Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Seedling Lilies - Beautiful Flowers at Low Cost

By Kent Higgins

Many lily bulbs are easily raised from seed. Lily seedlings grow more slowly than many perennials but their care is simple and patience is needed more than skill. A few species will flower the second season, some the third summer while others need another year or two to reach flowering size.

The raising of seedling lilies provides some of the most beautiful flowers at low cost, a luxury for which one is glad to swap the time it takes to grow them. Moreover, a batch of seedlings often has interesting variations full of surprises. And, further, seedling lilies start their careers free from mosaic as the virus of this trouble is not transmitted through seeds. Unless planted near mosaic-infected plants, they remain quite healthy.

Where to get seed?

Lily dealers and a few seedsmen sell seeds of many species and hybrids. Species come true from seed but seeds of hybrids may produce a very variable lot of plants, many wholly unlike their parents. Seeds of some of the rare lilies are often hard to find; in which case, it may be necessary to obtain bulbs and produce ones own seeds.

To produce seed such as peace lily seeds, hand pollination should be practiced to make sure of a seed crop. Most lily species and hybrids rarely set seed when self-pollinated, hence pollen from another clone or variety must be used.

There are many methods of growing seedlings and all have their virtues. They may be started in the greenhouse, in flats in coldframes, or in soil in the frame, or in the garden. The starting medium may be sterilized or unsterilized soil made of various proportions of sand, loam, peat; vermiculite; sphagnum or other materials.

Seedlings may be transplanted at various times, or not. Many modifications may be introduced. I have tried several methods and am not prepared to say which is best. The method I follow, however, is old-school and probably as labor-saving as any and requires only seed flats, coldframe and lath or cloth shade.

I prefer sphagnum as a medium in which to start seed. Vermiculite has been disappointing and growth has not been as satisfactory as with other materials. Sphagnum is weed-free and sterile, hence damping-off and basal rot do not cause trouble. Sterilized soil is also good. Unsterilized soil sometimes results in losses from basal rot and damping off.

In early spring seed are sown in flats in sphagnum that has been previously prepared by working it through a 1/4 inch mesh soil sieve. The flat is filled almost full of the fine sphagnum and seed is broadcast over the surface and then covered with an additional half inch of sphagnum. Then, the flat is watered until the sphagnum is thoroughly soaked.

Subsequent treatment depends on whether or not the lilies are one year or two-year species. One year lilies come up promptly, usually in a month or less. Two year species do not show up until a year later.

One-Year Lilies

The seed flat is placed in the coldframe under lath or cheesecloth shade throughout the spring and summer, and is watered as necessary. Sphagnum dries out slowly and theres not much danger of overwatering. Very few weeds will appear.

Botrytis, a fungus disease of the foliage, may be serious in wet weather, particularly in the shade. A fungicide should be used freely so that the foliage is kept well covered with it. Removal of the shade during rainy weather may help, too.

Since sphagnum contains few nutrients, seedlings should be fed. They may be watered with a fertilizer solution made up of a handful of 5-10-5 plus a handful of ammonium sulphate mixed in a 3-gallon watering can.

This may be applied every week or two at the rate of about a pint or more to each seed flat. The flats are then watered to wash the fertilizer off the lily leaves and to dilute the solution some more.

In late fall, the flats are filled up with more sphagnum and covered with boards for the winter. The covering is removed the next spring and the seedlings are placed in the coldframe for their second summer and cared for as in their first season. Some of the more precocious ones may bloom in the seed flats.

The second fall the bulbs are tipped out of the flats and lined out in nursery beds in the garden. They are planted about 2 inches deep and 6 to 8 inches apart and are well mulched for the winter. After they flower, the best may be moved to their permanent place in the garden, or left where they are.

Two-Year Lilies

The two-year lilies are handled somewhat differently the first year. Seeds germinate and form tiny bulbs but no leaves appear on two year lilies until the bulbs have spent a winter outdoors. The cold is necessary to break the dormancy of the shoots.

To cut down on watering and kill any weeds which may come up, the seed flats are stacked in a cool place until fall. Then, they are removed to the coldframe where they receive the same care as one year lilies. While stacked, the flats require watering no more often than every three or-four weeks.

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