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Hamptons Life

Nov 3, 2017 5:30 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

From Scales And Bulblets To Free Lilies

Lilium Mystique can grow up to 9 feet tall and flowers late in September. ANDREW MESSINGER
Nov 6, 2017 2:53 PM

I have a very strong family connection to teaching, and in order to be a good teacher you have to have passion and also be able to convey a certain amount of inspiration.

That one sentence pretty much sums up why I’ve been writing this column for close to 40 years. I try to relate my gardening experiences and knowledge in the hope that it will turn you on, keep you going and always help you smile when you’re getting dirty.

On Saturday, October 27, I had an experience in my garden that was a teaching moment for me, and while I know the experience won’t ring everyone’s chimes, I hope in some way it will inspire you to expand and continue your passion for gardening in your little bit of heaven.

I had planned the day to be a cleanup day in the perennial gardens, which is pretty much all I have. A local woman who comes over to help me out on my “push” days had arrived, and we did a quick walk around so I could bring her up to date on what I’d done since her last visit in July.

More primulas that I’d grown from seed were planted, some irises had been divided, a number of plants had been tagged for spring transplanting, and I had completed re-tagging all of the 715 varieties of plants in the garden. So, please, I begged her, be careful of the labels.

Lastly, I noted that I’d updated all my notes on the 35 varieties of lilies (Asiatics, Orienpets, Asiatics and species) that I grow and found that two of them had bulblets that the chipmunks didn’t harvest this year—so I did. They’d all been moved to the trial garden and lined out. And, oh, lest I forget, I’d added seven new lily varieties to the garden and planted the 35 bulbs. So, now, 42 lily varieties.

We both set out to do our garden chores, and one of my goals for the day was to lift three lilies and scale them. Scaling a lily is the process of removing scales from the outside layer of scales that surrounds the bulb, letting them dry a bit, then setting them in a special medium, like peat moss, sand or vermiculite, in layers inside a plastic bag. The bag then goes into a dark and warm place at about 70 degrees for two to three months, and then they are removed and checked.

If done correctly, some of the scales—but, hopefully, all of them—will grow tiny lily bulbs along the edge of the scale. These are removed, put in another bag with a different medium then put into the regenerator for another few months so they think it’s winter, but a mild winter. Then, in the spring, these small bulbs are planted in a special place in a nursery or trial area and left to grow for two to three years, after which they are harvested and planted in their new garden homes.

It’s something that any of you can do, as long as you follow the sequence. But why do it at all? Ah, now, that’s the question. There are a couple of answers.

The first one is that if you are patient and if you love lilies, you can save lots of money, as good-quality lily bulbs can go for $7 to $10 each. But, as I’ve learned, there’s a more important reason.

Let’s say you find a marvelous Orienpet lily in a catalog next year called Andrew’s Delight. The color is simply outrageous, the scent sublime, and the height just perfect for a July display in your garden.

So you order three. They arrive in October (which is the preferred planting time), and the following summer they flower. They are perfect. You fall in love with them—and you have to have more.

When the new lily bulb catalog arrives, you search for Andrew’s Delight but can’t find it. You go online and find it in the online listings, but it’s not available. You call the company, and they tell you that they can no longer get that variety—and you are totally, absolutely bummed out. How can they not have them anymore? All you need is two more for the perfect pentangle.

That story alone is another column … But, briefly, I was told by a knowledgeable source in the lily business that nearly all the lilies that are sold for garden use are from the cut flower trade. The lilies are hybridized and grown in Holland, where they are primarily used as cut flowers and shipped around the world.

The fact that most of them are hardy is due to their genetics and lineage, the hardy lilies. When one of these varieties loses favor in the cut flower business, it’s retired. So, the only way you could ever get more of Andrew’s Delight would be to grow your own.

One of the joys of gardening. It would take three years, but it’s certainly possible.

Case in point: About a dozen years ago, I purchased three bulbs of a lily named Mystique. It didn’t have an outrageous flower, but its redeeming characteristic was that it often grew 5 to 6 feet tall and was the last lily to bloom in my garden. As it turned out, mine grew to 8 or 9 feet.

A few years after planting the three bulbs, I lost the label, and it took me another six years to figure out what this lily was. The flowers match the original description, but its height and lateness of bloom seemed to simply be related to genetic variation. And by the time I had the plant re-identified, I was sad to find that the variety was no longer in cultivation and unavailable.

So, on the last Saturday of October, the day of my garden cleanup, it was toward the end of the day and, as I passed the last faintly scented flower of Mystique, I simply couldn’t resist. I went to the barn, got out my narrow garden fork, went to the long border and ever so gently eased the fork into the ground about 8 inches from Mystique’s stem.

Using the fork to loosen the soil, but not cut the bulb, I slowly and gently loosened the dirt, then got down on my hands and knees and began to dig with my fingers. At first, nothing, nada. Then, at about 6 inches down, I began to find scales; I thought that pretty odd, since I hadn’t located the bulb. I hand-dug down, left and right, and came up with a couple of bulblets.

Okay, a few scales, a few bulblets—but where in the world was the bulb?

Then I hit paydirt. I followed the stem of this year’s growth down and down—then, sure enough, a bulb. It was now easy to use the fork to leverage the bulb out.

But to my astonishment, it was not a single bulb that emerged—there were nearly a dozen! I was delirious, and suddenly a plant that I knew had great potential, but only one offspring left, turned out to be a goldmine of bulbs.

In all, I was able to collect five bulbs about 3 inches in diameter, and maybe a dozen more ranging in size from a half inch to 2 inches. I took about a dozen scales from the various bulbs, replanted the five large ones, and moved the rest to a dedicated spot in the trial garden, where I lined them out at various depths related to their sizes.

It was a very long day—but what an experience! Lilium Mystique, my own tall and late clone, will now survive in my garden for years to come, and in about three years I’ll have more of them than I’ll know what to do with.

But, as every good gardener will tell you, there’s always room for one more. Or a dozen. And these will all be free.

Keep growing!

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