sarah's favourite summer-flowering bulbs

Sarah discusses her favourite summer-flowering bulbs, including the very best lily varieties.

It’s often easy to think that when you’re planting bulbs in the autumn, you just want tulips, alliums, maybe hyacinths and narcissi. But, I would say don’t forget a few lilies in there too, and that’s because this is one of my favourite plants in the world, in any month of the year; Lilium regale. It’s just the most sumptuous, glamourous, delicious, scented, beautiful, beautiful thing. And we have them planted here in dappled shade, under the catalpa tree, in the Dutch Yard, and that’s because it’s quite sheltered so the scent really pools, and you can walk through this in the evening and you just feel like you’re in some incredible Byzantine cathedral, just full of wonderful incensey fragrance, I adore them. And as with all lilies, just look at that incredible colouring, which is highlighted by the amazing stamens, and it’s of course the stamens that give a lot of the lilies their invincible scent.

There is one downside to lilies of course, which is that naughty, bright scarlet lily beetle, which is a real pain, and you have to get rid of them. We wouldn’t ever use an insecticide here, so for us it’s manual removal, and certainly when they first appear in May into June, it’s practically a daily task, and then by this stage when they’re flowering you’ll find that there are lots of the grubs, which in fact are on the underside of the leaf, and those then hatch in to the next lifecycle of the lily beetle and you need to keep on top of both those stages in the lifecycle because otherwise they can completely defoliate a whole stem of any of the lilies, and then they won’t flower.

One of the other reasons that I think people maybe don’t quite realise why lilies are so brilliant and actually quite good value, is that they naturalise, and this one I planted five years ago, and when it first appeared the next summer, I was slightly disappointed, it had maybe three or four flower heads, and I thought “Um, ok”, but ever year, it has another three of four, until now, five years on, it’s literally got about twenty, and that’s what happens because the bulb gets bigger and bigger, and also, not just that, the bulb forms offsets, so you see little babies forming in the skirts of the mother, and you can see that happening so actively here, these were only planted literally the autumn before last, so this is their second season, but you can see even in that time, all these little scales of the lily bulbs are starting to form little plants, and even this one is actually flowering, so we only put ten bulbs in here, but it’s already turned into maybe thirty little offsets. They won’t flower the first year, they might not even flower the second year, but they will, and they’ll go on getting bigger and better every year.

So, I think definitely lilies have to be in my bulb planting schedule and I also love the Eremurus, the Foxtail Lily, the vertical firework display, but sadly they don’t love us, because they are like bearded iris, they really like incredibly freely draining soil, so you want to dig out your soil if you’re on clay, and literally do half grit, half soil and then put it back in, and they look like an octopus, they’ve got sort of many different legs coming out in each direction, and just mound them up on a little heap of grit, and then cover with the grit soil mix.

And then for picking, I like the more modest, lovely little flower called the Triteleia, or Brodea, is another beautiful summer flowering bulb which makes a fantastic cut flower, it lasts nearly two weeks in water, absolutely amazing. This garden would be a lesser place without its lilies.

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