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day lilies with butterfly

A swallowtail butterfly lands on an Asiatic lily.

The large, showy blooms of lilies add colorful elegance to the midsummer yard and garden, and fall is the best time to plant them.

Grown from bulbs, lilies are perennial flowers that will return year after year and require minimal care, provided they are planted in the right place.

Here are some questions about lilies with answers from horticulturists at Iowa State University Extension, Ames. To have more questions answered, contact Hortline at hortline@iastate.edu or 515-294-3108.

Q: When is the best time to plant lilies?

A: Early fall is an excellent time to plant Asiatic, Oriental and other garden lilies. Plant lily bulbs at a depth equal to three times their diameter. Container-grown lilies can also be planted in spring and summer. Plant container grown lilies at the same depth as in the pot.

Q: When would be a good time to dig and divide lilies?

Early fall is an excellent time to dig and divide Asiatic, Oriental and other garden lilies. Carefully dig up the clump, separate the bulbs and cut off the stems just above the bulbs.

Replant the bulbs immediately. (If planting must be delayed, place the bulbs in a plastic bag containing lightly moistened potting soil or sphagnum peat moss and place the bag in the garage or a refrigerator.)

Plant the large bulbs 4 to 6 inches deep. Small bulbs should be planted 1 to 2 inches deep. Large bulbs may bloom the following summer. However, small bulbs may not bloom for two or three years.

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Q: What is a good planting site for lilies?

A: Most lilies perform best in well-drained, slightly acidic soils in full sun. (Sites in full sun receive at least six hours of direct sun each day.) However, Martagon lilies prefer partial shade (two to four hours of sun) and neutral to slightly alkaline soils.

Good soil drainage is imperative as lily bulbs may rot in poorly drained, wet soils. Raised beds are a good planting option in poorly drained locations.

Q: Can Asiatic, Oriental and other garden lilies be planted near tiger lilies?

A: Many lily enthusiasts do not grow tiger lilies (Lilium lancifolium) as they are often infected with lily mosaic virus. Lily mosaic virus causes little harm to tiger lilies. Oftentimes, you cannot even tell that they have the disease. However, aphids and other sap-feeding insects may carry the virus from tiger lilies to other types.

Many hybrid lilies infected with lily mosaic virus produce distorted foliage that is streaked or mottled. Also, infected plants produce fewer flowers and those flowers that do form are often deformed. Lilies exhibiting lily mosaic virus symptoms should be promptly dug up and discarded.

Q: Is it advisable to mulch fall-planted lily bulbs?

A: Yes, it’s beneficial to mulch fall-planted lily bulbs with several inches of straw or pine needles after planting. This is especially true for bulbs planted late in the season. A mulch delays the freezing of the soil, allowing the bulb’s roots to grow over a longer time period.

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