If you’ve ever admired a breathtaking stand of lilies in bloom and wondered where, how, and when to plant lily bulbs, you’re in good company. Lily plants have captivated humankind for thousands of years. As symbols of purity, death, rebirth, and more, lilies permeate ancient texts and works of art.
Lily bulbs are hardy perennials that work well in border plantings, as cut flowers, and when grown in containers. And because there are so many different types of lilies exhibiting a riot of bloom colors and shapes—not to mention a variety of plant heights and growth habits—you’re bound to find a few you’ll want to add to your own landscape.
Meet the true lilies
Not to be confused with daylilies, the lilies we’re focusing on here are in the Lilium genus and are known as the “true lilies.” (Although daylily flowers do look like some of the true lilies, they’re actually classified among a family of flowering succulent plants.) True lilies often have funnel- or trumpet-shaped flowers which appear on long, straight stalks. Many are also fragrant.
Horticulturalists have separated the true lilies into nine different divisions and then further classified them by their floral characteristics. (For a simplified version based on these official divisions, check out our article about types of lilies.)
Some of the most common true lily types include:
Asiatic hybrids: More than half of all of the different kinds of lilies originated in east Asia, so there are many Asiatic lilies from which to choose. Asiatics typically bloom in early summer, are unscented or only lightly scented, and come in a wide range of floral colors and shapes.
Martagon hybrids: Derived from Eurasian Turk’s cap lilies, Martagon lilies prefer cooler, shadier conditions and feature petals that curl upward and back. As with Asiatics hybrids, Martagons come in myriad colors; however, many in this group may also feature bold markings and light scents.
Trumpet lilies: Often scented, the trumpets are a showy group primarily named for their flowers’ classic funnel-like shapes. Trumpet lilies usually begin blooming in mid- to late summer.
Oriental lilies: Oriental lily blooms are often fragrant, large, and striking. But lilies in this group can be tricky to care for. One of the best known of the Oriental lilies is the Star Gazer variety.
What does a lily bulb look like?
Similar to tulips and daffodils, lilies grow from true bulbs, rather than from corms, rhizomes, or tubers. A lily bulb is made up of a series of scales which are attached to a flat base. You might notice some dried roots emanating from this point. This is the bottom of the bulb and should face down during planting.
The best growing conditions for lilies
Lilies grow best in rich, well-draining soil, and, while most lilies thrive in full sun, Martagon lilies do well in some shade. If you live in a very hot climate and your garden gets several hours of direct sunlight, you may need to take extra care to ensure that your lilies’ roots don’t get overheated. Keep plants watered and protect their root zones with an extra layer of mulch as needed.
Why knowing when to plant lily bulbs is important
To a degree, knowing when to plant lily bulbs depends on the varieties you choose. For example, many Asiatic lilies flower in early summer while others like the Beverly Dreams Orienpet lily bloom much later. As for why your planting times matter? You’ll get the very best show if your bulbs have had a good opportunity to establish healthy roots before their expected bloom times.
When to plant lily bulbs: 2 options
When determining when to plant lily bulbs, you have a couple of good choices—either in early spring or during the fall. As a general rule, late-bloomers can be planted in early spring and earlier flowering lilies should be planted in autumn. (Just don’t plant bulbs so late in the fall that they freeze before they have enough time to become established!)
Planting lilies in the spring
Remember that, in part at least, deciding when to plant lily bulbs depends on the bloom times of your chosen varieties. Early spring is a good time to plant any potted lily plants you may have as well as lily bulbs for varieties that won’t bloom until late summer or early fall.
- Dig a few inches below the area where you’ll be positioning your bulbs and amend the soil if needed. (For heavy clay soils, mix in compost or well-rotted manure. Both of these amendments improve soil structure and drainage.)
- Line the bottom of your planting bed with chicken wire to discourage moles, voles, mice, and other burrowers from snacking on your lily bulbs. (Bend the metal edges up all the way around the perimeter of your dug-out area to create a protective cage.)
- Add soil to the bottom of the planting bed so that your lily bulbs can be positioned at depths appropriate for their size.
- Place bulbs in the planting bed and cover with soil.
- Top this area with another section of chicken wire to discourage any animals digging from above. Add a little more soil as well as a few inches of shredded bark or leaf-mold mulch.
Planting lilies in the fall
Your first average frost date is another important factor to keep in mind as you consider when to plant lily bulbs. While fall is a good time to plant early-flowering lily varieties, you need to make sure new plantings will have several weeks to establish viable roots before temperatures plummet. For fall-planted bulbs, follow planting instructions one through five from the previous section.
