The Cottage Smallholder

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How to get the best from your lilies


Photo: My favourite lily - Muscadet

Photo: My favourite lily - Muscadet

I’m embarrassed to admit that until last week I didn’t know that most lilies prefer acid soil. I knew that most of them thrive in a well drained sunny site but I never investigated the soil aspect. Again I think that acquiring gardening knowledge is a time thing. No pack informs you that you need a slightly acid soil. Clearly, withholding this information will sell more bulbs. For the past 18 years I reckoned I had all the answers and planted my lily bulbs with gay abandon. Always with a decent layer of 5 cm of horticultural grit but just that and a bit of fertiliser.

Last week’s knowledge was a bit of a shock. I immediately tested our soil – it’s very alkaline with a ph of 8+. No wonder that lilies planted in our borders flowered haltingly in their first year and then just vanished without a whisper. The lilies planted in pots do much better so I assumed that this is where they want to be. We have some beautiful Muscadet lilies that always flower around Seraphina’s birthday in July and have done for the last 17 years. With no top dressing or feeding – this is recommended every couple of years. I’m blushing now I realise how these poor lilies must have struggled over the years. Note the leaves in the photograph – they are greenish yellow and this indicates poor feeding.

So I decided to do a bit of research as I wanted to plant some Oriental lilies in our borders. Most people advise to grow them in pots filled with ericaceous compost. A few people advised how to change the soil from alkaline to acid without hurling in compost. Apparently the trick is to use a fertiliser for acid loving plants and add broken down sawdust (our chickens produce this in vast amounts), sequestered iron, leaf mould, manure, pine needles or old pennies.

The latter are the pre decimalisation ones and used to be used to turn hydrangeas from pink to blue in my childhood garden in Torquay. I do have a stash of old pennies but decided to keep them back as a last resort. I invested in ericaceous compost for the pots and sequestered iron for the soil. All feeding will be down the organic ericaceous route.

There are some lilies that insist on ericaceous compost. The later flowering lilies speciosum Rubrum and Album in particular.  There are a few lilies that will thrive in any soil –Martagon and the old Tiger Lily are fine with almost any soil. The number one requirement for all lilies is good drainage. (Only the Leopard Lily is an exception here). I also discovered that lilies need a lot of sunshine but cool roots. So I’m choosing perennial geraniums to keep their feet happy.

Lilies are amongst my favourite flowers so I’m delighted to have been given the time to discover some of the answers to giving them the best possible chance.

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  1. Andrea Steverson

    I have been growing lilies in my alkaline clay soil for years without them or me realising this was a taboo.
    My Goliath or Tree Lilies are the envy of all my friends and are the love of my life. My Muscadets seem to be thriving .i thought my stargazers were Doing well but have noticed that only half of than have emerged this spring….I assumed because of the wet winter. Regales and Pink Perfection also have been doung well for years. All my Asiatics are doing well. The only problem I have had is with Auratum which went very yellow a year after planting ….so I grow it in a pot now. Have only just yesterday discovered that my recently acquired Speciosum Rubrums are lime haters….like the Auratums… whether to take a chance and plant them out with extra ericaceous compost/feed and coffee bags etc…..or whether to play safe and plant them in pots??….Tallulah

  2. Steelkitten

    I didn’t know that either!! Explains why all my Lillies died…

  3. ChickPea

    I agree with you – acquiring garden knowledge is definitely a time thing – probably a life time thing (or more for someone like me who absorbs garden lore like a brick……..!)

    Thank you for your never-ending supply of fine posts – I always enjoy calling by.

    Greetings & All Best Wishes to you, D, Min Pins and, of course, the chooks…….. x

  4. Lily beetles out in force today- 10 on one group of particularly delicious lily shoots, and eggs too. Grrrr!
    Lilies love to be fed lots, so they respond fast to the right treatment and equally fast to poor treatment- anything looking a but yellow this time of year would love some sequestrine, one feed should last a season.
    Coffee grounds in your compost heap will make it more acidic.

  5. Thanks for this, I didn’t know that either Fiona. I think I might need to try keeping the soil acidic around my lilies. As well as waging war on the lily beetles as well!

  6. I brought a day lily last year which did flower and this year got 10 free asiatic lilies which I have potted in 3’s and then once sprouted spikes planted the whole pot shape into the border. I also brought some beautiful eyeliner lilies which i did the same with potted first and then transferred to the border. I haven’t got a clue what my soil is ( its very clayie) but the borders over the last 3 years have had tonnes of old compost from baskets pots and veggy garden dug into it when those places had a new top up. I’m hoping they grow now was so looking forward to having loads of blooms this summer to pick for in the house 🙁 I’ll have to water those places with cold tea in the hope of giving them what they need.

  7. Natasha

    Camelias are the same as well…I have just repotted mine into some ericaseous compost and it immediately looked happier

  8. Hi Fiona,
    I bought 4 blueberry plants yesterday, and was wondering how to keep the soil acid, around them, I’d forgotten all about pine needles and sawdust, and never heard of old, old pennies. I live in
    Danmark, so could not get hold of any here and now, although my mother (in England) probably has some.

  9. brightsprite

    This is interesting news, Fiona – I didn’t know this either. However, in France our garden is on limestone, so very alkaline, and my Mother suggested using cold tea and used tea bags. Our two magnolias that I grew from seed are planted there, and I wondered why the leaves were yellow. Since showering them with cold used tea, and teabags placed around the soil, they are now thriving. So too was our strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) until it succumbed to the frost – it was -13 degrees in January.
    Another tip from her was to put cut-up banana skins around the roses – they too are doing well. Some old remedies do work !!

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