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A lesson learned: why I don’t grow lilies in the ground

I adore lilies of many kinds: true lilies, Day lilies, Peruvian lilies, anything lily-esque, in fact, and I’m grateful to be in a place where I can grow them all reasonably successfully.

But whilst I’ve always been happy to sling most kinds out into the borders to take their chance – especially Day lilies, which are as tough as old boots! – I’ve never felt inclined to do that with true lilies, ie. Lilium species, and have always chosen to grow them in pots.

This is for two main reasons.

Firstly, keeping them in containers allows for precise control of the growing media, which needs to be moist but relatively free-draining. My garden soil, despite improvement over the years, tends to waterlog in winter and dry out too easily in summer, so my assumption has always been that it would not provide reliably favourable conditions for lily cultivation.

Secondly, growing in containers enables me to keep a much closer watch on pests, mainly slugs, snails and lily beetles, all of which are a massive nuisance in most years. Being able to lift and turn the pots means that I can inspect them from all angles, which would be extremely awkward if they were planted in the ground. Also, I am prepared to use slug pellets in containers since the victims do not travel far and I can dispose of them without hedgehogs, birds etc. coming into contact with them, which means that I can effectively protect the succulent new shoots of lilies at their most vulnerable time. I prefer not to use metaldehyde pellets on the ground, so anything planted in the borders has to survive without that protection, and I’ve always assumed lilies would struggle with that.

But this spring, having some spare lily bulbs to hand, I decided to try a little experiment.

The previous summer I foolishly purchased 10 lily bulbs (from a shopping channel, as it happens) which had supposedly been held back so that when planted, would flower in October/November time and provide a most unusual and unseasonal display.

Of course, they did nothing of the sort, and not one flower deigned to appear before the first frost in November cut them down, so I then had to decide what to do with them – they would likely flower at the normal time in the next year (June/July), so they were definitely worth keeping.

Having weighed up my options for a while, I chose to re-plant 5 in a large pot and put the other 5 out into the ground to see how they would do.

I duly prepared the soil by digging in compost and manure, along with a handful of granular feed for good measure, planted the bulbs at twice their depth, and crossed my fingers.

Both sets were delayed by the low temperatures we experienced in the early part of the season, but eventually they got going, and initially there was little difference between them.

However, as soon as the slugs and snails began to be active, it became apparent that emerging lily stems are every bit as appealing to them as I thought they would be. Those in the pot, which I pelleted, remained unharmed, but I quickly lost 4 out of the 5 in the ground, eaten to nothing more or less overnight. Whether they have completely given up the ghost or will try to re-grow next year, I don’t know – I might have a dig around and see if there’s anything left that I can salvage.

As for the survivor, even though it has grown, it doesn’t look at all healthy:

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It is small, and the yellowing of the leaves suggests a deficiency to me, possibly iron. My soil is mildly alkaline, and this might be a more acid-loving species – I don’t actually know which one it is, unfortunately.

The lack of vitality is especially obvious when compared to the pampered pot-grown specimens:

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No contest, really. The plants are much taller, the foliage is a rich green and the flowerbuds are much larger and fatter.

So it would appear that in my garden, lilies in pots are definitely the way to go if I want to avoid massive losses and produce healthy plants, which, of course, I do!

A lesson learned, indeed.

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