Gardening: Star spotting

Like all true stars, lilies can be temperamental little darlings, but they also carry an irresistible whiff of decadence. Sarah Raven picks out some of the sweetest-natured to set the stage for languorous summer evenings
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A SOCKING great clump of lilies - it's like a feather boa for the back yard. A lily is the one thing that can lift a garden straight out of mundanity into high glamour.

According to the textbooks, you should plant lilies in the autumn. But as long as you get them in the ground by the end of March, they will grow and flower just as well as those your neighbour planted three or four months ago.

Lilies can be temperamental, which puts a lot of people off, but if you choose the right varieties, you'll be fine. Some are difficult to coax into flower until they are well established and you may not see a bloom in the first year. The lovely Madonna lily, Lilium candidum, is like this. Others - such as the spectacular Oriental hybrid `Casa Blanca' - are so highly bred that they flower beautifully for two or three years but then give up the ghost.

What you want is a lily that will flower the year you plant it, and for years and years after that, gradually spreading to form a clump twice the size of the original. You also want it to be low maintenance, so you can just put it in the ground without a great palaver preparing the soil; and you certainly don't want to have to lift the thing after flowering. Luckily there are lots of lilies that fit this bill.

Lilium regale `Album' is one of the most glamorous. It blooms in early July from a spring planting, is hugely scented, with white trumpet flowers, golden centres and a remarkably large number of flowers, 15 or 20, on every stem. It does equally well in the garden or a pot. Five to seven planted either side of a sunny bench will fill the air with the most amazing scent every evening. Expect to pay just over pounds 1 a bulb. The larger the bulb, the more flowers you get.

Then go for some Asiatic hybrids. They aren't scented, but they have spectacular long-lasting flowers and are the easiest to grow. L `Enchantment' flowers in deep orange, while L `Connecticut King' is golden yellow and covered in large, starry flowers for a month or more. Both are vigorous and prolific and will reappear year after year. These two also do well in pots and are cheaper than L regale, at about 75p a bulb.

You might also think of growing L tigrinum `Splendens', which blooms for years with no TLC whatsoever. It is a Turk's cap lily, with lots of flowers hanging from a central stem and the petals curved right back, giving them the appearance of a turban. This one is nearly 1.5m tall, densely clad in blooms, but sadly without scent. When it flowers in mid-August, it is covered in deep orange flowers, with crimson tiger spots. One large bulb costs about pounds 1.20.

You need one more lily for scent in late summer, so dig deep into your pocket for the speciosum varieties, just as good as highly bred Orientals. Their flowers are smaller, but their scent is just as powerful and they are much easier to grow. L speciosum album is pure white, L s rubrum is white with crimson spots - both are superb. Grow them in the garden or in pots, but expect to pay nearly pounds 2 a bulb.

You need to plant your bulbs as soon as you can. It is worth buying from a specialist catalogue. Bulbs need to be stored in a cold place, so be wary of buying off the shelf at the garden centre since they may have been hanging there since the autumn. If so, they will be dried out, feel slightly squashy and not do well. Lily bulbs should be nice and firm, with their shells closely attached. If they are sprouting already, plant with the sprout just above ground and, even if it is bent, it will right itself in three or four weeks.

All these varieties do best in full sun or light shade. Lilies like a rich soil, so spread two or three spade-fulls of compost over the area that you are going to plant and roughly fork it in. If you garden on heavy soil, add some grit to improve drainage.

Dig the hole for the lily bulbs about 15-20cm deep, and spread a 5cm layer of horticultural grit (from garden centres or DIY shops) all over the bottom. Leave a gap between each bulb which is twice the width of the bulb itself and then cover them, mixing some more grit into the soil. If you plant in pots, make sure you have a good layer of crocks in the bottom and use the loam-based John Innes No 2 to fill your pots.

Then just leave them to it, but look out for the brilliant scarlet lily beetle, which can chew huge holes in leaves and flowers. Pick off and squash any you do see.

Catalogues: P De Jager, The Nurseries, Marden, Kent TN12 9BP, 01622 831 235, fax 01622 832 416; Van Tubergen, Bressingham, Diss, Norfolk IP22 2AB 01379 688 282, fax 01379 687 227; Peter Nyssen (cheaper, but minimum order of 10), 124 Flixton Road, Urmston, Manchester, M41 5BG, 0161 747 4000, fax 0161 748 6319

This week

This is a windy time of year. The spring equinox is on 21 March and there is usually lots of high wind around that time. If you are creating a new area of garden, or have just moved to a new house with a garden in an exposed site, start protecting it now. The worst winds usually come from the west, but an east wind can be bitter. In the long run, a hedge is your best protection and you still have a few weeks to get one in before spring starts. Most hedges let some wind through, but break it up, hugely reducing its force. If you live in a windy area, you'll need to protect the hedge from gales to get it to grow. Hazel hurdles make ideal wind breaks, but are expensive. A bamboo screen, or even a plastic gale-breaker, available at most garden centres, are cheaper ways to protect your hedge until it gets going.