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How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Lilies

Fall is a great time for planting lilies. "Lily bulbs" are actually tubers composed of fleshy scales and lack a protective covering. Unlike true bulb flowers, they never go completely dormant and should be handled carefully since they lose moisture very quickly. Essentially, you can plant your new lilies anytime before the ground freezes. The most natural location for planting lilies is on sloping ground with excellent drainage. It's a good idea to place them with other low plants which can provide shade for the bulb and root system. Prepare the soil with large amounts of organic matter such as leaf mold or compost. Plant with the roots downward and the scales upward. After planting lily bulbs, water well two or three times before freezing. Lilies are most effective when planted in groups of three or more. Space them about a foot apart—they will spread and fill this space in no time!

What Does a Lily Look Like?

Lilies are breathtaking and eye-popping due to their bright and vibrant colors. Lilies can be orange, pink, yellow, purple, red, or white. Often trumpet shaped, lilies have six tepals or petals and sit on top of long, erect stems with narrow and lance-shaped leaves.

When You Receive Your Field-Grown Lily Bulbs

Your lilies are shipped as dry bulbs. The bulbs are field-grown and have been harvested recently. Unlike tulips and daffodils, lily bulbs do not have a protective covering. For this reason, plant lilies as soon as possible after they arrive at your home. If you don't have time to plant immediately, keep the lilies in their original bags at about 40°F (5°C) for no longer than three weeks (the vegetable drawer of a refrigerator is ideal). Quick planting, however, will give the best results.

Don't worry if your bulbs have developed a sprout. Plant the bulbs as soon as possible and be careful not to break the sprout.

A little blue mold on the outer scales is normal and no cause for worry. Lily bulbs have a high sugar content. Harvesting and handling the bulbs may have caused small injuries injuries to your lily bulb, which can allow blue mold to develop. This is harmless.

When to Plant Lily Bulbs

In most regions, you'll want to plant lilies during the fall and at least four weeks prior to your region's first fall date. By planting lilies during the fall, you'll have beautiful blooms by the spring since the winter season's chill tends to produce large blooms. If you live in a region known for harsh winters, try planting your lily bulbs during spring instead. Ensure you purchase your lily bulbs close to your desired planting time since lily bulbs often deteriorate when stored for long periods.

Where to Plant Lilies

Choose a site with the following characteristics:

  1. Full sun to partial shade (for instance, morning sun and afternoon shade, or dappled sun throughout the day). For best results, lilies need 6-8 hours of direct sunlight a day. If it's too shady, the stems will get spindly and fall over.
  2. Well-drained soils. Avoid soils that become waterlogged from time to time. Lilies tolerate a wide variety of soil types, from clay to sand.
  3. Lilies are tolerant of a wide range of pH but prefer neutral to slightly acidic soils.

Preparing the Site/Working the Soil

As lilies are excellent for perennializing, they prefer to be left undisturbed for years. It is worth taking the time to dig a proper hole and amend the soil.

Spade or rototill the soil to a depth of 12-15". Mix in a generous 2-4" layer of dehydrated manure, garden compost and Breck's Food for Bulbs and Perennials. If your soil is already rich in garden loam and well-drained, the addition of Breck's Food for Bulbs and Perennials will provide the ideal conditions recommended by Breck's Dutch bulb experts for superior growth and blooming. If you have a clay soil you may need to amend for drainage. A good solution is to mix compost and rock dust or crushed stone into your soil. If you have sandy soil, amend with compost and possibly clay to increase the retention of nutrients. This will also help to better retain moisture.

How to Plant Lily Bulbs

After you have loosened and improved the soil as described above, dig a hole about 6-9" deep and place the bulb at the bottom with its roots facing down. Cover the bulb with earth, press down gently and water thoroughly. The recommended spacing for each variety is mentioned on the bags in which the bulbs are shipped.

Plant bulbs somewhat deeper in climates with warmer summers and somewhat shallower in climates with cooler summers. Deep planting keeps lily bulbs cool when temperatures soar. Deeper planting also encourages the developing stem to send out roots to help stabilize the plant.

Mulching and Winter protection

A year-round mulch of compost, leaf mold, leaves or commercial types of mulch has a positive effect on your lilies by keeping the soil from drying out, maintaining a more even and cooler soil temperature, providing organic matter for an optimal structure of the soil and reducing weed growth. A 2-4" layer of mulch is ideal. This will also help to prevent bulbs from being heaved out of the ground by alternate freezing and thawing weather.

Fertilizer for Lilies

You should apply a top dressing of high-potassium liquid fertilizer to your lilies every two weeks after planting them. Rotted manure and compost can also be beneficial for fertilizing your lilies.

When do Lilies Bloom?

Lilies usually bloom during early summer and into the fall season depending on the type of lily. However, sometimes lilies won't bloom during the first year after planting. But don't worry, these lilies sometimes wait until the next blooming season to finally bloom and show off their vibrant hues.

