There are thousands of varieties of lilies available - where do you start? Plantsman Graham Rice offers some tips
The pictures of lilies on garden centre racks look glorious – and, for once, the pictures don’t lie. Lilies are glorious. And, if you’re tempted by those garden centre packs, that’s a great way to start.
As a simple rule of thumb, those lilies on garden centre racks are likely to be easy to grow – the bulb companies only put out the easy ones this way. Take a look at the instructions on the back of the ones you especially like the look of, and see if they need acid soil (which is what you have if you can grow rhododendrons) or alkaline soil – and pick the ones that suit your conditions.
'Grand Cru' (yellow with red throat, Asiatic); 'Eyeliner' (white with green throat, Longiflorum Asiatic); 'Stargazer' (pink picotee, Oriental)
If you prefer to buy through mail order, look for three groups: Asiatic Hybrids, which are very tough, easy to grow but have no scent; Longiflorum Asiatic Hybrids which are happy on all soils and some of which are scented; Oriental Hybrids are colourful and highly scented but need acid soil – although they enjoy life in containers of ericaceous compost.
The recently-introduced 'tree lilies' are monster Orientals and they really are dramatic. Carrying dozens of 15-20cm flowers on stems up to 2.5m tall, if you’re looking for impact look no further. They persist well from year to year and their stems are so stout that they rarely need support.
Look out, too, for martagon lilies which are among the most dependable and robust. Best in a little shade, their prettily reflexed flowers are usually nicely speckled although the pure white Lilium martagon ‘Album’ (see photo) is one of the loveliest of all. And super-scented regal lilies, L. regale, with their huge white trumpets, are the ones to plant in difficult situations as they tolerate ordinary soil and increase well as long as they have some sun.
Recommending specific varieties is a bit of a gamble as different garden centre and online suppliers stock their own choice from the thousands available.
How to grow lilies in the garden
Plant the bulbs any time from now until March (autumn is preferred), in sun or partial shade, with 15cm (6in) of soil above them in rich, fertile but well-drained conditions. I feed mine every two weeks from flowering until they start to deteriorate. Don’t forget to deadhead.
As to looking after them… My tips are: don't let them dry out, feed them regularly, keep them free of aphids (aphids spread debilitating virus diseases) and if you see any red beetles on the plants – squash them.