Tuesday 30 April 2013

mixing it up a little...

Originally published in the December 2011 Quarterly Bulletin of the North American Lily Society, this isn't exactly cozy mystery material. What can I say?  I thought I'd mix The Peep's Cheeps up a little.

WARNING:  The following article contains explicit and blatant breaking of the rules and should not be read by those who cringe at rule breaking or risk taking.  Please do attempt this at home.


Growing Oriental Hybrids in Pots and Breaking all the Rules


There are a number of reasons why one might choose to grow lilies in pots… especially the oriental hybrids. These beautiful lilies require deep soil with a low ph and of course, good drainage. They also need a fairly long growing season. A garden lacking in any one of these conditions might tempt a gardener to break out the flower pots.

I am extremely fortunate when it comes to growing oriental hybrids. My garden soil is deep, well-drained, acidic (this is blueberry growing country so you know the ph is low) and we have a fairly long growing season. I grow as many oriental lilies in the garden as I have room (as they are my favourites). I certainly do not have to grow them in pots but often I do for several reasons, none of which are listed above.

Oriental lilies look beautiful in pots. The predominant whites, pinks & reds combine beautifully with the colour of terracotta. Sometimes, I choose to grow them in pots simply for aesthetics.

When grown in pots, these lilies can be brought to areas of the garden where you might not otherwise be able to grow them. Obviously, this would include any areas that are hardscaped . We have a north facing veranda which is lovely to escape to in the heat of summer. There is nothing more pleasant than relaxing on the veranda with the spicy fragrance of oriental lilies carried in the evening air. The veranda doesn’t get that much light however, because the bulbs are in pots, it’s not a problem. They spend most of the summer in a nursery area (nothing fancy required - a corner of a vegetable patch will do) and then just before they’re about to bloom, they are brought onto the veranda. After blooming, they go back to the nursery to rest up for winter. Almost everyone has a spot where they could enjoy orientals in this manner. 
Here in my zone 6a garden, the growing season is more than adequate for growing oriental hybrids although sometimes not quite long enough if seed is to be harvested. By growing all my pod parents in pots, I can easily move them into a protected area overnight if a heavy frost is in the forecast. To be honest, growing season aside, I’ve found growing the pod parents in pots to be easier anyway. It allows me better control over the process of pollination.
For me, the most frustrating part of growing oriental hybrids is a lack of availability. I forever live in hope of finding hybrids such as Pink Icicles, Seduction, Versailles & Lavender Lady not to mention Willeke Alberti, Arabian Red, Egypt, Red Empire & Black Tie. Tempted by beautiful pictures from catalogues past and lovely sounding names, I desperately want to find sources for these lilies. Unfortunately, temptation can lead one astray. I have been known to buy a lily from a less than reputable source simply because I really wanted that particular lily. Last spring, I spotted Stardrift at a local grocery store. The bulbs had been sitting in far too much heat for far too long and they felt a little soft in spots but I decided to risk it anyway. By growing them in a pot, I was able to pamper them with far more loving care than I could in the open garden. The result was only one stem with only one flower however it received a lot of TLC growing in that pot and I have high hopes for the future.

When grown in pots, my oriental lilies multiply like bunnies. There are always far more bulblets produced than when grown in the garden. The organic rich potting medium I use seems to delight these stem rooting lilies to no end. If I want more of a particular variety, potting one up is definitely the answer.

I’m almost embarrassed to admit my final reason for growing oriental lilies in pots but I will, as I suspect that I’m not alone on this count. Occasionally, I have been known to order more bulbs than I have prepared space. It’s the same old story… I order the bulbs months before it’s time to plant, thinking I have all the time in the world but let’s face it, time flies. Before I know it I have all these bulbs in my hand and no where to put them. That’s when pots really come in handy.

Now, we come to the part about breaking the rules…

I almost always use plastic pots. They’re cheaper, lighter, less likely to break, etc… and I buy them at the dollar store. (Granted, they’re no longer sold for a dollar but they’re still cheap.) I aim for the largest I can find which is usually about twelve inches in diameter and maybe ten inches deep. They’re sold as ‘planters’ rather than pots. They never have drainage holes - which they need - so you’ll need to invest in an electric drill and some drill bits. I use a ¼-inch bit as it’s the largest I have and find fifteen or sixteen holes to be adequate.

A pot of this size will hold three bulbs nicely although I often only plant one bulb per pot. Part of my reasoning is that I don’t like them to appear too crowded. Orientals are big plants with big flowers (I’m not a big fan of the smaller ‘pot’ orientals). I like to give them their space. And if my intent is to use a bulb as a pod parent, I only want one bulb in there. Extras will only get in my way.

I don’t place any gravel or pottery shards or anything else at the bottom of the pots. The lilies don’t need gravel for drainage. The drainage holes provide the drainage! All gravel does is occupy space that could otherwise be occupied by potting medium (which is a far better use of the space) and get in my way in the fall when it’s time for re-potting.

For those of you with weak stomachs, you might want to sit down to read this next bit. For a potting medium, I use a peat based, soil-less potting mix and well composted sheep manure. I don’t augment it with sand, additional perlite or anything else so often recommended to ‘lighten it up’. It’s 100% pure organic matter. And do you know what? It always works. My bulbs have never rotted. They thrive. In fact, the bulbs gain strength year after year, producing more and more blooms, just as if the were growing in the garden.