How to Care for Lilies

Lilies like a rich soil. A surface application of Breck's Food for Bulbs and Perennials is recommended each spring just as the lily sprouts begin to emerge and again when the flowers are opening during the summer. Lilies planted in areas of high rainfall or in sandy soil will require more feeding than lilies planted in a rich, clay soil.

If natural rainfall is less than about 1" per week, additional watering is recommended.

After flowering you can remove the spent flowers. This will prevent the forming of seed pods, which takes away energy from the bulb. The more energy the bulb has, the more flowers you will have next year. It is very important NOT to remove the foliage until it has turned yellow. The foliage is needed for the bulb to build energy for next year.

Lilies in Containers

Almost all lilies grow well in containers, although taller types may require some sort of support. It is best to use somewhat larger containers (10 gallons or larger). The bigger the pot the better. Containers also need enough depth, at least 12" is recommended.

Commercial potting mixes are available. Look for those with extra porosity. Place a 2" layer of drainage material, such as rocks or small stones, in the base of clay pots before beginning to fill with potting compost.

We advise planting lilies in a container closer together than in the garden. This will give a nicer effect. Allow about 2" between bulbs in a container. In a container, lilies can be planted less deep than recommended for lilies planted in the garden. Plant at a depth equal to the height of the bulb to roughly two-and-a-half times the height of the bulb.

Containers will need to remain outside in the winter as lilies need the cold season to flower; however, in areas with severe frost move the pot indoors into a cool place. Place the pot outside again when temperatures rise. Be sure that your pots have drainage holes so that the pots do not fill with water as this will cause lilies to rot. Lilies are especially susceptible in winter when lack of significant drainage will cause the pots to freeze and fill with ice.

Re-pot in the fall when the foliage dies down, or transfer bulbs to the garden. In larger containers, lilies can be grown in the same pot for a second season, but ensure that the top 2" of compost is replaced with fresh compost with some added fertilizer or well-rotted manure.

Lilies as Cut Flowers

All lilies make excellent cut flowers. Pick flowers as the buds are just beginning to open. When the flowers are fully open, you can remove the orange pollen-coated stamens to avoid staining the blooms, clothes or furniture. Double flowering lilies and other new cultivars do not have any pollen, thus avoiding this problem.

When cutting, leave at least one third of the stem on the plant to help the bulb gather strength for the next year. If too much of the stem with foliage is removed, the bulb may not flower the following year.

When placing the lilies in a vase, ensure there are no leaves in the water to foul it. Leave the upper leaves on the stem as they will provide nutrients for the unopened flower buds. The flowers will last longer when the vase is kept out of direct sunlight. Change the water regularly, ideally each day. A drop of bleach will help to keep the water clean. Depending on the variety, blooms will last from 7-14 days in a vase.

Lily Diseases and Pests

Normally, most lilies are very easy to grow and take very little care. Some problems that may occur are:

Lily Leaf Beetle

The lily beetle (Lilioceris lilii) has been reported in eastern North America. The larvae and adult beetles feed on the leaves of lilies. Both life stages have voracious appetites and soon devour entire plants. The eggs are laid on the underside of the foliage.Catch the vibrant orange-red adult beetles between the fingers and dispose of them.


Botrytis is a fungus disease that affects the leaves of lilies. It is caused by excessive moisture and warm temperatures. The first signs can be white spots on the leaves. The disease is not carried by the bulb so it will not affect flowering the following year. Remove noticeable spotted leaves. Spraying can be done. A copper spray can be used, or natural remedies such as a baking soda mixture (1/4 tsp. per quart of water) sprayed weekly on the foliage during wet periods can also be used.
Good air circulation will help prevent an outbreak. In the fall clean up dead stems and leaves.


Aphids are small bugs that feed on the sap of plants and often lilies. Aphids reproduce quickly and can cause serious damage to your lilies if not handled properly. So, how to get rid of aphids? One way to get rid of aphids is to spray them off with cold water. Another way you can rid your lilies of aphids is by lightly dusting your flowers with flour.

Types of Lilies

There are various types of lilies to choose from. From tiger lilies and Turk's cap lilies, here are other popular lily species:

Asiatic Lilies

Asiatic lilies are the shortest type of lily (usually growing between two and three feet tall) and often bloom during the early summer season. Asiatic lilies are easy to care for as long as they are well-maintained and planted within well-drained soil. Asiatic lilies aren't known for having a strong fragrance, but boast bright colors from pastels to tropical colors throughout your garden.

Trumpet Lilies

Trumpet lilies produce many blooms and strong fragrances. While their flowers tend to be much smaller and closed, trumpet lilies are easy to grow and are normally late bloomers, providing your garden with a long flowering season.

Oriental Lilies

Like trumpet lilies, oriental lilies are known for their strong and sweet fragrances. These types of lilies produce large amounts of blooms but tend to grow much slower. Oriental lilies can also be tall, growing to about four feet tall.

Download the Lily Planting Handbook

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