A lush garden of lilies - no bulbs needed

It's a simple and inexpensive idea: Let your lilies form seeds that you can plant next year

What do a decrepit Georgian manor, a deceased British author, and lily seeds have in common?

The answer is, well, everything.

Fifty years ago British author and gardener Beverley Nichols wrote about how he fell in love with the Regale lilies growing in the kitchen garden of a run-down Georgian manor. The sea of dazzling white, trumpet-shaped blooms seemed endless, and the sweet fragrance that wafted toward him was intoxicating.

No matter that the house was falling to pieces, the orchard in shambles, and the main garden overrun with noxious weeds. He had to possess those flowers.

"That's a wonderful lot of Regales you've got there. Where did you get the bulbs?" Mr. Nichols asked the gardener.

The fellow snorted and replied in his thick Lancashire accent, "Boolbs? Boolbs? I didn't get boolbs. I grew 'em from a handful of seed."

As Nichols wrote in his book "Merry Hall," the gardener told him that lilies grown from seed could flower in three years, "though garden books say seven. But I don't allus hold wi' garden books."

Nichols bought the house, and held a party each July when the lilies bloomed. He sent every guest home with bunches of white lilies.

After reading this account, I decided I'd like to give growing lilies from seed a try. So after my lilies bloomed one summer, I left the flowers to mature.

Over the next few weeks the seedpods began to swell. Then in fall they split open along the seams, revealing six rows of flat brown seeds.

I gathered the seeds, and the next spring I dropped a few into pots filled with moist potting soil and lightly covered them with more damp potting soil. I watered and waited.

Weeks later tiny blades appeared, each still wearing the seed capsule like a miniature parasol. I left the seedlings in the pots the whole year, then separated and transplanted them into bigger pots the next year, and finally planted them in the ground the third year.

And some of them even bloomed that third year.

Today a dozen pots of lily seedlings sit under an oak tree in my yard. More than mere seedlings, they represent promise and beauty, and, come next year, those little blades will be stronger and bigger than before.

"Time is a friend," Nichols wrote, "giving each year more than it steals."

He's right. While it is satisfying to sink a plant into the earth and enjoy its foliage and flowers immediately, there is more reward in watching plants settle in, take hold, and become part of the landscape.

Had I not planted those seeds, I would have missed the wonder I felt watching those pencil-thin seedlings become fat stalks pushing up through the soil and eventually be crowned with masses of perfect, fragrant blossoms.

And truth be told, I even enjoy the twinge of smugness I feel when I tell visitors I grew my lilies from seed.

Then I cut bunches of flowers for them to take home.

How to grow lilies from seed

The easiest lilies to grow from seed are the Asiatic and trumpet types. They sprout within days or a few weeks, and begin to form a tiny bulb immediately. Other types of lilies, such as the Orientals, can take eight months to form a bulb and sprout.

If you have these lilies already growing in your garden, simply let the blooms fade and die; seedpods should then form.

When the seeds are ready to harvest, the pods will start to split open. One seedpod can produce up to 100 seeds. Left alone, the seeds will spill on the ground. Instead, collect them and store in a plastic bag labeled with the type of lily and the date you collected the seeds.

You can also purchase seed from companies such as J.L. Hudson (www.jlhudsonseeds.com), Park Seed (www.parkseed.com), or the Lily Garden (www.angelfire.com/wa3/lilygarden).

Self-described "lily-holic" Barbara Small of Sacramento, Calif., stores her bags of lily seeds in the refrigerator during the winter. Come spring, she gets ready to plant.

"I can't emphasize drainage enough," says Ms. Small. "Choose a potting soil that has really, really, really good drainage."

If you plant in one-gallon containers, drop about a dozen seeds onto the soil, cover lightly, and keep them moist. Be careful to water them gently. Don't let them dry out, but don't overwater either. Then wait.

The seedlings look like fine blades of grass, although the seed capsule will often still be attached at first. Leave the seedlings in the pots until the following spring, then transplant them into bigger pots or into the ground.

If you're planting the young lilies in the garden, it's a good idea to put small stakes - bamboo skewers used for barbecuing work well, Small says - to mark where you've planted the bulbs. That way you don't accidentally dig them up or destroy them planting something else while the lilies are dormant in winter.

Don't forget to feed the lilies. "If you fertilize lightly and often, the bulbs will bloom sooner, Small says. Lilies usually get better every year, producing bigger and more blossoms.

To learn more about growing lilies, visit the North American Lily Society's website at www.lilies.org. The group also has a seed exchange where nonmembers, as well as members, can buy small quantities of lily seed.

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