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‘Perfect perennial’ primer

Gardeners are always looking for a “perfect perennial” and many, including me, consider the daylily to be just that. The daylily has made itself at home in all areas of the United States, but it is not a native, having been brought here from Europe by the early settlers who got it from its home in Asia.

Jackie Fairbarns

Plant people have been improving daylilies for the last hundred years or so and they are now available in thousands of cultivars. The flowers can be as small as an inch across or as large as 10 inches. Search the internet for daylily and prepare to have your mind blown by the sheer variety of daylily flowers. Petal shape can be narrow, wide, recurved, overlapping, crinkled, frilled and ruffled. The general flower shapes vary from trumpet to spider, cup like to bell shape. Daylily colors have come a long way from orange and now include white, yellow, orange, pink, red and purple with a range of hues within each color. There are varieties ranging in height from 12 inches to 4 feet.

So far, though, the day lily is still well named. Although it is not a lily; its botanical genus is Hemerocallis, which means “beauty for a day” and each flower lasts for only one day. But there are many bloom stalks per plant and each stalk has many buds, which open in succession, making for several weeks of bloom. Some varieties even have a second bloom period in late summer or early fall. By selecting early, mid-, and late-season varieties, it is possible to extend the flowering season from May until September.

There are many excellent reasons to include daylilies in your garden. They are not particularly fussy about soil, are not troubled by a lot of diseases or pests and bloom regularly, year after year, with very little attention from the gardener. Additionally, they work well as cut flowers and the buds are edible. The attractive foliage offers textural contrast to other perennials.

The shorter varieties work well in perennial borders, where their bright blooms light up the summer flower bed. In groups, daylilies are ideal for landscape plantings, especially when paired with ornamental grasses and small shrubs. They also are perfect for mass plantings along a fence or walkway, where they’ll form a dense, weed choking display. They work well as a ground cover on sunny, dry slopes, where their sturdy fibrous root system helps to control erosion.

Daylilies grow and bloom best with at least six hours of direct sun every day although a little afternoon shade will help to preserve the color on the darker blooms. Consistent watering during the flowering period encourages high-quality flowers.

Daylilies usually grow well without fertilizers. However, if a soil test indicates the need for fertilizer, apply it in early spring. Avoid high nitrogen fertilizers because excess nitrogen encourages flowers with extremely tall stems that break easily.

Planting disease-resistant cultivars (and there are many available) will avoid disease problems. Further measures to prevent disease are making sure your plants have good air circulation around them and removing any brown or broken leaves and bloom stalks.

Propagation of daylilies is done primarily by division following flowering. Before digging the clump, cut the foliage back to one-half its length to ease handling and reduce water loss. Dig around the clump with a spade and gently lift the clump from the ground. Remove excess soil by hand or by spraying the roots with water. Then divide the clump into sections or “fans.” Each fan should be planted in a hole deep and wide enough to hold the roots without bending or breaking, with the crown about 1/2 to 1 inch below the soil level. Fill around the roots, firm the soil and water thoroughly. Mulch lightly to prevent frost heaving the first winter.

Daylilies should be divided every three to six years. Divide the plants when the clumps become too dense, when the quality and number of flowers decline, or when you want to move them to a different place. However, some varieties grow well for many years without being divided.

Jackie Fairbarns is a Virginia Cooperative Extension Master Gardener has been gardening for some 75 years. She gardens in Buckingham County and can be reached at jfairbarns@aol.com.