Saturday, June 16, 2012

3 Simple Rules - Lily Bulbs & Companion Plants

7 foot Lilium regale in afternoon shade
Country Farm vs. City House
Tucked into a little valley within the foothills of the Olympic Mountains, we are blessed with sub-irrigated gardens and 50 to 60 inches of rain between October and April.  Yet, twenty minutes away in Sequim, annual rainfall is only 16 inches, so plants that struggle with soggy ground (Lavender, for example) are perfectly suited to Sequim, and those that enjoy plentiful moisture, bask in the extra humidity on our farm. Rhododendrons, Azalea, Vine Maple, Bigleaf Maple, Alder and Stinging Nettles are naturally abundant.  Perennials, shrubs and trees usually grow taller and faster; identical cultivars of shrubs that stayed compact when we lived within the much drier city limits (19 annual inches), quickly outgrew their allotted space on the farm, so adjustments needed to be made.  It is hard to believe that only 20 miles away the growing conditions can be so different.

You need to consider not only your official USDA Hardiness Zone, but also in what ways your garden differs from your neighbors or immediate region - wetter, drier, colder, hotter - and plan accordingly when choosing companion plants for the lily garden. 

Rule #1:  Avoid vigorous annuals, perennial or vines

Lilies are not like tulips, they do not have a hard outer shell, so crabgrass and overly enthusiastic plants can actually penetrate the softer lily bulbs.  We've found bulbs with white root grass growing through a bulb that we could actually pull from side to side like dental floss - very entertaining - but not a good thing.  Traditional "ground covers" that form thick mats in an attempt to reduce weed germination are death to lily bulbs because they are unable to penetrate the underground tangle of roots.  Not only are the thick lily sprouts tender, but the surrounding foliage is a good hiding place for slugs and snails.  Look for plants that grow from a crown and do not spread very quickly and be cautious of well-meaning neighbors who offer to share a plant because they have "too much".

Alstroemeria aurea in southern Tasmania, Australia - JJ Harrison
Dianna still insists that she moved out of the city house to get away from Alstroemeria aurantica, which expanded exponentially in the drier hilltop soil, trying to choke out the lily bulbs in the front yard and shooting extremely viable seed up to 15 feet away.  One neighbor saw the ripped out plants being stuffed into trash bags for the landfill and begged a few.

We warned him... Oh yes, we warned him.

Three years later he called to say that his "attorney would be contacting" us. (Smile.)

Wouldn't you know, those pesky roots found a blemish in his foundation, and there for everyone to see was a very healthy blooming Alstroemeria emerging from a crack in his basement studio.  Live and learn, and ask your neighbors about the better behaved plants when you move into a new home - plus the "weedy" ones that may be considered a local blight. 

Rule #2:  Check height and sun requirements

Perennials and Annuals should not be greater than 2 feet tall if your lily stems average 3 to 4 feet.  If surrounding perennials grow too tall the lilies may have too much shade on the lower portion of their stems and air circulation could be compromised - risking Botrytis (fungus) in certain years.  An exception would be plants with lacy foliage like annual Cosmos or wide branched shrubs where light and air are not impeded.  Taller growing lilies, such as Trumpets, can be a good background plant next to a fence with taller perennials or shrubs in the front,  Lilium regale is the classic lily for backgrounds, growing 6 feet or more in height when established.  Some "shade" plants that are diminutive in stature may do well actually being shaded by taller growing lilies, but in general, Annuals, Perennials and smaller shrubs should be rated "Full Sun" or "Part Sun" in order to grow normally together.

Grape Hyacinth (Muscari) Copyright (C) 2005 Raffi Kojian
Just remember Rule #1 and do not crowd other plants in too close to the lily stems, give them room to seek the sun as the sprouts emerge.  Ideally, the lilies should be a foot or so tall before the surrounding annuals and perennials have gained very much height.  You can closely plant smaller, earlier blooming bulbs near to the lilies, but keep in mind that it will be more difficult to dig and divide the lilies later.  The ripening foliage of Crocus, Squill (Scilla) Grape Hyacinth (Muscari) possibly covering the emerging sprout tips may lead to fungus concerns in areas with heavy spring rainfall.  This is rarely a difficulty in drier climates, but here we keep the area surrounding lily stems clear of both foliage and mulch.  Just a light sprinkling of sawdust shavings  (what is in your bag when we package the lily bulbs) marks their location and make it easier to not accidentally step on sprouts while spring weeding.

Rule #3:  Consider water requirements 

'Golden Eye' Rose in our front yard last summer.
Lily bulbs are drought tolerant, they store moisture within the leaf-like, overlapping "scales" that make up the bulb and thus do not need watering until the soil is dry one or two inches below the surface.  Plants like Astilbe and Iris ensata need more moisture than lilies to grow well, so place those in wetter locations, away from the lily bed.  Also please do not plant lilies within the range of an automatic sprinkling system for lawns that is on a fixed schedule.  Lawn grass is more shallow rooted and it requires more frequently applied moisture to stay green all summer.

Roses, Peonies, Daylilies, Poppies, (both perennial Oriental types and annual types like our Purple Poppies) can be deep rooted and coexist quite happily with lily bulbs.  If you water deeply on a less frequent schedule,  your shrubs and trees will usually send roots down to a deeper level, providing a measure of protections against times of short term drought and save money on your water bill. 

Dianna's Recommended Plants - How many do you already grow?