I do take the precaution of making sure the manure never actually touches the bulbs and making sure that it’s well-composted (commercially packaged with no smell) but that’s about it. I fill the bottom quarter of the pot with equal amounts manure and potting mix and toss in a small handful of a granular organic fertilizer. I top that with an inch of potting mix only (no manure, no fertilizer) upon which the bulbs sit. Then I add more straight potting mix in and around the bulbs until they are completely covered. Then an inch layer of manure only, a big handful of that same granular organic fertilizer topped with a little more manure, a layer of potting mix and a final layer of manure. If the pot is particularly deep you might need more layers but you get the picture. At this point I sometimes gently mix up the top layers with my fingers but one has to be so very careful in doing this (Remember, you mustn’t dig so deeply as to interfere with that layer of straight potting mix that is in direct contact with the bulbs.) that I often skip it. The bulbs are then ‘watered in’ with water to which a little kelp extract has been added. Make sure you give them enough - enough so that the water begins to flow out the drainage holes.

When potting bulbs purchased in the fall or repotting my own bulbs, this process takes place in late September or early October. Afterwards, I set the pots aside in a sheltered spot and pretty much ignore them until early to mid November when it really begins to get cold or snow is forecast. If they are rained upon I let it happen but I very rarely water them. I might water in October if the weather is unusually warm and dry.

I over winter the bulbs in our garage. (Our car has never seen the inside of the garage. There’s no room. It’s filled with lilies and potted hybrid tea roses.) It’s a free-standing, unheated garage and it gets pretty chilly in there during the winter. The soil in those pots definitely freezes. There is no doubt about that. The garage does not disallow freezing temperatures however it does protect the bulbs from repeated freezing and thawing cycles. And the lilies are always fine the next spring. You will need somewhere to over winter your potted lilies. They cannot just be left outdoors but my point is, the location doesn’t have to be frost free. Our garage is far from frost free and works just fine. It is however, dry. Once the lilies are in the garage, they receive no additional water. Not ever!

In mid April or so - once the gigantic mountain of snow in front of our garage melts (that’s where our ‘snowplough guy’ pushes all the snow from the driveway) - I bring out the pots of lilies. Could they be brought out earlier? Possibly, but I simply don’t have access to them until all that snow is gone. Once outside, they’re placed in a convenient spot for watering. I like this spot to be close to the garage in case of late frosts. Technically, we can have frost up until late May. If the noses of the lilies are not exposed, I don’t worry about impending frost but if there are any visible signs of growth, I pop the pots back into the garage on cold nights. 

Lilies purchased in the spring are planted when they arrive - in the very same manner - and placed in the same convenient spot as those brought out from the garage.

Lilies need sun. They need lots of sun. But they do like to have their roots kept a little on the cool side. Be aware of this when placing your pots for the summer. Don’t leave them in the hottest spot of the garden. Try to provide them with a little protection from the heat of the sun as the pots (especially the plastic ones) can heat up terribly quickly. If my potted lilies are in full sun, I like to place them on the north side of something low growing. Something that can shade the pots without shading the lilies. In the nursery area, I’ve found a few strategically placed bales of hay work very well.

When watering my potted oriental hybrids, I almost always add a little leftover coffee to the water. It’s loaded with micronutrients but more importantly, it helps keep the ph low. My garden soil is so acidic I never have problems with chlorosis but the potting medium in the pots is not as acidic. That, coupled with tap water can lead to problems.

The potted lilies will need watering more often than those grown in open ground. Yes, lilies need good drainage and they should never be left to rot in a soggy medium but they’re still pretty heavy drinkers. I never allow the soil in the pots to dry out. It’s too stressful for the plants and it can be next to impossible to re-hydrate some of those peat-based potting mediums. Think of it this way… lilies can handle and quite enjoy a drink or two in moderation but never let them loose on a binge. It’s just not healthy.

Like all potted plants, the key to fertilizing your lilies is to apply lighter feedings more often than what you would in the garden. I use an organic liquid fertilizer at half strength about once every ten days, starting when I first see growth in the spring and stopping just after flowering ceases. (I’ll often give the potted pod parents an additional application or two as I figure they need the extra nutrition to recover after producing all that seed.) There are a couple of commercial brands I like but my favourite liquid fertilizer is a very dilute chicken manure tea. If you know anyone who keeps a few chickens, befriend them. One big bag of chicken manure will supply you with enough tea for an entire season.

Once the leaves die back in late September, it’s time to start over again. The lilies have worked hard all summer and depleted much of the nutrition in the potting medium. By the end of the season, the soil in those pots is spent. I don’t like to ‘make do’ with simply top dressing so I choose to re-pot my lilies every year. Of course, I may choose to plant them into the ground at this point but if they’re going to grow in a pot again, they get fresh potting medium. Bulbs used as pod parents however, are often not ready for re-potting until early to mid November and by then, it’s getting pretty late in the season. These, I tuck safely away in the garage to deal with in the spring.

So there you have it… my reasons why I grow oriental hybrids in pots and how I do it. I did warn you that this article was not for the faint of heart. I may break a rule or two and yet it always works. Why don’t you try it for yourself? Buy a few cheaper bulbs this season… ones you don’t mind losing. Or dig up some of your extra Casa Blancas & Starfighters (those two multiply like crazy so there are always plenty to spare). I know, there are always risks in trying something new but who knows? You might be pleasantly surprised.


  1. Lilies are fascinating and incredibly gorgeous flowers....obviously you've got that green thumb thing going on and mine (sadly) is brown (my thumb that is) - at least when it comes to lilies. Perhaps when we move and finally settle in I'll get around to giving lilies a try again.....everybody deserves a second chance right? Wonderful blog....!


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