Denise Schreiber is the infamous Mrs. Know It All of The Organic Gardeners on KDKA radio and author of Eat Your Roses. Contact her at


Love Those Lilies
by Denise Schreiber - posted 12/26/17

Plan to plant a garden full of these charming old-fashioned bloomers. True lilies are both old (namely the species lilies) and new again (there are many new cultivars and crosses). Order or buy some in late winter to plant this spring.

The lily is the queen of the garden, hands down. The intoxicating fragrance of a ‘Casa Blanca’ lily on a warm summer’s eve drifts across the garden enticing you to linger. The fragrant ‘Star Gazer’ is one of the most popular lilies in flower arrangements. The tiger lily is a friendly reminder that not all lilies are proper cultivated ladies – this is the wild child in the group. The ubiquitous Easter lily graces many homes in the spring and other lilies stand in the garden towering over everything else there. The term “gilding the lily” means trying to make something more beautiful than a lily, which I believe is impossible.

‘Forever Susan’ lily

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

True lilies have stiff stalks 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 might nod downward, face outward, or turn upward. Many lilies are incredibly fragrant, while others are grown for their unique color or markings. There are short ones, tall ones and many in between. There are early-, mid- and late-season plants so you can have them blooming all summer long.

Go Deep, No Bones
So how do you grow something so beautiful? Many gardeners are a bit timid when it comes to growing lilies. According to Becky Heath, of Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, an online retailer at, “I think the biggest mistake gardeners make with lilies is they don’t plant them deeply enough. Of course, roots form at the base of each bulb, but on lilies, roots also form ‘up the stem,’ which helps to anchor the beautiful, but often heavy, flowerheads and helps keep them from falling over. I don’t love seeing staked plants in the garden! Planting that deeply also helps protect the bulbs from the ‘underground bulb monsters,’ because we have found that they often go to whatever is the easiest food to gather. Lilies, in most soil types, ought to be planted at least 8 inches deep – in light soils, they can go even 10 inches deep. If it’s impossible to plant that deeply, just build up the soil on top of the bulb once it’s planted!”

Becky also notes, “Don’t put bonemeal in the hole, because it isn’t as nutritious as it was during our parents’ time, and it attracts rodents and dogs, who love to dig up the bulbs searching for the ‘bones’!” She suggests using a bulb fertilizer such as Bulb-Tone when planting, and in the spring use a phosphorus-rich formula such as 5-10-10.

Lilium ‘Manisa’

Plant in Sunny, Dry ‘Bouquets’
For best effect, plant lilies in groups of three or five bulbs. Space the bulbs 8-12 inches apart depending on the size of the bulb. Divide and replant large clusters of bulbs every three years, or when it seems they are not blooming as well as when they were first planted.

Never plant lilies where water collects after heavy rainfall. Well-drained soil is an absolute must. Add lots of organic matter to clay soils to improve drainage.

Lilies are pretty much a carefree plant, with just a few exceptions. Botrytis is a fungal disease that causes reddish spots on the leaves. This can be caused by overhead watering, not enough sunlight and poor air circulation.

Lilies need a minimum of six hours a day of direct sunlight and eight hours is better. Squirrels, mice and voles can dig up the bulbs and eat them; rabbits, groundhogs and deer prefer to eat the stalks and flowers. Spraying liquid repellent on the foliage is usually enough to deter them, because by the time it wears off, more desirable food is available.

The red lily beetle can sometimes be a serious problem on lilies.

Clockwise: This ‘Casa Blanca’ lily was crossed with another variety naturally. • Lily ’Muscadet’ • Martagon lily ‘Sutton Court’

Lily Classifications
There are many types of lilies (Lilium spp.), more than 80 species and thousands of hybrids. They are classified according to their origins, parentage and flowers.

Division 1: Hybrids of Asiatic species such as Lilium davidii
Division 2: Hybrids of Martagon lilies
Division 3: Hybrids of L. candidum and L. chalcedonicum
Division 4: Hybrids of American species lilies
Division 5: Hybrids of L. longiflorum and L. formosanum
Division 6: Aurelian hybrids, Trumpet lilies and L. henryi crosses
Division 7: Oriental hybrids
Division 8: All other hybrids
Division 9: All other species and their cultivars

Orientals and Aurelian/Trumpet lilies are among the most fragrant, but with new breeding techniques other lilies are being grown with fragrance. Orientals and Aurelian/Trumpets are also some of the tallest lilies, some reaching 7 feet tall when mature. Asiatics tend to be shorter and earlier blooming, and Martagon lilies are those little delicate bell-like flowers that hang in great quantities.

If you want to grow lilies for bouquets, you should grow several bulbs and plant them in succession every year. Cutting the lilies reduces their vigor for the following year, so you should cut from one bed where you are doing the succession planting. Many people who use them for cut flowers also have two beds, one for enjoying them and the other for cutting them.

You can also propagate your own lilies by a couple of methods. One is to remove the stem bulbils as they dry at the leaf axils and insert them in to bulb pans filled with a well-draining but moist potting mix, covering them with some grit. Place them in a cold frame until young bulbs develop – then you can plant them in the garden. You can also lift the dead bulb and stem after flowering and remove the bulblets and replant them (at twice their depth) in the same type of bulb pan and you can plant them out in the garden.

When purchasing bulbs, always purchase fresh bulbs and plant them immediately or they will shrivel and die.

If you plant many different kinds of lilies in your flowerbeds, you will be rewarded in the garden for many years to come.


A version of this article appeared in a January/February 2015 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Denise Schreiber and Brent and Becky’s Bulbs.


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