The Old Farmer’s Almanach
How to plant, grow, and care for Lilies
Lily flowers are valued for their large, very showy, and often fragrant flowers. The six plain or strikingly marked tepals (“petals”) are often trumpet-shaped, sitting atop tall, erect stems.
Note: This page is about growing “true lilies,” which belong to the genus Lilium and grow from plump, scaly bulbs. Asiatic and Oriental lilies are examples of true lilies. Daylilies, canna lilies, and peace lilies, despite having the word “lily” in their names, are not true lilies. Learn more about “true” lilies.
These hearty bulbs are easy to grow and require minimal care, provided that you plant them in the right place.
At home in both formal and naturalistic settings, most lilies also take readily to containers. Plus, they make wonderful cut flowers, coming in pink, gold, red, orange, and white colors.
Lilies tend to bloom from early summer to fall, depending on the type. By carefully blending early, mid-season, and late varieties into your garden, you will enjoy their magnificent blooms from spring through first frost.
- Plant lily bulbs in spring or autumn. (Plant in spring in areas with particularly harsh winters.)
- Note: Lilies do not thrive in Zones 9 and 10 without a period of refrigeration; they need a cold, dormant period.
- Select a site with soil that drains well. How can you tell? After a good rain, find a spot that is the first to dry out. Water trapped beneath the scales may rot the bulb, so a well-drained site is essential.
- For dependable blooms, lilies need six to eight hours of direct sunlight a day. If it’s too shady, the stems will attempt to lean towards the sun or get spindly and fall over.
- Most of the popular varieties prefer acidic to neutral soil, but some are lime-tolerant or prefer alkaline soils (e.g., Madonna lilies).
- Loosen the soil to a depth of 12 to 15 inches. The deep planting encourages the developing stem to send out roots to help stabilize the plant and perhaps eliminate the need for staking. Also, deep planting keeps lily bulbs cool when temperatures soar.
- Enrich the soil with leaf mold or well-rotted organic matter to encourage good drainage. Learn more about soil amendments and preparing soil for planting.
- Dig a hole 2 to 3 times as deep as the bulbs are high and set the bulb in the hole pointy side up. Fill the hole with soil and tamp gently.
- Space bulbs at a distance equal to three times the bulb’s diameter (usually about 8 to 18 inches apart, depending on the variety).
- For a good effect, plant lilies in groups of 3 to 5 bulbs.
- Water thoroughly.
- See more tips on how to grow lilies
- During active growth, water freely—especially if rainfall is less than 1 inch per week.
- Keep lilies mulched so that their roots are cool. The mulch should feel moist, but not wet. Read more about mulching.
- Apply a high-potassium liquid fertilizer every 2 weeks from early spring until 6 weeks after flowering.
- Keep moist in winter.
- Apply a thin layer of compost each spring, followed by a 2-inch layer of mulch.
- Stake tall lilies.
- Lilies do not bloom more than once per season, but you can remove the faded flowers so that the plants don’t waste energy making seeds.
- Leave the foliage until it turns brown in the fall. It’s important not to cut back foliage until the end of the season because the plant needs to store energy for next year’s flowering. Cut down the dead stalks in the late fall or early spring.
- Before winter, add 4 to 6 inches of mulch, simply to delay the ground freeze and allow the roots to keep growing. Leave the mulch until spring once the last hard frost has passed. See your local frost dates.
- Divide plants every 3 to 4 years as new growth begins in the spring. Just lift them and divide into clumps. Replant using compost and bonemeal.
- Gray mold is sometimes a problem, especially in a wet, cool spring or summer. Make sure lilies are not crowded and have plenty of air circulation.
- Viruses, spread by aphids, may be troublesome, although some cultivars are virus-tolerant.
- Red lily beetles, slugs, and snails may occur.
- Deer, rabbits, voles, and groundhogs may eat entire plants. If these critters are a problem, plant the bulbs in buried wire cages to protect them from getting eaten.
Displaying Lilies in Vases
- Lilies make wonderful cut flowers. However, avoid cutting off more than a third of the stem, which can reduce the plant’s vigor and longevity. Or, if you are growing lilies strictly for cut flowers, consider planting them in a designated cutting garden, where you can plant fresh bulbs each year.
- When cutting lilies, choose those with buds that are just about to open, with a bit of the flower color showing—leave those that are still tight and green.
- As soon as you get lilies inside, trim the stem ends an inch or so, making a diagonal cut with a sharp knife.
- If you worry that the orange pollen of lilies might cause stains, simply snip off the stamens in the flower’s center.
- Before arranging in a vase, remove the lower leaves on the stems so that no foliage will be underwater.
- A good lily arrangement will last two or more weeks. Change the water every few days.
- To help prolong the flowers’ life, add cut-flower food to the water. Lilies require only half the amount of food recommended for other flowers.
- Learn how to keep cut flowers fresh.
There are many types of lilies which bloom at different times. You can enjoy lilies all summer long if you plant bulbs from different varieties.
- Asiatic lilies are the earliest to bloom and the easiest to grow. With their upward facing flowers, they bloom early to midsummer. Hardy in zones 4 to 9, Asiatic lilies come in pure white, pinks, vivid yellows, oranges, and reds. Intense breeding has erased much of the Asiatics’ fragrance, but in spite of their lack of perfume, they are a favorite with floral arrangers.
- Trumpet lilies bloom mid-summer. Tall with trumpet-shaped flowers, they are hardy in zones 5 to 9. Trumpet lilies grow throw many blooms (12 to 15 per stalk!) and have a wonderfully heady, sweet fragrance.
- Oriental hybrids end the season, blooming in mid- to late summer, just when Asiatic lilies are beginning to fade. From tiny two-footers to towering eight-foot-tall giants, Orientals are always a striking choice (the shorter ones are great for patio beds or container gardens). Adored for their intoxicating fragrance that intensifies after dark, Oriental lilies produce masses of huge white, pink, red, or bi-color blooms. They make wonderful cut flowers that will fill even the largest of rooms with their spicy scents.
- The name “lily” can be misleading because lots of other plants use it besides true lilies. Daylilies and water lilies aren’t lilies at all, and neither are lilies-of-the-valley or lilyturf. With so many other plants using the name “lily,” it seems that identity theft has been around since long before the use of computers and credit cards!
- If you have a flower bed, lilies prosper in the presence of low-growing plants that protect their roots from drying out.