Colorful lilies make gardens beautiful

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Betsey Thomson

The Well-Tended Garden by Betsey Thomson

The white lily associated with Easter and representing the spiritual reasons of the holiday is also linked to motherhood in both mythology and in early religious writings. Did you know that in many churches during Victorian times, the stamens and pistils were removed from lilies as they represented “conspicuous symbols” that might move people to impure thoughts?  Good thing lilies can be propagated by bulbs.

Daylilies and lily of the valley are not of the genus lilium, but I grow them anyway. There are nine types or divisions in the lilium genus, the two most significant being the Asiatic and Oriental lilies. The varieties, colors and fragrances available will create a magnificent display in any garden.

Start with Asiatic lilies as they are the earliest to blossom and easily grown. Asiatic hybrids come in various shades of pink, orange, yellow, red and white. They have very little or no fragrance. Asiatic are the lilies most often found in floral arrangements.

Oriental hybrids flower in mid to late summer so you can count on them to take over as the Asiatic lilies diminish.  Like the Asiatic variety, Orientals also grow in all heights, plus they have an incredible array of colors. With an intoxicating fragrance that becomes stronger after the sun sets, the Oriental lilies are the sweethearts for aromas. Take some Orientals inside, and you will perfume an entire room.

Both types like acidic to neutral soils, though some lilies prefer alkaline soil. A well-drained planting site is essential as any water trapped in the scales of the bulbs can cause rot. They need six to eight hours of sunlight each day and like clematis, need a shaded or cooler root area. Placing lilies on the leeward side of shrubs is lilliesadvantageous in windy areas.

The bulbs should be planted deeply into the soil in the fall. That will cause the roots to spread and anchor the plant properly. Lilies often have to be staked. When they start to die back, don’t cut the foliage because it’s needed to supply nutrients, but you can cut off the flower stalks. As for fertilizer, a 5-10-5 every three weeks while actively growing will keep them happy. Don’t let them dry out completely or overwater. Lilies, like grass, need at least one inch of water per week.

I had incredible lilies growing in my gardens a few years ago until lily leaf beetles came along. Their larvae, wearing their own excrement to deter predators, are disgusting and do the most damage. As soon as the lilies break ground, check for a line of eggs on the backsides of each leaf and destroy. Ignore the beetle and larvae, and in less than two weeks, it is goodbye lily. The slug is another pest that creates havoc. I will write more about that in another column.

Betsey Thomson is a University of Rhode Island lifetime master gardener. Contact her at

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