Neil Sperry

Neil Sperry: Daylilies rank as easiest flowering perennials

Daylily bed
Daylily bed Photo courtesy of Neil Sperry

I’ve loved daylilies all my life, so forgive me if I get a little personal in my discussions of them.

We were coming out of church last Sunday after one of those early morning rainstorms, and much to my delight, there was a lovely purple daylily at the bottom of the steps. Somehow, I felt as if that beautiful little flower was blooming just for me. It had opened during the rain, and little beadlets of water covered its petals.

My attachment traces back to boyhood: Among my memories of mowing yards in College Station when I was 12 are the times when I found myself riding my bike home afterward, awkwardly pulling my mower along behind me while carefully hanging onto a daylily plant one of the ladies had dug to give me as payment for my labors.

It wasn’t always the safest way to get across town, but it was fun.

At my high-water mark I had about 400 varieties of daylilies blooming in our rural North Texas landscape, but that was a lot of sunlight ago. Our trees have grown far too large for me to keep up that pace, and I’ve had to narrow things down considerably.

I have one possible place left, and I really need to get out into local daylily growers’ gardens in the next couple of weeks to catch up on the best of the new types. They change so quickly, and the improvements have been really stunning.

Oh, the choices

Daylilies have been bred to come in all shapes and sizes, from tiny types like the all-time most popular Stella d’Oro (little golden orange bells of flowers on plants that are hardly 16 inches tall when in bloom), all the way to robust giants 48 inches tall — some with flowers the size of dinner plates. Over the years, tetraploid types with double the normal number of chromosomes were developed, often with studier stalks (“scapes”) and flowers.

Different breeders have varying missions, from developing double-flowering or reblooming types, to breeding for flowers with contrasting “eyes” of different colors. Huge “spider” types have been developed with petals and sepals (the other three parts of a daylily flower that usually resemble the three petals) that are 8 or 10 inches long and hardly an inch wide.

Other growers have bred for standard flower forms, but with extra-wide petals and sepals — often with ruffles upon ruffles.

Even more amazing than the shapes and sizes are the colors you’ll now find in the daylily world. Oranges and yellows were the beginning. Reds were coming into the market when I got started, but those plants were weak and the colors were bland. But not any longer. You’ll see them the moment you enter a garden, along with all those purples and lavenders, near-whites, near-blacks and pinks of all shades.

The list of colors goes on and on. The word “blue” appears in hundreds of variety names —so many, in fact, that when a true blue daylily is finally bred, all the good “blue” names will likely have been used already.

Prepped for success

You’ll want to include daylilies with other perennials. They are, after all, at their peak for only three or four weeks in early summer. They require full, or nearly full, sun, and you’ll want to plant them 18 inches apart and a similar distance from other perennials.

That depends on the other perennials you’re growing, and the varieties of daylilies you’ve chosen to plant. Little Stellas can be planted 12 or 14 inches apart if you want a solid border or bed.

Prepare your daylilies’ soil carefully. Raised beds are good protection during prolonged rainy spells. The soil you prepare for other perennials will serve them just fine. My own preference is to rototill the native soil to a depth of 12 inches, then to incorporate 2 inches of sphagnum peat moss, and 1 inch each of compost, rotted manure and finely ground pine bark mulch into that foot of tilled soil.

If I’m preparing a bed that has black clay gumbo soil natively, as most do, I’ll also add 1 inch of expanded shale before I do the final rototilling to blend it all together.

Daylilies grow and bloom best if they’re kept moist at all times, even when they’re not blooming in summer and fall. That’s when their roots will increase and the clumps will grow larger. Like most other plants you grow, daylilies will almost always benefit from applications of all-nitrogen fertilizers (with half or more of that nitrogen in slow-release form).

We would normally expect to use phosphorus to promote heavier flowering, but almost all of our North Texas soils already have excessive amounts of slowly soluble phosphate.

Daylilies have few pest problems. Aphids will often cover the new growth in early spring, but they can easily be washed away with a hard stream of water.

Thrips may invade the buds and cause small white spots on dark flowers and red or brown spots on light flowers. They can be prevented by application of a systemic insecticide a couple of weeks before the buds develop.

As your plantings thrive, you’ll dig and divide the clumps as they become crowded. That’s usually every three or four years, and late September is the best time to do this. Give excess plants to your friends, and they, too, will become hooked on a special plant I consider the easiest of all flowering perennials.

Neil Sperry publishes Gardens magazine and hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sunday on WBAP/820 AM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227. Online: http://neilsperry.com.

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