Photo by Melody

Planting a Lily Bulb

By Gwen Bruno (gwen21August 26, 2010

Lilies are the most versatile of bulbs. You can choose from a variety of sizes and blooming times, and a rainbow of colors. The smaller, early-blooming hybrids are bright and cheerful, while the taller varieties are majestically beautiful and often intensely fragrant. Lily bulbs are harvested by growers late in the season, so if you've ordered them ahead of time, be prepared to plant your lilies correctly as soon as they arrive.

Gardening picture(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on November 1, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)


When To Plant Lilies

Lily bulbs can be planted in spring or fall, but they are usually available from growers in the fall. Plant lilies as soon as possible after receiving them. Lilies are made up of fleshy scales and unlike tulips, narcissi and hyacinths, do not have a protective covering. They are never truly dormant and should be treated like a regular perennial. If you must delay planting, store them where they will be kept cool but not frozen, such as a garage or refrigerator. Do not expose them to light, as this can cause them to sprout before they are in the soil. This also applies if you are dividing lilies you already have in your garden--plant the new bulblets right away, before they dry out. 


Finding a Good Spot for Lilies

Lilies like moist but not soggy soil; if they are kept too wet they will rot. Good drainage is essential. If your desired site is not well-drained, you can raise the bed so that the lilies are at ground level with at least 4 inches of soil above them. Adding compost and mulch will help provide nutrients.


Most lilies like at least half a day of sun. Most Asiatic lilies will tolerate full sun, but the Oriental types do better with partial shade. Some lily colors tend to fade if they are planted in too much sun. Of all lilies, the trumpet types are the most in need of sun, otherwise their stems will lean toward the light.  Good air circulation is as important as good drainage; the leaves should be able to dry quickly after a rain. Brown spots on the leaves indicate a fungus called botrytis, which can be brought on by planting lilies in an area with poor air circulation or soil that stays too wet. 


Lilies, like clematis, like their heads in the sun and their feet in the shade. You can shade lily roots by planting them among other plants such as ferns. Just be sure the flowers can reach up to the sun.


Planting a Lily Bulb

Lilies require planting in holes approximately 4 to 6 inches deep. Deeper planting helps keep the plant well-anchored, since lilies grow roots both above and below the bulb. The larger the bulb, the deeper it needs to be planted. The exception to this rule is the Candidum lily, which prefers a shallow planting with a covering of less than an inch of soil. You can scratch some bone meal in the bottom of the hole if you like. After planting, follow up with a good watering to make sure soil comes into contact with the roots and they can begin growth. Mulching with straw, leaves or pine needles will help protect the bulbs from freeze-thaw cycles that might cause them to heave from the soil.


Lilies require room. Depending on the variety, bulbs should be planted between 6 to 12 inches apart. I like to mark the location of my newly planted bulbs so that in the spring I don’t accidentally damage any sprouts. The marker also gives me a springtime reminder to protect the tender sprouts with a spray intended to deter rabbits and chipmunks. I spray a repellant on lily sprouts after each rain from the time they emerge until they reach at least 8 inches or so. Lily shoots are very vulnerable when they first break through the ground, and damage at this point will mean no flowers from that particular bulb for the whole season.


Some Types of Lilies

Martagon lilies (also called Turk’s Cap)--whorled leaves; downward-facing flowers often have freckles or spots; tolerate some shade


Asiatic hybrids--early blooming; most have upward facing flowers; hardy, unfussy, and reproduce easily


LA hybrids--thick waxy flowers larger than Asiatics


Trumpet lilies, also called Aurelian hybrids--flower in midsummer ; trumpet-shaped flowers


Tigrinum or Tiger lilies--3 to 4 feet tall; large blooms with light to heavy maroon freckling and recurved petals; mostly warm colors from gold to orange to red


Oriental lilies--late summer bloomer; intensely fragrant; blossoms up to 10 inches across; require staking because of their height and size of flowers


• Oriental Trumpet lilies (or Orienpets)--a hybrid of trumpet and oriental lilies



North American Lily Society


Mid-America Regional Lily Society


North Star Lily Society

Photo credit: Stargazer lily by Mollybee 

  About Gwen Bruno  
Gwen BrunoAfter spending 28 years as a teacher and librarian, Gwen Bruno is now a full-time freelance writer residing in suburban Chicago. As a preschooler, she lovingly tended a small patch of weeds in her backyard. Luckily, her parents supported her budding horticultural endeavors, and she's been gardening ever since.

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