Alternatively, you can prepare your fall planting beds in spring or summer and then top with a heavy layer of mulch to suppress weeds and keep the soil temperatures elevated. Once you’re ready to plant your bulbs in the fall, move the extra mulch aside and finish with steps three through five from the previous section.
Preparing lily bulbs for planting
Before planting your lily bulbs, examine them for signs of rotten roots, mold, or disease. Discard any bulbs that are obviously too damaged or desiccated to be viable. A healthy lily bulb should feel solid and firm to the touch. Bulbs that seem squishy or too lightweight in your hand may no longer contain enough stored nutrients to thrive. For mushy roots, you can try using a clean, sharp knife or shears to trim these away and see if they’ll grow.
How deeply to plant lily bulbs
Once you’ve decided when to plant lily bulbs, you need to determine how deeply to plant them for the very best results. Because lily bulbs vary in size, the planting depth you choose for them will also vary accordingly. Bury very small bulbs three (7.5 cm) to four inches (10 cm) below the soil line. Bury larger bulbs five (12.5 cm) or six inches (15 cm) down. (There is at least one exception to this general rule. The Madonna lily prefers shallow planting. Cover these bulbs with just an inch of soil.)planting a lily bulb using a soil knife
How far apart to plant lilies
As with planting depth, when spacing bulbs, consider their size. Position small bulbs several inches apart. Give large bulbs a wider berth—about one-and-a-half feet apart is usually adequate.
You should also take into account any stakes you may need to include in order to support especially tall lilies. Rather than blindly driving stakes in once your plants are up, you can position stakes when planting. This will greatly reduce the likelihood of damage to your bulbs.
What could go wrong
As for the plants themselves? Here are some potential problems and ways to prevent them:
No blooms: Inadequate light or bulb damage or disease are a few possible factors. Examine your growing conditions and move your bulbs if need be.
Yellowing, stunted growth and rotted bulbs: Several viruses and fungi can cause deformed or discolored leaves and, potentially, lily death. Botrytis, also known as “lily disease,” is among the most common. It usually begins as a series of brown spots and progresses to kill whole leaves. Remove the affected foliage as soon as possible, always discarding it well away from your lily bed. Diseased plants with badly yellowed, wilted, or deformed foliage should be dug up, bulb and all.
Visible damage from insect pests: Soon after lily foliage emerges, the red lily beetle may make itself at home, chewing through leaves and laying their orange, oblong-shaped eggs. Mitigate infestations by hand-picking the beetles, their eggs, and larvae from the plants.
Aphids are another problem pest. They puncture leaves, facilitating the spread of disease. Hand-picking these early and often can keep their numbers down. For overwhelming infestations, you might want to apply an insecticidal soap. However, these products kill pests and beneficial insects indiscriminately.
Nibbled foliage and flowers: You’ve protected your bulbs underground, but what about above-ground varmints? Deter deer and rabbits with animal repellants, or keep them out with temporary garden fencing.
Keep lilies away from pets
From their leaves to their flower petals, stamens, and pollen, every part of a lily is toxic to cats. (Lilies can also affect dogs, but not as seriously.) If your pets chew lily leaves, sniff dropped petals, or lick up fallen pollen grains, contact your vet immediately.
When to plant lilies in container gardens
If you’re looking for a splash of color during the middle of winter, you can always force bulbs by planting them in pots indoors and topping with a little peat moss. Keep these pots in a warm, sunny spot inside and enjoy the show while you wait for warmer days to come.
But what about planting lilies in large containers outdoors? Early spring or fall are both suitable, depending on the lily variety and its anticipated bloom time. When you’re ready to plant, choose containers that have good drainage. Fill with a lightweight potting mix, and plant bulbs three (7.5 cm) to six inches (15 cm) below the soil line, depending on their bulb size. (See “How deeply to plant lily bulbs” above.)
To keep chipmunks, squirrels, and other rodents from disturbing your bulbs, bury a section of chicken wire just below the soil line and top with mulch.
Watch a video of lily bulbs being planted in a garden and in a container:
Growing lilies is as simple as providing a rich, well-draining spot in full or partial sun; choosing a planting depth that’s appropriate for your bulb size; following the right fertilizing and watering schedules; and fending off insect and animal pests. So, whether you’ve purchased a variety of different lily bulbs or you’ve scored some live plant divisions from a friend, you should be able to coax truly jaw-dropping blooms out of your lilies for years to come.
Other bulbs to plant for summer and fall
- Growing elephant ears in pots
- Long-blooming allium varieties
- How to grow saffron crocus
- Planting dahlias in pots