I started growing lilies in containers out of pure frustration. I had planted some gorgeous orange-red lilies I’d gotten from the MSHS Bulb Sale in my garden borders. Every time the bulbs stems or leaves popped up, a rabbit was there to munch it down—for a couple of years, I never saw a bloom. Then, I caged the bulbs with chicken wire and that worked, but it looked like my lilies were in prison.
So, at the end of the 2019 season, I dug up my bulbs and threw them in a container that stayed outside all winter, not expecting them to survive. But they did, and they bloomed beautifully during the summer of 2020 in containers. At the end of the year, I moved the bulb containers into the garage for storage. They have survived again!
What a Bulb Wants
I talked about bulbs and containers on a recent episode of Grow it, Minnesota with Mike Heger, renowned Minnesota plantsman and author of the book Growing Perennials in Cold Climates. Bulbs are part of a plant’s stem structure. The bulb stores food for the next season and roots grow into the soil below the bulb.
Lilies (Lilium) are a huge genera of plants, and Mike described some of the different classifications of lilies in the podcast. Most lilies (the exception is Martagon lilies) like a sunny location and well-drained soil. They aren’t fussy about fertilizers and are a fairly easy plant to grow. They don’t have long tap roots and can be dug up in winter, though unlike dahlias, canna lilies and other summer bulbs, lilies can survive a Minnesota winter underground. If you aren’t bothered by bunnies, they are easy to grow and long-lived.
Growing in Containers
For best luck in containers, consider purchasing bulbs of dwarf lilies. For the 2021 season, I bought two new varieties, Lily Looks™ Tiny Crystal, a bright white asiatic lily that grows only about a foot tall and produces six or more flowers per stem, and Lily Looks™ Tiny Bee, a bright yellow variety. Remember that some some lilies will grow 5 or 6 feet tall, so pay attention to the mature height of the lilies you buy. It will be listed on the plant tag.
I chose terracotta containers for growing lilies because they blend in well with the rest of my plantings. Plastic, ceramic or composite containers would work well, too. Whatever container you choose, fill it with a good commerical potting mix. I add a bit of extra perlite to the mix to increase drainage. Fill the container to about 6 inches below the top of the container. Place your bulbs flat side down (often you’ll see some roots growing off the bulb — those face down) and pointy side up. Top them off with more potting soil, water them well and set them outside.
Caring for Lilies in Containers
You’ll be surprised how quickly the plant will grow, sending up green stems and then big beautiful flowers. Water them regularly, but not excessively. I tuck the lily pots into the back of my vegetable and insectary garden until they start blooming. Then, I move the pots to wherever in the garden a little extra color is needed.
After blooming, be sure the lilies stay outside to gather sunlight and energy for next year’s growth. Feel free to cut back the spent blooms (or cut blooms for bouquets and arrangements) but leave the foliage on the plant until fall.
If you want to leave the bulbs in the same container for next year, move it into a somewhat protected location, such as an unheated garage. Another option is to plant your bulbs in the garden in September. According to Mike, lily bulbs grow beautifully when planted in September in Minnesota. Of course, you’ll have to watch out for the bunnies!