How to Grow Lilies: Varieties, Propagation Techniques and More

An illustrated guide to growing lilies.

Reader Contribution by Michael Feldmann
article image
Adobe Stock/Mazur Travel

All you need to know about how to grow lilies, from choosing where to plant lilies, to propagation, to common lily pests and problems you might encounter.

Everyone loves lilies. With large, showy blooms, lilies add striking elegance to every yard and garden. Lilies tend to bloom from early summer to fall, depending on the variety. But by carefully mixing early, mid-season, and late varieties into your garden, you can enjoy their blooms from spring through first frost. Growing lilies is actually not as difficult as you may think and is certainly worth the effort for those who take pride in showy blooms.

Note that these flowers, the “true” lilies, are from the genus Lilium, as opposed to daylilies, which are from the genus Hemerocallis.

Lily Varieties for Gardeners

There are lots of varieties of lilies with flowers in a variety of beautiful colors including white, yellow, orange, pink and red. As well as lots of colorful streaks, dots, and stripes that add even more to the beautiful blooms. There are a number of popular lily species and their endless hybrids are available to gardeners.

Asiatic lilies bloom in early summer in May or June. They don’t require much care as long as they are grown in well-draining soil. They are the shortest type of lily (about 2 to 3 feet tall) and come in many colors. They don’t have much fragrance, but they do add brightness to every garden and yard.

Easter lilies are usually grown indoors as holiday plants. As their name suggests, they are typically forced into bloom, in March or April. Outdoors, they are better suited to the warmer regions of North America, where they can be planted in the garden after flowering.

Oriental lilies have that famously strong fragrance. They are tall and stately (4 feet), and tend to grow more slowly, often in bloom as Asian lily flowers start fading (from mid to late summer).

Trumpet lilies are very similar to oriental lilies, producing many flowers with a pleasant scent. Their flowers are usually smaller and more closed (like a trumpet) than those of the other lilies.

Other lilies. There are many other lilies out there, of course, such as tiger lilies and Turk’s cap lilies, as well as hybrids like “Orienpet” (Oriental + Trumpet) and LA lilies (Easter + Asiatic). Browse through your favorite gardening catalog to find what you like best!

Planting Lily Bulbs in the Garden

Growing lilies in the garden is probably the best way to enjoy your own blooms, or make from them astonishingly beautiful bouquets. And for all this, you just need to familiarize yourself with their needs such as soil, location, and other.

Selecting lily bulbs

It is very important to buy only plump, firm, healthy, medium to big sized bulbs. Lily bulbs are available in late fall or early spring from mail-order and local nurseries. The good lily bulbs should be firm, with closely packed scales and with a dense root system.

Soil consideration and preparation

Lilies can grow well in almost any well-drained soil that has a pH slightly on the acid side. An exception is the Madonna lily, which does best in a neutral to slightly alkaline soil.

Soil preparation before planting lilies is very important, just as it is with other bulbs. In light soils, a generous addition of well-composted organic material or peat moss will improve moisture retention. Remember that lily bulbs and roots will be damaged if fresh manure is applied. Heavy soils can be improved by adding coarse sand or light gravel. Super-phosphate, well mixed in, will enrich and condition the soil for several seasons.

The subsoil should also provide good drainage so that water does not accumulate around the bulbs. In soils with poor drainage use raised beds with well-draining soil. Planting on a gentle slope also improves drainage.

Where to Plant Lilies: When and How to Plant Lilies

Lilies grow best in a sunny, sheltered spot in the garden. Full sun provides the strongest growth, but lilies can also grow well in partial shade. For best results, plant your lilies in a location that receives at least 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight a day.

It is also very recommended to buy your lily bulbs very close to the planting time. Since lily bulbs don’t go dormant, and will deteriorate over time, so don’t plan to buy bulbs in the fall and wait until spring to plant them. In most regions in the United States, it is best to plant the bulbs in the fall, generally, a few weeks before the winter brings freezing temperatures. Bulbs planted in fall will have well established roots in spring.

