13 Tips For Growing Beautiful Lilies in Pots or Containers
Are you looking to grow some beautiful lilies in pots or containers this season? Gardening expert Melissa Strauss shares her top tips for growing beautiful lilies in pots or containers.
With their big blooms, striking foliage, and bright colors, lilies are perennial workhorses in the garden. Most are hardy in zones 4-9 (withstanding temperatures down to -30℉), but they can flourish in colder and hotter zones with some help.
The lily family of plants includes diverse bloom styles, colors, and sizes. Dwarf varieties are a natural choice for container gardening, but any lilies can be successfully grown in pots with a few key tips.
Many lilies are prolific spreaders when planted in the ground. Planting in containers keeps them in check while allowing you to move them anywhere you need a pop of color. Here, we’ll dive into 15 tips to grow lilies in containers. Let’s get started!
Pick the Right Container
Lily bulbs are adaptable and do well in a variety of conditions. To grow successfully in pots, think of their ideal environment: temperate conditions, well-drained soil, and a bit of room to spread.
Depth is the most critical consideration. Use a container that is at least 15 to 20 inches deep. Use at least a 10-inch (diameter) pot for one large bulb.
You can also plant several bulbs in the same container for more impact. For example, 3 to 4 small bulbs fit nicely into a 10-inch pot. But a larger container is always better for bigger bulbs.
Lilies are easy to grow, but they demand good drainage. Ensure your chosen container has drainage holes for water to flow freely through. You can also make your own with a drill or the heat of a hot glue gun if using plastic pots.
Many gardeners prefer terra cotta pots for lilies because the clay is breathable and looks classic. However, these can crack when exposed to repeat hard freezes. Lilies will do just as well in plastic or ceramic containers.
If you’d like to move them around to change up your garden’s look, consider lightweight Epic Grow Bags. They’re constructed from permeable felt that aids in drainage and helps roots breathe.
Lilies also look beautiful as an accent in raised beds (just make sure to dig out any new bulbs that show up where you don’t want them in spring). Raised beds allow you to grow lots of lilies together or interplant with companion plants for a spectacular display, all while managing the soil and drainage.
Try Birdie’s Metal Raised Garden Beds, made of durable galvanized steel and coated in long-lasting, non-toxic paint.
Choose the Right Spot
Potted lilies need at least 6-8 hours of sunlight. They enjoy mild climates and don’t like temperatures above 90℉. In hot weather, they may experience heat stress, wilting, and decreased bloom production. Planting in a container will allow you to move them to a cooler, shadier spot on hot afternoons.
If you only have shade, consider a variety like ‘Martagon’ or species lilies like Lillium superbum that can handle less sun.
Place lily containers near lavender, marigolds, and alliums, for added pest control.
Choose the Right Soil
Lilies are very forgiving and will grow well in many soil types. Their number one requirement is well-drained soil. A quality potting soil amended with perlite and compost will work well. If it looks heavy, add some sand for increased drainage.
You’ll find lots of online advice about filling the bottom of the container with rocks or terracotta shards to improve drainage. This actually creates an artificial water table that slows drainage and gives the bulbs less room to root. Instead, ensure the soil and container allow water to drain through, and amend as necessary.
Do not add lime to the soil. Lilies dislike lime (often used as a soil conditioner to reduce acidity) and will do well in most potted mixes, which already have their ideal pH of 5.5-6.5.
Pick your Variety
Lilies are a diverse family of plants with compact dwarf varieties and specimens that reach 6-7 feet tall! Let’s take a look at some garden-worthy options.
Oriental Lilies are an excellent beginner-friendly choice. They are tolerant of neglect and poor soils. These lilies flower slightly later than other varieties, providing exceptional end-of-season interest and color.
This is one of the most fragrant lily types, with an intoxicating perfume that has made them popular in cut flower arrangements. Blooms are striking and large, and many have interesting speckles and stripes.
Try ‘Star Gazer’ with up to 8 white-edged pink flowers per stalk, or the smaller ‘Souvenir,’ which stays 1-2 feet tall and has a gorgeous mounded look.
Asiatic Lilies are the hardiest of the lilies. This group is a hybrid of many Asian varieties, with most growing 2-5 feet tall and flowering in clusters. They reproduce freely and bloom early in the season. Their fragrance is mild, which is ideal for those who are sensitive to scents.
Try ‘Black Spider’ for a beautiful contrast of creamy blooms with deep maroon centers, or ‘Citronella’ for delicately speckled golden petals that nod from the stalks.
Rose Lilies have show-stopping double blooms and a longer vase life than most varieties. A cross between Oriental and Trumpet lilies, they’re bred to produce no pollen, limiting staining, toxicity to pets, and allergic reactions. Most have a lovely scent.
Try ‘Aisha,’ with lime green streaks on snowy white petals, or ‘Tatsjana’ with 6-inch violet blooms edged in white.
There are many other beautiful lily types to choose from.
- For a woodland look, check out wild varieties like the ‘Canada Lily’ or ‘Tiger Lily’, native to North America.
- Add drama with long-stalked Trumpet Lilies, some growing up to 8 feet tall.
- ‘Turk’s Cap’ or ‘Martagon’ have a fragile look, with dangling flowers and recurved petals. This is the best variety for shade.
Plant and Space Correctly
As a general rule, lily bulbs should be planted deep. This helps protect them from frost, excess heat, wind, and animals that might try to dig them up. Plant them at least 8-10 inches below soil level, or slightly deeper in areas with extremely cold winters.
Deep planting helps them develop strong stalks to support their large flower display. Some also root from the stem, so deep planting allows for more root development. If bulbs are large, plant them at least three times as deep as they are high.
