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Lilies by the thousands

26 January 2022
Ginny the golden labrador amongst the lilies
Ginny the golden labrador amongst the lilies.

David and Wendy Millichamp have missed meeting fellow gardeners at the shows and fairs cancelled by Covid-19, but their passion for lilies grows on. Words Diana Noonan Photos Lilyfields

It’s hard to think of a more romantic-sounding name for a garden than ‘Lilyfields’, which conjures the heavy scent of spicy perfume and images of graceful trumpets of colour swaying on long stems in the breeze. But talk to David and Wendy Millichamp, owners of Lilyfields lily nursery close to Mount Somers, and a more practical picture of long hours and hard work quickly emerges. What’s magic, though, is that despite their many years of slog, they’re still in love with their gorgeous flowers.

Nestled in the foothills of Canterbury’s mountains, between Mount Hutt and Geraldine, Lilyfields sits on what David describes as “free-draining Ruapuna silt loam, but without the rocks”. The region receives more than 1000mm of rain a year from the showers that sweep down over the hills, and in winter, the chill can be bitter.

“At times, it’s been so cold up here in June and July, that I haven’t been able to dig out late bulb orders,” says David. “We can get hail and snow as late as mid-November, just when the plants are knee-high. For [Lilium] regale, the biggest risk is a late-season southerly, followed by a Canterbury spring frost.”

“But we live in a lovely place, with a lovely garden,” adds Wendy, wistfully.

David (who is a trained nurseryman) and Wendy moved to Lilyfields in 1996, when they took over the small, boutique mail order bulb business from David’s parents on their retirement. The display fields, where visitors can come to view the mass blooms, occupy about half a hectare, close to the house, while a local farm provides the fresh ground that David believes the bulbs requires every two to three years to stay in peak condition.

Although the business of bulbs is, by nature, not year-round, a cool store on the property helps to extend the season out a little, and David and Wendy now supply the domestic market directly through their online and mail order catalogue, and also commercial outlets such as supermarkets and garden centres under the brand ‘Kiwi Garden’. Not surprisingly, their biggest seller is the species lily, Lilium regale. Lilyfields grows 12,000 of them!

“We usually get a supply of regale from Holland, and plant them out in January,” explains David, “but because of delays caused by Covid-19, the shipment arrived months late, and we only got them in the ground in September. They’ll probably flower in January, with one or two buds, and in the following year they will kick off.”

“They’re the strongest scented lily in our Canterbury gardens,” adds Wendy. “They’re not spectacular, compared to Oriental trumpets, but they are a ‘must have’. They love it hot and dry.”

There’s a tinge of sadness in Wendy’s voice when she talks of Canterbury gardens – and lockdowns and alert level restrictions are the reason.

“We’ve made such a lot of friends through gardening, and we attend so many shows in spring, and again in autumn. We sell at A&P shows and garden events, and at Boulevard Day in Ashburton. But it’s just not happening with Covid, and we miss the social engagement with our customers so much.”

But Wendy and David are not ones to look on the negatives for long. David occupies his spare time with propagating, and he is enjoying a new way of sharing his enjoyment of gardening by grafting and growing some of the many rare and unusual plants on the couple’s property – his collection now occupies a corner of the Lilyfields mail order catalogue. Wendy gives her time, generously, as a Justice of the Peace and funeral celebrant; they are both enjoying their first grandchild; and, one day, the couple hopes to resurrect their pre-pandemic travel plans to train through Canada, visiting lily farms on the way! Until then, they have a lot to teach us about growing lilies.

Wendy and David at one of their many garden fetes.
Wendy and David at one of their many garden fetes.

Wendy & David’s advice

Harden up!
In regions experiencing chilly springs, spray copper over lilies each week. It gives the plants a pinch of frost protection and wards off Pseudomonas, a bacteria that can set in once plants have experienced frost damage.

Battle botrytis
Botrytis is bad news for lilies, and it strikes when humidity levels rise – which is why it is worse in the North Island than in the South. Fungicide doesn’t need to be used routinely to deal with botrytis, but it does need to be applied when humidity is at a high.

Feeding frenzy
Lilies are gross feeders. Fertilise the ground in spring by adding Nitrophoska or general garden fertiliser to the soil. The bulbs also appreciate trace elements (especially magnesium), and blood and bone.

Container growing
All hybrid lilies grow very well in pots, but species varieties such as L. regale prefer to grow in the ground. When preparing containers, use a good commercial potting mix (David recommends Daltons) or a garden centre mix (to which has been added slow-release fertiliser pellets, as well as pumice for drainage).

Lilies will grow happily in a container for two to three years if they are well-nourished. After that, they should be lifted (in April or May). The tops should be broken off, and the soil shaken off the roots. Repot the bulbs straight away in new growing mix. Place containers in the coldest place you have available, then shift them into their final flowering position in spring.

Never dormant
Lily bulbs are never dormant and, as such, should not be left uncovered or they will dry out. If they cannot be planted immediately, store them temporarily in damp, non-treated, wood shavings, sawdust or peat.

Organics with care
When growing lilies organically, don’t be tempted to add animal manure to the planting holes, even if it is well-rotted. Instead, mix aged animal manure with organic matter (such as leaf mould) and apply it to the surface of the ground as a mulch. Water the bulbs through the growing season with a liquid seaweed fertiliser for extra nutrients.

In the pink
While lily flowers are synonymous with sunshine, David and Wendy think soft pink blooms do best in dappled shade.

Toughing it out
Species lilies (such as L. regale) are the lilies most at risk of frost. Oriental and LA (Longiflorum Asiatic) varieties are hardier. (LA lilies are a cross between L. longiflorum and Asiatic lilies.)

Over the orange!
If you find your gorgeous yellow and pink lilies have dwindled, or disappeared altogether from the garden, and the only survivors are those in brassy-orange hues, there’s a reason for this. Lilies often succumb to symptomless viruses, and it’s the yellows and pinks that are often hit hardest. LA ‘oranges’ have tremendous vigour, are less likely to succumb to viruses and tend to produce multitudes of offspring.

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