how to plant, grow & care for lilies
- Written by:
- Sarah Raven
- Last updated:
complete growing guide
Lilies are among the superstars of the summer garden. They are glamorous, often headily fragrant and quite heart-stoppingly beautiful. On summer evenings their scent can be ravishing and the paler-hued lilies appear to glow as darkness falls.
There are lilies with large, elegant trumpet-shaped flowers and others that are more open-faced and starlike. There are delicate, airy lilies with petals that curve back on themselves that naturalise well in light shade. Pots filled with lilies can line a path for a special occasion, or be positioned in a border for added drama. Planted at the foot of a wall in a sheltered spot they will return year after year, providing perennial pleasure. Our selection of lily bulbs features the best of each type of lily.
- Common name: Lily
- Latin name: Lilium
- Type: Perennial bulb
- Height: From 40cm (16in) to 2m (6ft), depending on variety
- TLC rating: Easy
- Aspect: Full Sun or Part Shade
- Planting position: Borders, Containers
- Suitable for pots: Yes
- Good for pollinators: Yes
- Good for cut flowers: Yes
how to grow lilies
where to grow lilies
Soil type: Lilies grow well in most fertile garden soils. On my heavy clay soil, I add 2cm (1in) of sand or horticultural grit.
Aspect & position: Plant your lilies in sun or light shade where they won’t be disturbed and ideally in a sheltered spot to prevent wind damage and allow their delicious fragrance to hang in the air. Lilies are reliably perennial – reappearing year after year - so bear this in mind when you choose where to plant them. Most colours stay better with some shade, especially the pinks.
when to plant lilies
You can plant lilies any time during the autumn, winter or early spring, whether you are planting them in the ground or in pots. As long as your bulbs are in by the end of March, they will be fine.
how to plant lilies
planting lily bulbs in the ground
I always plant lilies in clumps of three to five. Without these numbers you get a very dotty effect.
Dig a hole for each group at least 20cm (8in) deep. I dig out a trench or shallow hole, taking up as much space as I have room for between other plants. It’s just one big hole, dug at the same time, not lots of mini cores. They can also be planted using a large diameter bulb or potato planter.
Plant them pointy end up and don’t worry if the bulbs have a sprout. Plant them with the sprout just above the ground and, even if it is bent, it will right itself in three to four weeks. Spread a 2in/5cm layer of grit all over the bottom. Drainage is the most important thing.
All lilies flower better and live longer if the soil is not cold and clammy. They prefer to have their feet in the shade and head in the sun. Mark clearly wherever you plant a lily bulb so you don’t accidentally slice through it later.
growing lilies in pots
On heavy, clay soils, the best way to grow lilies is in pots, either in ornamental containers or black plastic ones that you can drop into borders where you want extra flowers. Plant the bulbs using a loam-based compost mixed with grit, two thirds compost to one third grit.
how to care for lilies
Water your lilies freely during the growing season, especially when grown in pots. Avoid overwatering.
Lilies like to be fed while they are growing. Ideally give them a liquid potash feed (e.g. tomato feed) every two weeks as well as top dressing with a slow release fertiliser.
Tall lily varieties will need support to stop them flopping but be careful to avoid damaging the bulbs when you are pushing in the stakes.
After the petals have dropped, break off the flowerhead or cut back to just above a pair of leaves.
Some lilies grow bulbils along their stems that you can pick off in autumn and sow in a seed tray of multipurpose peat-free compost. Pot them on as they grow – and be patient, it can take three years for them to reach flowering size.
If clumps of lilies become overcrowded, they can be dug up and divided in the autumn when the leaves have died back. Carefully dig around the clump and lever it upwards and remove the bulbs one at a time. Shake off the surplus soil, trim the stem back to 15cm (6in) and replant bulbs, ideally in a new spot. There will be smaller bulbs too and these can be potted up to grow on to flowering size.
Lilies grown in containers don’t mind the cold but they hate winter wet so move them into a cold frame, if you have one, or cover the pot with a cloche or anything else that will keep the rain off.
- Plant lily bulbs in the garden or in pots by the end of March.
- Water in dry spells.
- Water regularly with a liquid feed every two weeks, especially if you are growing lilies in pots.
- Cut stems to bring indoors or deadhead each flower when the petals drop.
- Cut stems back to 15cm once the leaves have fallen.
- Divide crowded clumps and replant in fresh soil.
- Move pot grown lilies to a cold frame or cover the pot to keep the wet out.
pests, diseases & common issues
The dreaded lily beetle is a handsome beast but it is also a destructive pest with very poor hygiene. When its larvae hatch they take up residence on the underside of the leaves and coat themselves in their own excrement. They then set about shredding the leaves and a bad infestation can destroy a plant.