Lilies are most often planted in groups of 3-5 for a fuller look. Dig their holes, then place each bulb pointy side up, with at least 10 inches between them.
Fertilize At Planting Time
It takes a lot of energy to produce those large, showy flowers! Lilies are what gardeners call “heavy feeders.” Use a balanced (NPK 10-10-10) slow-release granular fertilizer in the hole at planting time to give them a good start.
Every 6 weeks, give them another boost with organic kelp or alfalfa liquid fertilizer. Repeat the slow-release fertilizer annually in spring, applying and watering in just as sprouts emerge.
Water the Right Amount
Lilies like regular water but do not appreciate sitting in boggy soil. In containers, they will dry out more quickly. Check often for soil dryness, watering whenever the top few inches are dry.
- During the growing season, provide approximately an inch of water per week.
- Water at the base of the plant to prevent wet foliage that invites mold.
- Let the water flow until it drains through the bottom of the pot.
- Let it dry out a bit before watering again.
If your lilies are wilting from excess heat, move them to a shady area and place the entire container in a tray of water, letting roots absorb moisture from the bottom up. A couple of inches of mulch in the pot will help keep the roots cool and soil moist for longer.
Fix Flopping Plants
With their large flowers on long, tall stems, lilies can sometimes droop to the ground. This doesn’t mean anything is wrong with the plant. If you want to show off your lily blooms, keep them upright by staking or providing some support.
There are many ways to fix a flopping lily. You can use a standard tomato cage, bamboo stake, or a trellis. Whatever you choose, be careful when tying the stems. Use fabric or garden twine to secure them to your chosen support gently. You can remove it at the end of the season or leave it in place for next year.
Harvest the Blooms
Lilies make stunning bouquets. They have a long vase life of 12-14 days, and many emit enough fragrance to perfume an entire room!
To harvest your lily blooms, cut them early in the morning before the sun can damage them. Lily buds will continue to open indoors, so cut buds that are just beginning to open for the longest-lasting display.
Cut at a 45-degree angle for a larger surface area and better water absorption. Don’t take more than ⅔ of the stem. Remove any foliage that will sit below the water line, and place your flowers in the vase. Re-trim the stems and replace the water every few days.
Leave the Foliage
After blooms are spent, trim the stems and allow the foliage to die down naturally. This provides the bulb with the energy to produce new blooms in the spring. Thankfully, containers allow us to move them somewhere the unsightly withered leaves can take their time without detracting from garden aesthetics.
Once the foliage has turned completely brown and died to the ground in fall, you can gently clip and clear it off, or leave it until spring, removing old growth once the new sprouts emerge.
Divide as Needed
Lilies produce new bulbs beneath the soil, eventually growing into large clumps. Though they don’t mind a bit of crowding, they can become congested and produce fewer flowers over time.
Every 3-5 years, divide your lilies. You’ll give the bulbs room to breathe, increase flowering, and gain new plants to add to your garden or gift to friends.
Division is best done in early spring or fall when the plants are dormant. To divide:
- Water the soil thoroughly to soften it for easier digging
- If foliage has not been cut down yet, cut it to about 6 inches tall.
- Use a garden fork to dig out the clump and brush off the soil
- Use a sharp knife or your hands to pry apart the separate bulbs.
- Replant the bulbs or pot up as gifts!
- Newly transplanted bulbs may take a year or two to produce flowers.
Some lily varieties also produce bulbils at the leaf axils. They can also be removed and replanted. While spent flowers left on the stems can produce seeds, growing lilies from seed can take 7 years to reach maturity.
Watch for Pests
Lilies are robust garden plants that don’t need much fuss. However, they sometimes experience pest and disease issues. Here are some to watch for:
Scarlet Lily Beetles
These beetles originated in Asia but are now common in North America. They are bright red and ¼-½ inches long. They lay their rust-orange eggs on the underside of lily leaves. Their larvae look like little slugs with black heads and emerge in spring to feed on lily leaves. If left untreated, they can completely defoliate the plant.
The best control method for lily beetles is hand picking, which is easy to do thanks to their bright color. Interplanting with umbel-shaped flowers like yarrow that attract predatory wasps is another tactic, as these will attack the beetles.
Lilies are susceptible to two main fungal diseases:
- Botrytis: Affects growth above the ground
- Basal Rot: Harms bulbs below the soil
To prevent both, water only when the top few inches of soil are dry. This will prevent the bulbs from rotting in soggy soil. Aim the hose at the base of the plant to prevent wet foliage. Wet leaves provide a perfect spot for fungal diseases to flourish above the ground.
Symptoms of a sickly plant are yellow leaves, grey mold spots, weakened stems, and brown, rotted bulbs. Remove any affected foliage or bulbs immediately, and treat the remaining plants with a copper fungicide.
While most lilies will survive the winter just fine without protection (especially if planted deep enough), gardeners in frigid areas (zones 1-4), should protect their lilies to ensure they come back next spring.
To overwinter your container lilies in cold zones:
- Clear any brown and withered debris.
- Cover pots with a thick layer of mulch, like shredded straw.
- In rainy areas, turn pots on their side to prevent wet soil and rotting bulbs.
- For repeated hard freezes in zones 1-4, place pots in an unheated greenhouse or shed, or wrap them in frost blankets.
Add bold color and delightful aroma to your garden by growing lilies in pots or containers. Containers are an easy way to protect lily bulbs from wildlife and provide good drainage while allowing the flexibility to move them wherever you’d like.
Lilies are great beginner flowers with lots of garden impact for the effort. Follow these tips for beautiful potted lilies that will come back every year!