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How to grow lilies

Val Bourne

Gardening expert Val Bourne advises how to grow lilies, including which varieties can be naturalised in the garden.

Orange asiatic lilies
Asiatic lilies come in vivid colours including bright-yellow, fiery orange, deep-red and almost-black

Lilies are a complex group of plants, but you can simplify them into two distinct types, the Asiatic and the Oriental.

Oriental lilies

If you want heady fragrance you need to grow Oriental lilies and these have large, wide-mouthed flowers in combinations of pink, white or carmine. Their round to oval foliage tends to sparse, but varieties like the white 'Casablanca' and the pink 'Love Story' make an exuberant show.

Lilies need acid soil so most gardeners have to grow Oriental lilies in containers of ericaceous compost rather than in the ground.

Asiatic lilies

Asiatic lilies are not scented and their flowers tend to be smaller. However they come in vivid colours including bright-yellow, fiery orange, deep-red and almost-black. Given alkaline soil, they multiply quickly and they are very hardy. These versatile plants do well in alkaline soil, or in a container filled with either a peat-based or coir-based compost.

Where to plant lilies

In pots

All bulbous plants need good friable soil that’s well drained. Growing lilies in containers works well because their stubby roots will not be able to penetrate heavy clay soil and slugs will be less of a problem. Clay soil also gets cold in winter and lilies appreciate warmth.

In the ground

If planting lilies in the ground, either plant them on a slope to allow the water to drain away, or add coarse grit when planting.

Their ideal position is feet in shade and head in the sun.

When to plant

Generally lilies are best planted in the autumn when the bulbs are at their peak. This gives them time to establish before next summer. However, if you find good quality large bulbs in spring you can plant them then, although don’t buy any that are sprouting.

Most lilies do well in containers, although the pollen stains clothing, so tuck them away. They will perform well for two years, but just like tulips, it’s best to replace the bulbs and start again, particularly now that lily beetle is a problem.

How to plant

In pots

Many lilies do well in pots, although you will have to balance the taller varieties with larger, stable pots.

Plant at least seven or nine bulbs in each pot so they make a show.

Add vermiculite to the compost when planting: this insulator warms up the compost (aiding root development) and helps drainage too. Also add slow-release fertiliser like Osmocote.

In the ground

Add plenty of humus (garden compost or loam-based John Innes no 2) to the soil when planting.

Planting depth varies from six to eight inches, depending on variety.

Watering lilies

Keep the pots moist, but don’t over water or overfeed them. Lilies hate being wet. Make sure the water can drain away by standing your pot on feet.

Try not to splash the foliage when watering. Oriental varieties should be watered with soft rainwater because tap water tends to be alkaline.

Overwintering potted lilies

If you want to overwinter them then keep them as dry as possible by either putting them in a greenhouse, or laying the pots down on their sides.


Lily bulbs do not have a protective skin: their waxy flesh is exposed to the weather and pests like slugs can attack them.

The lily beetle

These bright red beetles ravage the foliage of lilies, but they often appear on fritillarias in spring too. Destroy any you see.

The scarlet lily beetle, Lilioceris lilii, was first noticed in 1939 when a colony was recorded in a private garden at Chobham in Surrey. Since then it has spread across the country and The RHS say that up to quarter of amateur gardeners have experienced them.

To avoid lily beetles,Gardening Which have suggested treating lilies as annuals and buying cold-stored bulbs in late May. By the time they get into leaf the beetles are less prevalent.

Naturalising lilies

Certain lilies can be left to multiply in the garden setting.

The Martagon (Lilium martagon)

The martagon lily thrives in dappled shade under deciduous trees and, if it’s happy, this demure Turk’s cap lily will self seed producing a mixture of white and dusky maroon flowers. It was one of the first lilies to be grown in British gardens and Gerard described it in 1596. Its common name comes from the style of 'martagon' turban adopted by the Turkish ruler, Sultan Mohammed 1 and the name Turk's cap was already in use by the sixteenth century.

Lilium martagon has the widest range of any lily, consequently it’s one of the easiest to grow. The finest colony can be found at Spetchley Park near Worcester. There are thousands of them carpeting the quarter of a mile between the house and the lake. The original seeds were almost certainly sown by Ellen Willmott in the 1880s. Once you have established a few, leave them to self seed.

The Regal Lily (Lilium regale)

This tall, white lily has proved a strong garden plant, but it’s best grown in a warm and sunny position. It was often placed under cottage windows, so that the scent pervaded the room, and it’s a great survivor in derelict gardens, even doing well on poor soil. Do not feed it, it prefers a lowly diet.

The Regal lily was originally discovered growing in the Min Valley (between Maoxin and Songpan) in 1903 by Ernest 'Chinese' Wilson. Hundreds grew on the hillside. Wilson recorded that "the blossoms of this lily transform a desolate and lonely region into a veritable flower garden". He stayed in the village of Sian Sou Qiao on September 3rd 1910 and wrote "I am certainly getting tired of the wandering life and long for the end to come". On the next morning Wilson’s party left in good spirits but Wilson suddenly noticed that his dog had stopped wagging his tail. Seconds later a huge rock fall occurred and Wilson suffered a compound fracture of his right leg and was forced to use his own tripod as a splint. He had to be carried to safety and forever afterwards he referred to his 'lily limp'. His plant collecting career was over. However Lilium regale proved to be a great success as a garden plant.

Excellent readily-available varieties

Colourful Asiatic lilies for alkaline soil

'Grand Cru' AGM
A yellow lily with a red bloth at the centre (100 cm).

'Orange Electric'
White with a bright-orange starry centre that fades to apricot (75 cm).

Semi-double soft-rose lightly speckled in maroon (80 cm).

Species lilies/hybrids

'Black Beauty'
Claret-red flowers with green throats. This tough lily survives well in the ground and seems tolerant of many soils (110 cm).

Scented oriental lilies for acid soil

'Casa Blanca' AGM
Large waxy pure white (120 cm)

A white with yellow midribs (90 cm)

'Little John'
A single pink with darker pink midribs (45 cm).


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.