Thursday, 06 February 2020 14:26
By Peter Bowden | Home & Garden

In February, the packaged dormant bulbs arrive at the garden centers. Among them are one of my favorites: the easy-to-grow lilies. Many of the showy cultivars thrive in our northern climate including two of my favorites; Asiatic and Oriental Hybrids.

Asiatic hybrids are the first of the lilies to flower in early summer and are the most cold tolerant of all lilies. They also mature and reproduce rapidly.  Asiatics are available in reds, whites, pinks, oranges, and yellows of every shade. Asiatics are not strongly scented but come in a range of sizes from 2’ to 5’!

To find fragrance, we must sniff out the Oriental lily hybrids.  Oriental lilies will produce some of the largest, showiest flowers that you could expect this side of the tropics. A sub-group of the Oriental lilies are the Imperial hybrids. Imperial lilies produce large, sometimes huge flowers on sturdy stems. The Imperial Gold strain, for instance, produces 5” to 7” fragrant flowers on plants up to 7’ tall. 

Lilies grow from bulbs like those you’ll find at the garden center. They are bare-root in plastic bags. If you shop for them early you can pick out the fattest ones from the group offered.  The fatter the bulb, the better the plant. Plant your lilies as soon as the ground has thawed in a location that is in full sun. After enjoying your lilies for three or four years, you’ll notice that you’re getting more plants and flowers but they aren’t as tall as they used to be. This is a signal that they’re crowded and need to be dug and divided in fall after frost or early the next spring when they’ve just started to sprout from the soil.   

Another of my favorite bulbs available in packages this time of year is irises.  Most irises flower early in the season. Like the lilies, irises are easy to grow and multiply quickly. They grow from tuberous rootstock called rhizomes. When you’re shopping for iris rhizomes, don’t just look at the pretty picture on the package.  Inspect the rhizomes through the bag. Feel them. They should be firm to the touch and show no signs of mold. The bigger the rhizome the better the flowers. If you can’t plant them right away, just store them in a cool spot until the ground thaws. 

Bearded Irises come in almost any color combination imaginable and range in height from about 15” to 36”. Mature Bearded Irises will have several flowers on each flower stalk. 

Dwarf Bearded Iris varieties grow to heights about 8” or so. Bearded and Dwarf Bearded Irises prefer to be planted in full sun in soil that’s been enriched with plenty of organic matter. 

Later in spring, Japanese and Siberian irises will appear in the garden center as potted perennial plants rather than bare-root rhizomes. Japanese Irises are tall with some getting as tall as 4’. They can tolerate some light shade and perform best when planted in an area with damp acidic soil. Along a stream or a boggy pond bank would be a great spot for Japanese Irises. Easy-to-grow Siberian irises have been gaining in popularity due to their ability to grow in locations that are drier than other irises prefer. Siberian Irises have narrow leaves and smaller flowers than other iris varieties.  They do best when planted in full sun or partial shade. Like other irises, Siberian Irises prefer acidic soil with lots of organic but are more forgiving of less-than-ideal conditions.

Irises mature quickly so be ready to divide them every few years.  A group of irises that is overgrown will form a ring as the original plants die out in the center. Dig these clumps up in early spring and divide by chopping into several smaller clumps and replant. Make sure to freshen up the soil with more organic matter before replanting.  Irises are easy to grow and prolific so it is easy to understand their growing popularity.  Give them a try; you’ll be glad you did.

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