When preparing the planting location for lilies you need to loosen the soil to a depth of 12 to 15 inches. Planting deep encourages the developing stem to send out roots to help stabilize the plant and possibly eliminate the need for staking. In addition, deep planting also keeps lily bulbs cool at high temperatures.

To start planting, dig a big enough hole 3 times as deep as the height of the bulb and set the bulb in the hole pointy side up. Fill the hole with the soil and tamp gently. Space your lily bulbs at the distance about 8 to 18 inches apart. Or you can also plant your lilies in groups of 3 to 5 bulbs for more visual appeal. After the bulbs have been planted water the area thoroughly.

How to Grow Lilies

Fertilizing. In the early spring, when the first green stems appear, fertilization should be applied. Another application when the buds are forming will be beneficial. And after the lily has bloomed, one more feeding will boost the bulb for the next season.

Mulching. Lilies need a steady supply of moisture, particularly during the growing season. A summer mulch is an excellent way to conserve moisture. Mulch will also keep the stem roots cool during very hot weather and will help control weeds. Mulch to a depth of 3 or 4 inches with oak leaves, pine needles, hay, or any other loose material that will allow passage of water and air to the soil.

Watering. Correct watering is very important for every plant, and also for lilies. During the active growth, lilies should be well watered, especially if the rainfall is less than 1 inch per week.

Staking. Unless they are sturdily staked, lilies more than 3 feet tall may be damaged by strong winds. So, it is best to support your lilies with stakes. Use one stake for each lily bulb. When placing it, take care not to drive it through the bulb. As the plant grows, tie the stem to the stake using the small rope or other soft material.

Propagating Lilies

Lilies can be propagated by many methods all of which will help you increase these lovely flowers in your garden.

Propagating lilies is actually very easy, interesting and can be done by nearly anyone. There are five ways of propagating lilies, including seeds, scales, bulbils, bulblets, and offsets. They are all very easy and effective ways.

Propagating Lilies by Seeds

Propagating your lilies from seeds is an excellent way, but it takes a little bit longer than others. Letting the flowers germinate and then harvesting them is easy, but the plants take longer to fully develop from seed. It may take several years before you will see the first flowers. Professional growers will cross pollinate different species to collect seed and develop new hybrids. While this may be a fun way to propagate lilies, it isn’t something most gardeners need to do, especially since there are better and faster methods.

Propagating Lilies by Scales

Propagation by scales is a very easy and fun method of propagating lilies. For this, you do not need even a knife or any other tools, you will see that this is very easy. You could scale a lily bulb much the same as you unfold artichoke leaves. But don’t remove all the scales. Remove about 1/3 of the scales per bulb. The bulb you use can be again planted into the garden with no harm and should bloom like all, provided you did not remove too many scales and you have dig up the bulb at the correct planting time, after all foliage has yellowed or right before new growth emerges.

Place the scales into a well-mixed cutting compost. A half mixture of sand and peat is good, or damp perlite/vermiculite. I’ve had an excellent result simply putting the scales in a small plastic bag. Protect the scales from harsh freezing or overly hot temperatures. The scales will produce small bulbs the fastest when kept in indirect light. This can be as early as 2 weeks!

After 6 to 8 weeks, check your scales to see if they have formed little bulbs around the base of each. You can get up to 7 bulbs per scale! When they become a decent size, leave the bags open to reduce the humidity levels. When the small bulbs begin to send a small shoot out of the top, you can replant each scale in a container or plant them directly into the garden. A good potting mix with no added fertilizer works well. Whether you plant the scales in pot or in the garden, you can expect them to be blooming in 1 to 2 years.

Propagating Lilies by Bulbils

Some varieties of lily, form a small bulb (commonly called “bulbils”) on their stems from late summer to autumn, from which new plants can be easily propagated. If they fall off the plant, they rarely grow into large plants, so it’s best to remove the bulbils by hand and then plant them in pots. Remember, this way of propagating lilies can take up to three years before they start producing flowers.

