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Ask the Master Gardener: Get a head start by planting calla lilies in pots

If you plant them directly in your garden, wait until the soil temperature is about 65 degrees Fahrenheit.

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Calla lily rhizomes that have been stored in the basement over the winter. Photo by Jennifer Knutson

Dear Master Gardener: I overwintered my calla lily rhizomes and they are in good shape, but sprouting. When and how should I plant them?

Answer: The elegant and beautiful calla lily is not a true lily. It is in the genus Zantedeschia, whereas lilies are in the genus Lilium. You can plant your calla rhizomes directly in the ground in spring when the soil has warmed up or you can get a head start and plant them in pots indoors. If you plant them directly in your garden, wait until the soil temperature is about 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Plant them in full sun about 3 to 4 inches deep in soil that is rich in organic matter. After planting them, fertilize them using a 5-10-5 or 5-10-10 fertilizer. They should bloom mid to late summer for about a month. It takes a few weeks for them to sprout, but once they do, they will grow quickly.

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Your other option is to plant the rhizomes in pots about six to eight weeks before the average last spring frost date to have them blooming in July. Last year I planted mine in pots mid-March, placed them in my garden Memorial weekend, and they were blooming in June. You can plant them now if they are sprouting (which I discovered mine are!) or anytime within the next month — it all depends on when you want to see them blooming in your garden. Plant the calla lily rhizomes about 2 inches deep in a well-drained potting mix with the eyes (or in my case shoots) facing up. After potting, water well and place the containers in a warm spot. Keep the potting mix moist, but not wet (or you will rot the bulbs). I usually plant three rhizomes of the same color and cultivar in a 10-inch pot. It will take about two weeks or so for the shoots to appear (if they haven’t already). When the foliage appears, move the containers to a sunny window or place them under fluorescent lights. Before planting them in your garden, harden off the plants by placing them in a shady, protected area and gradually exposing them to longer periods of sunlight. When they are acclimated, remove them from the container and plant them in your garden. It takes about 13 to 16 weeks from planting to flowering, depending on the cultivar.

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Dear Master Gardener: I purchased some Asiatic lily bulbs this week. They came in a package of 18 bulbs — six of three different cultivars. I’ve never grown them before so I would like to know when to plant them and how to care for them.

Answer: Asiatic lilies are among the earliest to bloom and the easiest of lilies to grow. They typically bloom around the end of June through July and some into August, depending on the cultivar. They are usually planted in the fall but you can also plant them in spring. You should plant them as soon as possible (when the frost goes out and the soil is workable) because they are never completely dormant and must not dry out before planting. Until you can get them planted, keep them in the coolest place you can, but it must be frost-free. You can store them in the refrigerator, but not if you have apples in there because apples give off a gas that may cause the lily bulbs to rot and die. Follow the directions on the package for planting depth, but generally plant large bulbs 4 to 6 inches deep from the top of the bulb. If the lily bulbs are small, plant them 2 to 4 inches deep from the top of the bulb. Well-drained soil is important so the bulbs don’t rot. Since odd numbers give the best effect and you have six of each cultivar, plant a single type of lily in groups of three, spacing the bulbs about 6 to 8 inches apart. Plant your groups of three about 3 feet apart. Fertilize them after planting with a 10-10-10 fertilizer and water thoroughly. Because you are new to lilies, be sure that when the flowers fade you snip off the dead blooms, but do not cut down the foliage because the stem and leaves feed the bulb for next year. The more foliage this year — the more blossoms you will have next year!


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Dear Master Gardener: In our yard we have an old apple tree that is a mess of tangles and dead branches. It produces only a few apples every other year but we like the way they taste. What can I do to restore it to health?

Answer: This calls for renewal pruning. Pruning is essential for reliable fruit production on apple trees. It also spaces out the fruit, allows sunlight to reach the fruit, increases air flow and focuses the tree’s energy on producing bigger and tastier apples. It should be done every year. Your goal should be to have a tree with a strong central leader with evenly spaced side branches, wide at the bottom, narrower at the top. That is easier to accomplish with young trees; difficult, if not impossible, with older trees such as yours.

Start by arming yourself with good, sharp pruning tools, ideally a lopper and a pruning saw. Begin with branch removal. The DDDC formula for dead, diseased, damaged, and crossovers can be helpful. A dead branch cannot be restored, so remove it all the way to its branch collar (the circular swelling where the branch meets its main limb). Diseased and damaged branches should be removed back to healthy wood. Crossovers are branches that rub against one another, or soon will, inviting insects and disease. Avoid topping or shearing the leader, which promotes excessive vegetative growth and produces poorer apples. Each year you will find new “water sprouts,” fast-growing branches growing straight up. Remove all of them. From this point on, further pruning decisions are judgment calls. Such things as proximity to buildings, lawn mowing height and hazard situations will influence your decisions. Finally, remove all suckers, the vertical growth at ground level. Do not “paint” any cuts with wound dressing!

The best time to prune is late winter or early spring, while the tree is still dormant, usually late March or early April here in Crow Wing County. Prune early and do not be afraid to prune a lot, but as a general rule, never prune a tree or shrub more than one-third per year. Many, if not most, apple trees produce a sizable crop only every other year. Pruning often induces heavier crops in the “off” years.

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You may get your garden questions answered by calling the new Master Gardener Help Line at 218-824-1068 and leaving a message. A Master Gardener will return your call. Or, emailing me at and I will answer you in the column if space allows.
University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners are trained and certified volunteers for the University of Minnesota Extension. Information given in this column is based on university research.

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