Transplanting lily of the valley

How to Transplant Lily of the Valley

The delightful, easy-to-grow lily of the valley requires very little in the way of maintenance, and it isn’t fussy about much of anything. It’s a great choice for ground cover because of its compact, low growth habit (about 6 inches tall), and its ability to spread rapidly. They’re so prolific that you may find it necessary to restrict their growth. Lily of the valley do best in USDA zones 3 to 7. They are lovely in containers and as ground cover. Plan on dividing your plants every 3 to 5 years.

Examine your existing lily of the valley plants to determine whether they really should be divided. If you’ve noticed that the blooms have become scarce on your plants, it means that it’s time to dig and divide them for transplant, because they’re overcrowded. You can also divide them when you simply want more plants. This can be done either in early spring or in the fall, between early September and mid-October.

Choose a transplant spot in shade or partial sun with very good drainage. Lily of the valley can even thrive in full sun as long as they’re not allowed to dry out. They love evenly moist soil but don’t enjoy wet feet. These tough little plants will adapt to practically any soil type but truly appreciate a fertile location.

Water the plants that you plan to divide very well 1 or 2 days prior to dividing them. Prune long foliage and stems to 5 or 6 inches above ground level. This will reduce the loss of moisture from the plants and make dividing them much easier.

Dig down deeply into the soil, 4 to 6 inches away from your plant, with a clean, sharp shovel. Use it to pry underneath the plant and lift the entire rhizome clump in one piece. If the clump is too large and heavy to lift this way, you’ll have to cut it apart with the shovel in order to lift the parent plant. Dig your clumps very early in the morning or late in the afternoon, or keep them in the shade during their move. It’s important not to expose them to direct sun.

Remove loose soil from the rhizomes by shaking the clump gently or hosing it off, so you can see exactly what you’re doing. Cut off any dead stems and leaves. Inspect the rhizomes for damage or disease. Cut off any such areas with clean, sharp shears and discard them.

Plant the divisions immediately. Have a bucket of water on hand for moistening rhizomes while you’re working to keep them from drying out. Always replant your divisions at the same soil depth that they originally occupied. Eliminate air pockets from around the roots by firming the soil as you go. Mulch with about ½ inch of organic compost 6 inches around the plant, and water it well right away before moving on to the next division to be transplanted.

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Whether you garden on acid or alkaline soil, heavy or light, the plant really does not seem to mind, and I have even seen it romping away in dry, impoverished earth at the foot of a house wall.

If you enjoy cutting flowers for the house, yet always feel guilty at robbing the garden, lily of the valley has the advantage of being one of those plants that you cannot see where you have cut. Take off a pair of leaves and a flower stem at ground level and you will not leave an unsightly gap.

Better still, on your vegetable patch or allotment, grow a row especially for cutting and at flowering time you can cut and collect an absolute fistful, binding them into a generous-sized posy with a hank of raffia.

The French are especially fond of “muguet” – their name for the plant – and sell fat bunches of it on May 1, Labour Day, as a porte-bonheur or good luck charm. You will see many folk walking the pavements of Paris on May 1 with a bunch of lily of the valley in their hand, bought from street-side stalls on this one day in the year when it has a special cachet.

You can do better than that, and give lily of the valley a home in your garden all the year round. It deserves it.

Don’t miss Alan’s gardening column today and every day in the Daily Express. For more information on his range of gardening products, visit

So it is with some trepidation that I recommend lily of the valley as a fine plant for those difficult areas that are both shady and dry. Most yards have such places at the base of trees or under shrubs, where there is too little sunlight for grass and too little moisture for most ground covers.

Lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis) is perfect for such places. It stays low, rarely exceeding eight inches in height, and its foliage stays green all summer. The flowers are tiny waxy bells on stiff stems, so deliciously fragrant that lily of the valley is a popular scent for perfumes. Unfortunately, the season of bloom is short. In my garden in south-central Pennsylvania, lily of the valley blooms for only a week or so in mid-May.

If the spot is truly dry and shady, lily of the valley will remain demurely where you plant it, venturing out only as far as the edge of the nearest lawn, where the mower can keep it in check.

But if there is any sort of natural pathway from the dry spot to one that is more fertile and moist, the lilies will find it in a New York minute. They spread by rhizomes that travel horizontally underground, so you may not notice they’re on the move until they pop up some distance away. The next time you look, they will be bullying the begonias in the flower beds, crowding out the crowns in the strawberry patch and harassing the herbs in the kitchen garden.

Thomas Jefferson’s garden records suggest that he planted lily of the valley among his anemones and trolliuses. If the garden had more than lily of the valley blooming in that spot after a couple of years, it was only because of regular and thorough human intervention.

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