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DARLING LILY : This Difficult Flower Can Thrive in Warm Climates Only If You Know Its Secrets

December 15, 1985|ROBERT SMAUS | Robert Smaus is the gardening editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine.

Lilies don't like Southern California. They're woodland plants that prefer woodsy soil and cool, damp weather. The Pacific Northwest, where most of the commercial lily crop is grown, is more their cup of tea. But then along comes George de Gennaro to upset our cart and prove us wrong once again.

De Gennaro is almost as widely known for his consensus-defying garden exploits, seen often on these pages, as he is for his photographs of food. He has figured out how to grow bulbs that normally would prefer a colder, wetter climate--say that of Vancouver or Amsterdam. In a mild coastal Los Angeles-area garden, he manages to grow tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, crocus and the like to perfection. And now you can add lilies to the list.

Unlike tulips, lilies last several years in the garden. De Gennaro figures on having flowers for at least two years, and he has had them return for as long as five. He plants the large succulent bulbs in December or January, whenever they arrive in the mail. Flowers bloom all spring and into the early summer, depending on the variety, and they are dormant only during late summer and early fall.

If you're skeptical, try planting a few this December and see for yourself. For starters, plant a group, or several groups, of three bulbs each. Space the individual bulbs about eight inches apart within each group, and separate the groups by several feet. Though they will grow in the sunlight, they look a little uncomfortable on hot winter days, "like a little old lady without her parasol," as De Gennaro says. The lilies in De Gennaro's garden grow in sun filtered through the leafy branches of trees. He doesn't grow them in solid shade, although he has had some luck with them on the sunless north side of the house.

The probable secret to success with lilies is that the holes the bulbs go into must be just so, and De Gennaro uses a rather unusual tool--a posthole digger. This clam-like contraption is ideally sized for the job, since each hole should be about six inches in diameter and at least a foot deep. Lily bulbs are big, about two to three inches across.

De Gennaro adds organic amendments to the soil removed from the hole--material such as Bandini 101 Soil Builder, or Kellogg's Gromulch--until the soil crumbles easily after being squeezed in the palm of the hand. But he doesn't stop there. After putting some of this improved soil back into the hole, he sprinkles a bit of bone meal on top, then covers it with about a two-inch layer of washed builder's sand. The bulbs are snuggled into this cushiony base, and the roots are then carefully spread out in a natural fashion. A little more sand is tossed in to hold the bulb in place, and then the hole is filled in with more of the amended soil. How deep should the bulbs be? De Gennaro covers the bulbs with about seven to eight inches of soil.

Unlike most bulbs, lilies are never really dormant. The bulbs and the roots, which are alive, should be handled very carefully. And they should never be allowed to get completely dry. When you first purchase the bulbs, either plant them right away or store them in barely damp sawdust until it's time for them to be planted. The bulbs usually come packed in plastic bags to help keep them moist. Water them immediately after planting, and continue watering throughout the year, even after the leafy stalks have died down.

Because lilies need constant moisture, they are always in danger of rotting from a little too much. Improving the soil by adding amendments and setting the bulbs on a cushion of sand is helpful, but in heavy clay soil you may want to take further precautions. You could dig the hole deeper and mix some sand with the soil and soil amendments, so that excess water can travel below the bulbs; or you could plant in raised beds. In the De Gennaro garden, years of soil improvement have paid off. Drainage is so good--and so fast--that he can dig in his garden the day after a rain. Most gardeners would be delighted if they could even walk into their gardens a week after a rain without sinking into a muddy ooze.

You can also grow lilies in pots. Culture is the same, and you must water the containers, even in summer after the foliage has died down (but don't overdo it). Bulbs are not planted as deep; two to three inches of soil over the bulbs will suffice. Make sure that the container is at least 12 inches deep so that there is adequate room for the extensive root system.

In the ground, lilies seldom need staking, even though most grow four to five feet tall. A little bit of a lean is even desirable. Some of the tallest varieties, such as the Imperial series, grow as high as six or seven feet, and in the De Gennaro garden they gracefully arch over a path so you can walk beneath their drooping, weighty flowers. Just don't let any of the rust-colored pollen get on your clothing; it is a powerful dye.

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