Saturday, July 14, 2012

How to Fertilize Lily Bulbs & When

Pink lily sprouts just beginning to emerge on a sunny day.
Time & Type Matter
A complete fertilizer, such as Vegetable 5-10-10 or a complete Rose food formula, is first applied when the sprouts begin to emerge, and again just as the flowers are openingChoose a brand where the first number (nitrogen) is lower because with a high nitrogen content lily bulbs will grow nice leaves but not good flowers - and growing too fast from high nitrogen fertilizers weakens the bulb's overall health. (All candy and no protein - so to speak - check the chemical breakdown before you purchase any product.) 

Generally, the least expensive place to buy products is in 50 pound bulk size bags at farm stores.  Do not be alarmed with such a large amount, but simply line a 5 gallon bucket with a trash bag, pour in the fertilizer, twist the top to seal out moisture and put a lid on top.  Keep in the corner of your garage or shed and you'll have several years of fertilizer for the cost of a yearly 8 pound box.  

The above photo shows sawdust shavings that are packed with our lily bulbs for cushioning and to regulate moisture.  Simply empty the bag over the newly planted bulbs as simple mulch and when you stand back, it is easy to see where they are planted.  This system of marking sleeping lily bulbs is handy to avoid stepping on a newly emerging stem in spring.  The mulch was pulled away so you can see the white granules of dry fertilizer sprinkled on the soil.  Wait until most of your lilies have emerged and are 1 to 6 inches tall before spreading fertilizer so that you do not accidentally miss a group.

Organic Gardening
Organic formulas are more expensive and the official analysis might not look as "effective", but many organic formulas also include Trace Minerals which will increase disease resistance and help take up nutrients more effectively.  They are especially worth their cost in small gardens where you have limited space for both food crops and flowers and need to practice careful and precise crop rotation for the vegetable garden to grow well.  Time release formulas can be a bit chancy, especially in areas with cooler summers because most of them need to have a certain soil temperature to release well and lily bulbs do best with specific fertilizing.

How much to use for lilies?
One tablespoon of a complete balanced fertilizer for each large stem is plenty for soils with a clay base; you want to target the lilies while they are growing fast in spring making a stem.  Fertilize again in midsummer when the flowers are beginning to open and the bulb has exhausted its stored food and needs to build itself back up before winter.  Areas of high rainfall or sandy soil may require an additional feeding about two weeks later. 

Resist the urge to use more fertilizer in the hopes of faster growth or to "correct" perceived weak growth or odd leaf coloration.  You can also use a "manure tea" or kelp (seaweed) sprayed onto the still-green leaves late in the summer, however be mindful of wind; Dianna accidentally sprayed the large living room window with Fish emulsion many years ago and spent the next morning with a razor blade scraper taking all the little brown spots off the glass. 

Case in point
One of our sons made cookies for Boy Scouts when he was seven years old.  Reading the recipe, but not the sizes on the ring of measuring spoons, he put in a Tablespoon of Baking Soda instead of only a Teaspoon - the cookies tasted very good - but you can imagine the gastric repercussions emitting from the family that evening.  (Just like baking soda, too much fertilizer is not a good thing.)

If your leaves are turning yellow (and dropping) from the ground up is the classic symptom of having too much moisture surrounding the bulb and adding more fertilizer will burn the already stressed roots.  Brown speckles on leaves or buds are usually Botrytis (fungus), and no amount of fertilizer will help - only a good fungicide.  If in doubt, please send us a photo by email, with your soil type, mulch and local weather conditions and we'll be better able to help you determine what might be affecting the lilies.

Organics - about 1/4 cup per large stem of follow package.
Midsummer Top Dressing with Organics

When lily flowers are beginning to open, the bulb has exhausted itself putting up a stem, and now needs a boast of nutrients. Remember that the feeder roots are just below the soil surface so simply scratching in the fertilizer or watering it in will put the food in the best place.

Processed manure products and regular granular chemical formulas are just fine used together or alone in a given year, but if you have a rainy winter or spring much of the fertilizer will leached out, so spreading compost or manure during the summer is a better plan, plus it helps to correct any deficiencies. For manure tea, use about a half cup of fresh or aged manure in a quart jar of warm water, stir and let set for an hour, then spray.  You want the manure to dissolve as much as possible.

Handfuls of alfalfa pellets (rabbit food) around the stems will help with nitrogen - but is not recommended should you be plagued with wild bunnies.  However, if they are eating the alfalfa pellets, maybe they’ll leave the stems alone?  (Just joking, don’t try it unless you are braver than me.)   Greensand (a sandstone rock product) and a light dusting of fresh grass clippings will make a difference, dried grass clippings can be deeper, but you lose some of the benefits.  Grass clippings from recent “weed and feed” applications are not recommended however.  

Many years ago a customer put up an expensive cement block fence to keep deer and running dogs out of the flower beds surrounding his home, but the deer would simply walk up the paved driveway, so he installed an automatic gate for the cars.  It worked perfectly - so he happily planted new lily bulbs, roses and peonies in the spring, carefully amending the soil with compost and other "good stuff".  Sometime later he called to say he had a problem.  What happened?  The raccoons were climbing the trees, dropping down onto the cement block fence, scooting down a shed roof, sniffing out the Blood and Bone Meal and digging up all his plants.    

Avoid using blood meal or bone meal if you have raccoons or enthusiastic dogs because they will tend to dig your bulbs if they smell anything interesting underground - one of the main reasons to avoid any type of meat scraps in your compost pile.

If you miss spreading fertilizer completely and it is late in the summer, don't worry; wait until next year.  Keep in mind that chemical fertilizer granules are not as effective if spread or dug into the soil in the fall.  This is because winter rainfall will tend to wash away nutrients before your lily bulbs are ready to use the food.  Do a simple application of compost or well-rotted manure around the stems and the stem roots next spring will be able to access the nutrients.


  1. How about Hot Lips Salvia as a companion plant? I planted 3 of them in and amongst and around my lily bed. I don't know how deep the roots go. It seems to be a fairly lacy plant. Thank you for all your all your information.

    1. Janet, I do not have any first hand information on that cultivar, but if it tends to "sucker", then you will want to keep an eye on the lilies. If you see them becoming shorter in a year or so, and not because they are becoming overcrowded themselves, then they may be affected by the root system. The lilies should be easier to move than the Salvia, but then, it can also be cut back if it should begin to become too tall for the area. -Dianna