Anyone who talks longingly about the good old days certainly isn’t talking about gardening. Times are better now. Heck, when I was a kid, we didn’t even have Wave petunias, and cherry tomatoes tasted like bitter lemons before Sweet 100, Sunsugar and other current favorites. Heirloom varieties are fun, but great strides have been made in today’s plant breeding.
A great example of gardening’s current good times are perennial lilies. Plant breeders have been busy, and new lily hybrids can only be described as incredible. These beauties deserve a featured spot in every flower garden and can even be used effectively in landscape plantings.
To be clear, the regal flowers we’re discussing are true lilies, not daylilies. Daylilies are nice too, but they aren’t actually lilies. Lilies grow from underground bulbs, while daylilies grow from fleshy roots.
You can easily tell lilies and daylilies apart, because daylilies have long strap-like leaves that arch outward from a central crown at ground level, while lily leaves are spaced along a central tall stalk, and the blossoms form at the top of these stalks. Think of a potted Easter lily.
Flowerbeds are most attractive when they combine an assortment of different perennial types, flowering from spring through fall, and lilies are a high point of the midsummer bloomers.
Lilies can look intimidating because of their regal beauty, but they’re really quite easy to grow. New lilies can be planted either in spring or fall from dormant bulbs. Garden centers also sell potted lilies that are actively growing and often in full bloom, which can be planted throughout the growing season.
The best time to dig, divide and reset established lilies is September, which should be done every three to five years, if the clump becomes crowded and flowering diminishes.
Lilies require full sun for most of the day, at least six to eight hours. A little shade from the hot afternoon sun prolongs flower life. They prefer loamy, well-drained soil, which can be created by adding peatmoss or compost to clay or sandy soil. Mounding the soil just slightly is often enough to promote decent drainage.
Lilies are most dramatic if planted in groups of three or five of a single variety, which makes a larger splash of color. If you don’t want to buy that many of one type, lilies multiply, so eventually one lily bulb will produce offsets that can be replanted to form the desired grouping.
Space lilies 12 inches apart within these groups. When shopping for lilies, you’ll soon find there are more than one type, and the flowers look quite different, beyond just color.
The most common lilies, and those often seen potted in full bloom at garden centers are called Asiatic lilies, with their often upward-facing flowers, available in many named cultivars and colors. They are usually the most winter-hardy and easiest to grow.
Don’t stop there, however.
There’s a whole world of awe-inspiring lilies even a notch above the Asiatic types in beauty and fragrance, and they grow quite well in our hardiness zones 3 and 4. Among lily classifications are the trumpet types, with their outward-facing huge blossoms on plants that can reach 5 or 6 feet in height, and do well in our region.
Another class, the Oriental lilies, include the familiar deep pink and white Stargazer with their heady fragrance. The Oriental lilies tend to be shorter lived in our region, though.
Another class, the martagon lilies, grow well in partial shade. A recent breeding breakthrough are called Orienpet lilies, crosses between trumpet and Oriental lilies. They combine the fragrance of Orientals with the taller, more vigorous trumpet lilies.
Breeders have also crossed the Asiatic lilies with trumpet lilies and call them Asiapet cultivars. If you’re familiar with the common Asiatic lilies, expand your plantings to include other lily types. They’re even more dramatic and create quite a scene in the flower garden.
If you’re branching out into other lily types, give them a somewhat protected location that receives plentiful winter snow cover. A November mulch is often recommended, although our lilies have wintered well with no additional winter mulch added.
Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 701-241-5707.