Thursday, December 5, 2013

What's happening underground this winter?

Lily bulb regenerating in October.
Lily bulbs are in a constant state of growth; even during the winter months new basal plate roots are expanding, bulblets (offshoots) are growing larger, but most important, the center of your lily bulb is continuing to regenerate for its next flowering period.  

Sometimes it is easy to see the transformation because more of the bulb is spent to grow a stem with some cultivars.  The bulb shown is a perfect example - notice the two different colors of scales?  The outside purple-brown scales were part of the "original" bulb; you can see that during flowering, most of the nice fat bulb planted the previous fall or in early spring had shrunk to only a few outside scales, consuming the center in order to grow a stem.  The backside of this bulb (not shown) was where the stem had emerged for flowering in July.  The new bulb began forming when the flowers were finished, emerging from the basal plate, (bottom) along with a couple of new bulblets that will be exact duplicates of the original.  

Of the three prime necessities for a sustainable lily garden—well drained soil, sunlight and fertilizer—some folks begin to become a little forgetful when it comes time to help the lilies prepare for next year's flowers. 

If your soil was prepared well before planting to be soft and fluffyeven if an application of fertilizer is missed a couple of timeslilies will extract what food they can from their surrounding soil to flower the next year.  If no fertilizer or annual top dressing of compost is provided, lily bulbs will tend to become smaller each year and finally disappear completely

Spreading POOpeas around the stems.

Feed your lilies for bigger and better flowers each year.

We recommend two feedings a year—once when the sprouts are just emerging in spring and the stem roots are beginning to grow—then again when the flowers are beginning to open and the stored food within the lily bulb is depleted.  You can either use a commercial formula or mix your own elements for an organic approach.  Remember that lilies like balanced feeding, too much nitrogen will grow lovely green leaves, but at the expense of good flowers.  A "blooming" formula (e.g. 0-20-0) encourages flowers, but nitrogen and potash are still needed to grow new bulb scales. 

Lilies are heavy feeders, but they only need fertilizer spread during the times of rapid growth or roots can be damaged.  Slow release fertilizer (worked into the top 2 inches of soil) generally only works when soil temperatures reach a certain degree, and usually after the stems are already tall, missing the first milestone.  Time release is better in containers than open garden, because potting soil stays warmer during active growth, but because the volume of soil used is constricted and pots are watered more frequently, it is harder to judge the amount of fertilizer needed.

What if you've forgotten?
  • If you've missed spreading fertilizer during flowering in an established lily garden, do put an inch or two of compost or well-aged manure where the stems were produced this summer, even if your soil is completely frozen when you remember. 
  • For newly planted September to December bulbs, mixing fertilizer at the bottom of the planting hole is generally wasted over winter.  It is the roots produced in spring between the top of the lily bulb and the soil surface (stem roots) that are expecting the food at the proper times, not below the bulb.  Organic material spread on the soil surface takes a year or more to completely break down, and so is a better choice during planting time in October and November.
  • Since everything the lily needs to bloom is already present in the bulb and is depleted during the process of making a stem and flowers, fertilizer you apply during the spring and summer is for the next season's bloom.  If your soil is on the poor side naturally, not fertilizing will compromise next season's flowers—so it is important to always be thinking ahead.  Missing a few meals will not hurt, but for long term health, a regular fertilization program of twice a year is preferred.

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