Daylilies - the art of benign neglect...
How to look after your daylilies. A quick guide.
‘Daylily’ is actually a misnomer in that it’s no longer part of the Liliaceae or the Xanthorrhoeaceae family. Hemerocallis is its official botanical name, which stems from the Greek for day (hemeros) and beauty (kallos). It’s now classified within the Asphodelaceae family (APG IV 2016). It’s edible too and widely used in Asian cuisine. (Try a little at first as some folk can be allergic). Here’s Liz's sister Caroline showing us how she eats hers...
When most daylily blooms last a day, we feel the message is to seize the day in all respects. With another bloom usually opening the next day, why not pop today’s offering on top of your supper? They are allegedly full of vitamin C and protein (more than asparagus or green beans!) to boot.
Planting in the ground directly - Daylilies love sun and appreciate a sunny spot for best results. They will tolerate a partially shaded area as long as they receive a decent amount of sun during spring and summer. Once you’ve chosen a spot, dig a hole and mix a couple of handfuls of potash (if you have a woodburner - the ash is perfect) in with the soil and add water. The rhizomes of a daylily often fan out so if you form a small mound of soil at the base of the hole, the roots can sit on this 'cone' of soil and you can now start filling in so the roots are buried underground and the foliage is just above ground. Press down to firm. Water in if the soil is not wet already especially if you’re planting in summer. And that's it! You don't need to water them again - these are wonderfully drought tolerant plants.
We advise you don’t use a nitrogen-based fertiliser as this simply promotes foliage and not the flower. If you want to fertilise, maybe after a few years, an organic seaweed fertiliser would be best, but daylilies are very undemanding and don’t need watering or feeding when in the ground - the rhizogenous root system is an amazing store for the plant providing water and nutrients as required.
Planting in a container - as above but you will need to water and feed occasionally, just as you would a rose in a container. The benefit of container planting is you can move your daylily around. The drawback is that it will need watering in high summer and after a few years, you would need to decant it, divide it - but then you’ll have a new plant! We like Silvagrow peat-free organic growing medium or Fertile Fibre multi-purpose. We would also recommend a few broken crocks at the bottom of the container just so your daylily doesn’t become waterlogged should the weather become very wet.
Dividing - the gift that keeps on giving! Daylilies naturally 'clump up' as they say. Rhizomes gradually multiply underground and you should therefore find your plant will throw up increasing numbers of scapes as the years go by. A scape can hold about 15 buds each becoming a potential bloom. The job of digging up and dividing is best done after flowering when the plant is ‘dorment’, e.g. October - February. It's also the best thing to do if you find your daylily has stopped throwing up scapes. A sort of daylily re-boot.
The job requires a good fork. What you do is go round the plant loosening the root system. Eventually, you’ll be able to lift the clump and take it off in a wheelbarrow to a surface where you can divide it. We set the clump on ground that’s used to being trampled, e.g. near the compost heap. If you can place 2 strong garden forks back to back right down the middle and pull them apart, the clump should separate.
Repeat as necessary with forks or with a garden knife - you can be quite brutal - you have to be as the roots become totally bound together - it can help to cut down the foliage to about 4-6” so you can see what you’re doing.
Cutting back the foliage: Some daylilies have evergreen foliage staying green all winter, some have semi-evergreen foliage and some are distinctly dormant after flowering. Daylilies mostly lose their green foliage and the scapes turn to a woody stem that eventually falls to the ground along with the brown foliage - we recommend trimming foliage to about 4”- 5” and removing old scapes. Old foliage lying on the soil through winter shouldn't be a problem though and arguably provides a place for wildlife to scurry under and a little protection against frost but the daylily is a hardy perennial so it will put itself to bed and start to show the green shoots of recovery as early as February.
Hybridising: You might wonder why all the funny names?! Well, there are Hemerocallis hybridisers out there in the world who spend years hybridising and coming up with all these amazing colour combinations, petal and sepal shapes and patterning - but no-one has yet managed to hybridise a blue cultivar - this is the holy grail of the daylily world. Any cultivar coming close to blue will be more sought after as a result. If your daylily produces a seed pod and you plant these, it could be years before a scape will appear so the best way to propagate is to allow your daylily to clump up naturally and then dig up and divide. Hybridisers who devote their lives to this end deserve the right to register their creations with whatever name they like - so we have some real plant personalities in the daylily world - from Janie Wilson and Bumble Bee to Wayne Johnson and Primal Scream - there’s a cultivar out there that’s bound to appeal. Be warned - collecting and growing daylilies can be very addictive!
Pests: The only pest that really is a pest is the Gall Midge - this only affects some but not all early blooming hemerocallis. It doesn’t affect mid or late blooming varieties and it doesn’t affect any other plants. Even Wisley who tested various treatments are baffled by how to prevent this little blighter from being a pest. If you are unlucky in this respect and notice some early bloomers NOT blooming, i.e. the buds just don’t open into a flower, the midge will be the culprit. Remove any such buds and incinerate (don’t compost them). They basically use the soil directly beneath the daylily as part of their lifecycle which implies that it may be worth digging up your early bloomer, thoroughly cleaning it and replanting it in a container to check it’s clear for next year. A trip to the tip with the suspicious soil will prevent the midge from completing its lifecycle and the council will convert it along with other green waste into a reusable medium. This is probably the best course of action.
To end on a high note, daylilies are otherwise very pest resistant!