugs can be a menace to emerging shoots. Aphids – small sucking insects – can also cause problems for flower buds. Carefully wash the affected plants with water sprayed forcefully from your garden hose to remove aphids.

Botrytis blight, a fungal disease, causes reddish-brown leaf spots and is often the result of damp weather or evening watering. (When you water at night, the leaves often stay wet until the sun comes out and dries them the following morning, encouraging foliar diseases.) Whenever possible, water early in the day, or water at the base of the plant rather than over head. Adequate spacing between clusters of lilies also promotes good air circulation and may help prevent disease.

Deadhead flowers as they fade, by breaking them off carefully. That way, none of the plant's energy is "wasted" on seed production. Do not remove stems or foliage, though. They'll continue to put energy into the bulb as long as they remain green. Remove old foliage in late fall or early spring by cutting down the dead stalks.

For information about the North American Lily Society and the North Star Lily Society of Minnesota, or for help in locating a retail source for a specific lily cultivar or species, contact the Anderson Horticultural Library at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska, Minnesota, by calling (952) 443-1405.

For further information

Jefferson-Brown, Michael. The Lily: For Garden, Patio and Display. North Pomfret: David & Charles, 1988.

Mathew, Brian. Lilies: A Romantic History with a Guide to Cultivation. Philadelphia: Running Press, 1993.

Matthews, Victoria. Lilies. Collingridge Books in assoc. with Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, 1989.

The information given in this publication is for educational purposes only. Reference to commercial products or trade names is made with the understanding that no discrimination is intended and no endorsement by University of Minnesota Extension is implied.

In accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, this material is available in alternative formats upon request. Please contact your University of Minnesota Extension office.

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