Seaside Daylily
Seaside Daylily Farm
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from our Farm on Martha's Vineyard
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Designing with Daylilies
By Wendy Forest
I don't think I've ever met a flowering plant with more variety, versatility, and vigor than the daylily. They come in a mind-boggling range of shapes, sizes, heights, colors, patterns, and bloom times. They fit right in to an English country garden, a woodland scene, or a formal bed. They even thrive with little care. It's no wonder they're frequently called "the perfect perennial".

Looking out at field of daylilies from Arbor
Sitting under a rustic grape arbor
Seaside Dayilily Farm Owner, Wendy Forest, Digging in a lush flower bed
Wendy Forest and Terra
So how does one go about using a type of plant with so many options? Ever since I discovered daylilies, I've been trying to figure that out and, for most of the past decade, I've been helping visitors to my farm answer the same question. Sitting under a rustic grape arbor, surrounded by fields of daylilies, we talk about gardening styles and goals, site conditions, plant selections, and layout.

Get Personal
Before we get to the fun part of picking new plants, it's important to answer some basic questions about yourself. What style of gardening do you prefer? Think back to your favorite garden (or imagine one). Is it a grand bed with perfectly straight rows of one type of plant, or a winding path through an area so natural that you'd think the occasional blooming treasure grew there on its own, or is it a mixed bed of all your favorite perennials in pastels shades tumbling over each other? Whatever your choice, keep this image in mind. It will guide you with other decisions. Remember, you are designing a daylily garden for yourself, so make it what you want.

The next question is probably the hardest to answer, but also the most important. What do you hope to accomplish? What could be improved in your yard? This will give you somewhere to start with your planning. Do you want to make your house look better from the street? Consider adding a row of daylilies in front of foundation plantings, or a split rail fence and daylilies along the sidewalk. Do you want something pretty to look at out the window from the kitchen sink? Consider a bed of daylilies on the far side of the lawn with masses of bright colors that show up well from a distance. Do you want to extend the bloom season of your perennial bed? Consider adding a few mid and late season daylilies behind earlier blooming plants.

Site Conditions

Blue Sky showing behind big orange daylily blooms
Daylily 'Seaside Treasure'

Once you've come up with some ideas for areas of your yard where you would enjoy adding daylilies, the next step is evaluating the conditions. Will daylilies grow well here? As flowers go, they are very flexible. They require at least 4 hours of direct light, enough drainage so water never puddles in the area, and any decent garden soil. If your soil is lacking, as most of ours are, you can improve it by mixing in compost or a peat/manure mixture. If your native soil is acidic (oaks and pines are a good clue, or a pH test will tell you), you should also add lime. Dappled light is acceptable for daylilies, but they won't bloom as much as the ones in more sun. If you're not sure about the light, try a few and see how they do.

Plant Selection
Now for the fun part: Which plants shall I add to my garden? There are two considerations: how daylilies will fit in with other plants, and which daylilies to select. There are so many good choices; these are the three principles I use as a guide in plant selection.

Daffodils and Daylilies
Daffodils and Daylilies

Consider time of bloom. We tend to think of gardens as a picture, at one point in time, but they are always changing. Designing with the time dimension included is a bit more complicated, but it makes a huge difference. Probably my favorite combination is daylilies interplanted with daffodils. The timing is perfect. The daffodils shine early with the new daylily foliage providing no more than a promise that summer is coming, then as the daffodil foliage yellows, the daylily greens rise just high enough to hide them, then by July when the garden is in its glory all over again, the daffodils are cozily hidden below getting ready for their next show. Other good time-related companions for daylilies are spring blooming shrubs like rhododendrons, or fall/winter features such as Sedum 'Autumn Joy' and clumps of Miscanthus grass. Another good plan is to mix two varieties of daylilies: one early-mid season and one mid-late season bloomer. This will give you a spectacular show covering the whole bed for at least two months.

Daylilies can be used to add s subtle touch of color to a natural setting.

Use contrasting foliage. To provide interest both while the daylilies are blooming and while they aren't, it's important to vary the form, texture, and color of foliage in a garden. Some ideas are: a low border of purple Sedum 'Vera Jameson' or silver Stachys byzantina (lamb's ear) in front of daylilies; clumps of variegated Miscanthus grass or the shiny deep blue-green leaves of any holly as a backdrop; the delicate lacy look of Coreopsis verticillata 'Moonbeam' billowing around the narrow arching leaves of a daylily.

Daylilies can be used to add s subtle touch of color to a natural setting.
Limit Colors. Resist the temptation to collect one of every daylily that's ever caught your eye (unless of course you are planning to start a daylily farm). The one lesson I've learned over and over again in planning gardens is that fewer varieties with more plants of each variety will provide greater impact of bloom and a better overall sense of harmony. If you can't bear to select just a few varieties, then consider limiting the color range to something like pinks, peaches and cream.
Daylilies can be used to add s subtle touch of color to a natural setting.

You can still vary the height, shape, size, pattern, and time of bloom. Leave the lemons, purples and lavenders for another area. If you want excitement not tranquility from your garden, then contrast a few colors such as red, gold, and white rather than mixing all the colors of the rainbow together.

Now for the details of your design, keep in mind the reality of maintenance and the changes over time. Plan for access. You'll want to clean out the old foliage in the fall, fertilize in the spring, and remove the old bloom stalks after summer. Make sure you can get into the garden and bring a cart or wheelbarrow nearby. Are the beds too deep? Is the path wide enough? Do you need a few stepping stones within the garden, or an edge to keep the grass from spreading in?

Newly Planted Daylilies

The last, but far from least, suggestion I have is to give them room to grow. Daylilies are so vigorous that the new plant you put in will look nothing like the clump of five years later. So if you don't want to be dividing them every few years, place them 18-30" apart. It may look sparse at first, but have faith. With a little TLC to get them started, your new daylilies will quickly fill in. One exception to this would be a trick I call clumping. For the look of big established clumps, without the wait, you might put 3 to 5 of one variety as close as 12" apart with at least 24" between plants of different types.

Daylilies are fun to design with. Try new things, observe, and learn what you like. Daylilies are easily moved (early spring and early fall are the best times), so don't feel you need to figure it all out at once. I try to remember that gardening is a process to be enjoyed, not a result to be achieved.


Published in
People Places and Plants gardening magazine

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