Plant lily bulbs this spring for a flirty summer
Plant a barrowful of lily bulbs this spring if you want to create a sensation in summer. Despite their exotic appearance, fragrant, fabulous lilies are as easy as burying three fat, damp bulbs deep in a large potful of John Innes No 3, mixed with a handful of horticultural grit and a little fertiliser.
Spend a little extra for "top-size" bulbs that will guarantee a great show in their first year, and finish the compost with the rest of the grit to deter snails. Push the pot into a corner, and pull it on to the patio when the shoots appear.
That's the easy part. The hard part is choosing which to grow. A great starter kit could be three of each of these florists' favourites, heartbreakers all: Lilium regale, with gold-throated, waxen-white trumpet flowers that are streaked rose pink; pure white Casa Blanca, with velvety rust central anthers and a wingspan that can reach an astonishing 10 inches, and speciosum var Rubrum, which has the most exquisite swept-back blooms of ice pink, speckled with carmine, and blooms a little later, in August. All have stems of four feet-plus and all have the most stupendous perfumes.
What could possibly trump those superstars? Well, three contenders might be African Queen, a stunner with long, trumpet blooms of a fabulous rich apricot; Goldband, an Oriental hybrid with huge white flowers streaked with vibrant yellow and speckled ruby; and the glorious Golden Splendour, with butter-yellow trumpet flowers. If your tastes run to dark velvet shades, try sumptuous deep wine Nerone or Blackout.
There are many more winners, including T & M's new tree lilies that I sampled last year, and can confidently report that despite the gloomiest summer on record, these tough babies produced long, thick stems tipped with masses of outsize flowers. Next year, the four-foot stems will supposedly reach six feet, and the year after that, eight feet. Heaven knows to what heights they soar in year four.
Unsurprisingly, you only need one of these outsize bulbs per pot. The individual blooms are more corps de ballet than prima ballerina, the scent is more spicy than spectacular, but what they might lack in allure they make up for in sheer flower power. You could plant them against a fence, and their shrubby, sturdy growth would make an impressive wall of flower and foliage.
Divert your eye from the big and bold, and you will discover other quieter but no less beautiful lilies that mingle more readily in the border, yet remain standouts.
Consider the lily, for instance, that few gardeners plant: the white Madonna lily, Lilium candidum, that was the symbol of grace and purity for the ancient Greeks and Romans. Plant the bulbs close to the soil's surface in late summer, and near the front of the border, where you can savour their wonderful perfume and simple, perfect flowers. Most lilies thrive in warm, sunny sites but there is one that is less particular: the martagon lily, Lilium martagon. Each stem carries a candelabra-like array of swept-back, hanging flowers in speckled deep pink.
Several bulbs will transform a shady border. If you fancy growing Alice's imperious tiger lily, try the improved version, given the RHS Award of Garden Merit: Lilium lancifolium var Splendens, which carries marmalade-orange Turk's cap flowers spotted with black on four-foot stems.
Lilies have one major enemy, but if you keep a watchful eye from early in the season, it can be stamped out — or better yet, stamped upon. Deep red with a hard coat, the lily beetle leaves a black sticky deposit — future lily beetles — as its calling card, on the foliage, which it likes to shred. The buds and flowers it prefers to eat. Use a damp sponge to wipe off the gunk and a quick hand to pick off the beetles and crush them underfoot. After one season of growing easy, spectacular lilies, trust me — you'd be happy to slay dragons for them.