Alyssum (Lobularia)
Cosmos – ‘Sonata Series’ is very compact
Dahlia choose varieties that only grow 12-14 inches tall or use as backdrop
Dianthus barbatus ‘Wee Willie’ – plus other shorter growing cultivars
Dillherb with lacy foliage and can't have too much of this when its time to make pickles
Geranium (Pelargonium) – many named cultivars, take your pick
Marigold (Tagetes)  – short varieties are best
Nigella – “Love in a mist” has lacy foliage and pretty pink, white and purple flowers
Pansy great in coastal areas
Papaver  (Poppies) – deep rooted, so will not overrun the bulbs, but some grow quite tall
Penstemon  – choose shorter growing cultivars
Primroses (Primula) – great in coastal areas
Snapdragons  (Floral Showers Series) – old standard types can overwhelm if planted too close
Violets (Viola) – great in coastal areas
Zinnia – choose shorter varieties please

BULBS - all bloom much earlier than lilies and go dormant in summer
Snowdrops (Galanthus)
Grape Hyacinth (Muscari)
Narcissus – choose tiny varieties
Species Tulipsnot the tall hybrids

Alchemilla  erythoropoda  (Lady’s Mantle) compact form
Aquilegia (Columbine) – all forms, I love ‘em!  They seed freely and have great foliage.
Aster (Alpinus and Wood’s Series) – both compact
Aubrieta blooms early and tends to be evergreen, making dense cushions of flowers
Bellis Daisy blooms in spring, not extremely long-lived, but can reseed
Campanula carpaticaavoid C. persicifolia, it even self-sows in our gravel driveway
Gaillardia ‘Arizona Sun’ – needs well drained soil when dormant, I lost mine last winter
Hemerocallis (Daylily)  – short varieties, plant at least 18” from bulbs - they will spread
Heuchera (Coral Bells) – plant at least 12” – 18” from bulbs, makes dense clumps
Peony – keep lily bulbs at least 24” away from peonies which do not need dividing
Papaver – (Oriental poppies) – plant bulbs at least 24’ away from the clump
Primula (Primrose) – likes moist soil in spring, probably best in coastal areas
Pulstatilla – attractive seed heads follow spring flowers, well behaved here
Saxifraga not the “mossy" types that need moist shade
Violets – watch the reseeding

SHRUBS – plant bulbs at least 24” away
Roses – choose Miniatures, Hybrid Tea or shorter growing Rugosa types, depending on your climate
Hardy Fuchsia  – lovely in coastal areas as a backdrop
Azalea –  the bright orange really cheers up our rainy days in spring and some have nice bronze edged foliage in summer
Barberry (Berberis) - Need a thorn barrier?  Cultivars with purple pink leaves are my favorite.
Lavender likes it hot and dry for best flowers, so plant just outside of sprinkler systems or uphill of lilies in a rockery

These are just some of our favorites,   and bear in mind that some cultivars may become weedy or not be advisable for your local area - so be sure to check with a knowledgeable neighbor or extension service. 

Do you have other recommendations that you would like to share?  

Please add a comment in the box below and mention in what USDA Hardiness Zone you are located or the general area you live. 

(Your experience may be just the news another gardener was waiting to read.)


  1. I love this article.
    Exactly what I was looking for.
    Always left the soil barren between lilies and I just learned it's not really the way to go.
    This article made it easy and clear.
    I know now what to plant in between lilies and I also have some of the companion no extra purchases for this task.

    1. I'm glad you were able to make use of the information! I may be adding more plants to the list after this summer.

      Right now I'm trying to find a few new evergreen shrubs to add to my yard that my geese will leave alone over winter while the lilies are safely underground. One pesky gander decided to nip all the buds off my Tree Peonies a month ago, but left alone the Hydrangeas, and when I complained, he just gave me a blank look and strolled away as if nothing had happened. They do a very good job of cleaning up the garden in fall and fertilizing, but now they are mating and getting a little cranky, so its time to block them from the landscape.

  2. Hello again,
    Funny story. At least the peony buds served a purpose. To feed your geese.
    I have two small tree peonies, full of buds a month ago and now all buds are fried and dried up.
    Early spring we had some warm days then a longer cold/wet period and now two weeks of hot/dry weather.
    Someone suggested it may be frost?

    Here's my album for 2013.
    In case you'd like to see some of my blooms!


  3. Not frost, because the buds can be frozen each day here and not be a problem, but I'm guessing that it was the hot/dry weather that dehydrated the buds. Lilies can do the same thing, its called "bud blast", the bulb matures the foliage as usual and there tend to be more flowers the following year because the bulb has gotten bigger. We do the same thing here in the field, we remove the buds after we check that the variety matches the stake - and get larger sized bulbs to sell. -Dianna

  4. in keeping with the comment about getting bigger bulbs, would it make sense to remove the bulbs on really small plants? I have some that have come up with a spindly skinny stem and one bud. Would it help the bulb get stronger to nip off that bud for a couple of years and get a beefy bulb?

    1. Yes, it would help to remove the bud to allow the lily to become larger for the next growing season. With some varieties, such as many species (or wild) lilies, they do not transplant as readily when large, so smaller bulbs are sold, so a gardener needs to be patient. Hybrid Oriental and Asiatic lilies, unless very new introductions, generally bloom with 3 more flowers the first year. Pure Trumpet lilies may put up a skinny stem with only a single flower the summer, but when settled in will grow very tall with multiple blooms. In the commercial field, we remove the buds to gain extra size for harvest.

      However, if this is a lily that used to be larger in your garden, then it sounds like it might need more fertilizer. They will tend to "starve" over a period of years if not given enough nutrients.

  5. i have planted about 36 varieties of lily bulbs in pots with potting mix soil bought at Lowe's . I have a question here, do i have to fertilize or add more supplements to enrich the lily ? I like to look my lily get big and full of blooms but i am afraid of burning them with chemical fertilizes , Help :)

  6. If you used potting soil that had fertilizer added, then do not add any more nitrogen. Bone Meal would be fine, as well as a midsummer feeding of manure or compost spread around the stem.

  7. Can Easter Lilies or regular lilies be planted together?