Friday, August 26, 2011

Lily Bulbs planted upside down? No worries.


Every shipping season there seems to be a bit of stress with new gardeners worrying about the correct way to plant lily bulbs.  Well meaning friends and even a few garden columnists may offer an assortment of tips and tricks for "getting their lilies to bloom”.  The reality is that a mature bulb, no matter what its size or how it is placed in the hole, already has the flower safely tucked inside and is programmed to grow. 

Planting bulbs on their side to keep the center spot where the old flowering stem had been from “filling up with water” only works for one season, because next year this same bulb will have pulled itself upright and there will be a new "center hole", and the practice will not correct already poorly drained soil.  Carefully making a mound of soil at the bottom of the hole to "spread out the roots" is another questionable amount of work. On the home farm we do not use a mechanical planter for small lots of bulbs, but rather simply open a furrow with the tractor, then place two bulbs side by side with a couple of inches of space between them every 6 to 8 inches apart, depending on bulb size.  New workers would fuss and set each one carefully upright but when the tractor went back over the row to cover the bulbs with another attachment, soil thrown over the top would push the bulbs onto their sides and even upside down – much to the distress of the person who had just carefully placed them in the row.

Remember the Blog post of  Growing Lily bulb “babies” in recycled mulch. (updated 8.23.11)
(You can click on any image to make it bigger.)
The left photo shows the entire clump of plants dug out with bulbs attached.  Flowers and leaves are where the sprouts emerged from the peat moss, the bare stem with no leaves was in the topmost section of dry peat, and the cluster of roots and bulbs at the bottom were deeper in the pile where moisture had been retained.  In the image on the right, the bulb on the left side was upside down and so the stem curled out of the bulb and turned to grow upright.  If not disturbed then the contractile roots between winter and next spring would have turned the bulb right side up.


Contractile roots resemble a relaxed earthworm; new white roots growing from the bottom of the bulb (basal plate) are smooth and white. In crumbly non compacted soil; the lily will actually pull itself deeper than you planted. 

The red circled spot is the lily bulb Basal Plate, this is where these new contractile roots are formed and their job is to hold the bulb firmly in place despite wind.  The mass of fibrous roots are formed on the underground portion of stem  just above the top of the bulb are "feeder" roots - the reason why placing fluffy organics materials such as peat, compost or very well-aged manure in midsummer or fall is beneficial to your lilies.  (See POOpeas™ fertilizer on our website.) These roots are just under the surface.  Although stem roots will also pick up nutrients, it is not as important to add fertilizer to the planting hole because over winter much of it will wash away while the lily is in semi dormancy.  The arrow on the left shows a new white root starting and the arrow on the left is an established basal plate root that is branching out.

Years ago, when hand planting a test row of 10 or 15 different varieties, all were placed at the same depth, but when it came time to dig the bulbs for propagation, one noteworthy cultivar, instead of being 8 inches deep, had burrowed its way down over a foot.  Because of that trait, it was not selected for commercial propagation for the simple reason our tractor could not pull the bulb digger through the field at that excessive depth.

So, to end this story, provide well-drained soil that is not compacted and don't stress out too much over which way is "up", just remember "roots down" .  We like to dig a single hole for three bulbs, one standard shovel size deep, and place each bulb at the side of the hole in a triangle.  A planting stake, labeled with the cultivar name, goes in the middle.  We  use 12 inch long plastic stakes and write the name in permanent marker in two places: so it will be visible above the ground for easy reference, as well as near the base of the stake so the soil will protect the ink from fading over time.  Or, you can just bury a second stake at the bottom of the hole.  (One year we had difficulties with a cougar "playing" with our field stakes and learned to bury a second marker underground in the back of the field.) After filling the hole to cover the lilies with 4 to 5 inches of soil, the packing material from the poly bag is spread on top to clearly mark the location.


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