Start patrolling your lilies as soon as they emerge, looking for the bright red beetles. Approach with caution, if your shadow falls on the plant, or you touch the leaves, it will drop to the ground, lie on its back and be impossible to spot. I find that putting a hand underneath the leaf where it is perched works quite well (use a yogurt pot or a match box if you would rather not touch it). I then tap the plant and catch it as it falls. I squish them, but you may prefer other methods.
Lily beetles start to emerge in early spring and will target your lilies right through to June. Look out for them on any early flowering fritillaries (including Fritillaria imperialis) before your lilies emerge.
slugs & snails
Slugs and snails will feast on lilies, especially the young growth – a protective layer of sharp grit will deter them, as will wildlife friendly slug pellets, or a regular night patrol to remove them.
Vine weevils can kill lilies by eating the roots and the base of the bulb. If you tug gently on the stem and it comes up in your hand you may have an infestation. Check your plants by torchlight at night when the grey-brown adults will be silhouetted on the leaf edges and pick them off. Alternatively, use a biological vine weevil killer.
A fungal disease that causes oval brown spots on the leaves. This can spread and destroy the leaves. Collect and destroy any affected part of the plant and dispose of it before it falls to the ground and spreads the infection.
Basal rot is a fungal infection that can cause the roots and the base of the bulb to rot. Dig up and destroy any affected lilies and do not replant lilies in the same spot as the fungus can continue to lurk in the soil.
why are my lilies dying?
It could be lily beetles; a bad infestation can destroy a plant. If there are lots of holes in the leaves and nasty black gunk on the underside of the that’s a sure sign. Or it could be vine weevils - if you tug gently on the stem and it comes up in your hand you may have vine weevils eating the roots and base of the bulb.
why are my lilies drooping?
Lilies are thirsty plants – make sure you water regularly while they are growing and flowering but avoid overwatering.
what eats lily bulbs?
Vine weevils will kill the plant by eating the roots and base of the bulb, rodents can be a problem and a hungry deer or rabbit will nibble anything!
why are my lily leaves turning brown?
It could be a fungal disease called Lily disease - oval brown spots appear on the leaves and can spread and ultimately kill them. Collect and destroy any affected part of the plant and dispose of it before it falls to the ground and spreads the infection.
why are my lily bulbs not growing?
The bulbs may have dried out before or after planting. Bulbs should be plump and fleshy when you plant them.
frequently asked questions
are lilies poisonous to cats and dogs?
Yes, especially to cats. Outdoors they should be grown out of reach of pets and when used indoors as cut flowers they should have their stamens removed as the pollen is highly toxic for cats.
are lilies perennials?
Yes, the bulbs will reappear year after year if given the right care.
do lilies need full sun?
No, light shade is fine. Many are plants of woodland edges so a mix of sun and shade is ideal.
do lily bulbs multiply and spread?
Yes, each bulb will grow new bulbs from the base of the bulb and lilies also produce bulbils that grow in the leaf joints along the stem. They will spread, especially if they are growing in a sheltered spot in fertile well-drained soil.
can lilies grow in pots?
Yes, lilies do very well in pots.
can lilies survive frost?
Yes, they don’t mind the cold, but when grown in pots they need protection from winter wet.
will deer eat lily bulbs?
A hungry deer may browse your lilies, but they won’t eat the underground bulbs.
do squirrels eat lily bulbs?
Yes, it seems that all rodents are partial to most bulbs – plant deep and add some holly leaves to the planting hole as a deterrent.
can lily bulbs be left in the ground?
Yes – it’s a good idea to give them a mulch in spring to protect the new shoots from late frosts.
will lily bulbs bloom in the first year?
Yes, lilies will flower in the first year.
what to grow with lilies
Lilies look wonderful grown amongst ornamental grasses, or with cottage garden plants including lavender and phlox. They have a place in any herbaceous border growing among the roses, salvias, hardy geraniums and other hardy perennials. Martagon lilies are an eye-catching addition to a wildflower meadow.
how to cut & arrange lilies
Unless you have a large cutting garden you probably won’t want to pick your lilies. I grow plenty in pots so I can bring them inside when they are in flower to admire their beauty close-up and be surrounded by their heady scent. If you do have an abundance of lilies be sure to leave enough stem and foliage for photosynthesis and food storage when cutting them. Strip anthers from the stamens to prevent sticky pollen.
Get more inspiration for displaying your flowers with our flower arranging videos: