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Growing Lilies

Updated April 01, 2019
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David Graper

SDSU Extension Horticulture Specialist & Master Gardener Program Coordinator

About Lilies

a lily plant with bright, yellow flowers
Golden Tycoon, an LA hybrid lily.

Lilies have long been a staple of many gardens. They are prized for their large, showy and often fragrant flowers. There is an ever-increasing variety of lilies to choose for your home garden, especially in the new interspecific hybrids that offer a wider array of flower color, size and appearance for this popular perennial.

Species

There are dozens of different species that includes the old standards like Lilium tigrinum, the tiger lilies with their bright orange flowers spotted with black; Lilium asiatica with their variety of flower colors; and Lilium orientale with their sweetly scented flowers and so many more. But some of my favorites are the new hybirds like the Orientpets – a cross between oriental and trumpet lilies and the LA hybrids – a cross between Easter and Oriental lilies. Gardeners have a lot to choose from with some lilies only growing about a foot tall to some reaching over six feet in height with sometimes over 20 flowers per stem. Lilies also offer a wide range in flower colors from pure white, pink, lavender, yellow, orange, red, burgundy and multi colored beauties. The species lilies are also quite pretty and interesting in their own right with their varied flowers and growing habits. We even have a few lilies that are native to the northern Great Plains.

lily plants in a sunny garden with deep, dark red flowers
Landini, a dark red Asiatic lily.

Planting and Care

Most all lilies will perform best in a full sun location in a well-drained soil. If you have a heavier soil, you can try planting them in a raised bed to improve drainage. Lilies will grow just fine on their own but I prefer to plant them in with other taller plants and flowers. This gives the lilies a little support and protection from the wind. If you are growing your lilies in an open and exposed site, you probably should think about providing some support for the taller growing lilies that you might have in your collection. Interplanting with other flowers also helps to keep the garden in bloom for a longer time because lilies are one-time bloomers each year. While they put on quite a show for a couple weeks each summer, the rest of the growing season can seem rather empty without some other flowers to take over once the lilies are done blooming for the year.

Lilies grow from bulbs, kind of like an onion, but the bulb scales are much narrower and separated from each other than the scales on an onion. We usually plant lilies about 6” deep. This gives the lilies a little more winter protection but it is also important because as the stems grow out of the bulbs, it will develop new roots around it to help take up additional water and nutrients. It is best to plant lilies in groups, usually of at least five bulbs to provide a much more impressive display when they are in bloom, compared to individual bulbs. Lilies can be planted in the spring or early fall. If you are planting in the spring, be careful not to break off the developing shoot which can be rather fragile if you do not handle them carefully. If you want to divide an existing patch of lilies, that is also best done in early fall, usually around the first part of September. You want to give your newly planted lilies time to get some roots established before the ground freezes. You may want to apply a few inches of mulch over the newly planted bulbs to give them some added protection for the winter.

soft, yellow to white lily flowers

Flowers

Most lilies bloom in mid-summer, usually in July but some may bloom even later in the season. All of the lilies make excellent cut flowers but be aware that some of them are so strongly scented that they might be overpowering in large numbers in a vase on your table. Each individual flower lasts for several days, even for up to a week. There are multiple flowers on each stem so you should have more flowers already open by the time the first ones fade. Once all the flowers have dropped their flower petals, it is a good idea to deadhead the stem, by cutting of the flower spike at the base, just above the stem leaves. Keep in mind that the leaves are the most important plant component to allow the lily to come back next year and flower even more than the year before. So, keep those leaves green and healthy all the rest of the summer and fall so they can help to store up food reserves for the winter and next year’s growth and flowering.

Pests

Lilies usually have few pest problems, other than rabbits which will eat the young shoots and leaves in the spring and a few insect pests that like to eat the leaves. Slugs can also be a problem in a shady or damp site, but generally lilies will grow and bloom despite some light feeding.

Related Topics

Flower, Plant