From late summer to autumn, carefully remove the tiny bulbils growing from the leaf axils of the lily plant. Then plant the bulbils in a pot filled with good soil, spacing them 2.5cm apart. Cover with a layer of compost and water them well, allowing the water to drain. Then place the pot on a sunny windowsill, the bulbils will germinate within a couple of weeks. Once good roots have developed, carefully transplant each seedling into individual big enough pots to grow in. After several years your new lilies will start producing flowers.

Propagating Lilies by Bulblets

Another great method of propagating lilies is from bulblets. Bulblets are young bulbs that are developed underground along the stem root between the primary bulb and the soil surface. This very small bulblets will successfully grow into full sized plants. Wait until a few weeks after flowering before collecting the bulblets; this allows them to develop and increase in size.

Dig up a lily plant, snap off each of the small bulblets growing along the roots, and place the plant back into the ground. Or you can leave the plant in place and gently remove the soil underneath by burying it down to the bulb. You will see small bulbs along the way. The collected bulblets can be planted pointy end up anywhere, were you want. You will probably won’t see any growth above the surface in the fall, but in the spring a new plant should emerge where each bulblet is planted.

In colder regions, you can harvest the bulblets and grow them over the winter for transplanting in the spring. Most lily bulbs require between three and six weeks of cold temperatures before they’ll grow leaves. They will get it naturally on the outside, but for the bulblets that you want to grow inside should be refrigerate before planting. Place them in a plastic bag and refrigerate for at least a month before planting.

Propagating Lilies by Offsets

Division is a tried and tested method of propagating many plants and also works excellent with lilies. As the plant matures, the bulb grows to a certain size and naturally divides. It divides into two bulbs with the divisions called offsets. Each offset will turn into a separate lily plant. If left alone in the ground, each offset will eventually split into new bulbs. This process eventually leads to the formation of a clump of lily plants.

Propagating lilies by offset is very easy. You can see this in your garden by looking for two or more plants emerging from the soil very close to each other. Carefully digging up the plant reveals the several bulbs. They are connected but are very easily separated by hand or with a knife. Each of the individual bulb can be planted into the garden and will continue to grow. It’s best to do this after the plant has flowered so all of the plant’s energy will be focused on root development.

Keeping these various points in mind, you will easily be able to choose the right location, plant your lily bulbs, fertilize and water them properly, get rid of pests and diseases, propagate them correctly, and finally enjoy lots of blooms throughout the year.

The Most Common Lily Pests and Problems

Pest: Aphids.
Shoot tips and buds covered with greenish or pinkish insects. Leaf undersides may be sticky. Buds and leaves may be malformed.
Control: Spray with insecticidal soap, carbaryl, diazinon or malathion

Pest: Beetles or caterpillars.
Leaves and flowers are chewed.
Control: Spray or dust foliage with carbaryl.

Pest: European lily beetles.
Leaves eaten entirely (often overnight). Bright red pests seen.
Control: Spray with permethrin or neem.

Pest: Bulb mites.
Bulb scales are injured and roots destroyed.
Control: Destroy severely infested bulbs. Dust with sulfur before planting.

Pest: Slugs or snails.
Leaves and shoots eaten; slime trails present.
Control: Trap with beer, or apply pellets of metaldehyde.

Pest: Botrytis, or gray mold (fungus).
Water-soaked areas on leaves turn gray or white. Stems may rot and topple.
Control: Spray with captan or ferbam.

Pest: Virus disease.
Leaves have pale or yellow striping or mottling.
Control: Destroy plants. Spray against insects that spread disease.

Michael Feldmann is a farmer and writer in Oklahoma, who studies agriculture and has worked as a journalist for magazines and newspapers around the country. His writing has been published in Acres USA, Rural Heritage, Farming magazine, Farmers Weekly, Permaculture magazine, MOTHER EARTH NEWS, and as a column in Poultry World.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our blogging guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.