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What Van Sellers teaches
about growing daylilies

By Roger Mercer

The man was skinny.

He wore cowboy boots, a Stetson hat and jeans. He smoked, nonstop.

The first time I met Van Sellers he stood in the middle of his Iron Gate Gardens in Kings Mountain and watched me like a cat afraid someone would take his freshly killed mouse.

I later learned that someone had stolen some of his prized plants. And Mr. Sellers is a careful man.

I ignored him.
I looked instead at the most exquisitely grown hostas, daylilies, hellebores, belamcandas and other perennials I had ever seen.
They didn't grow that way in my garden. And I wanted to know why.
Later, at a daylily convention in Columbia, S.C., Van - as he is known to all who are serious about hostas and daylilies - told me why.
The man has made an art and a science of growing his plants. He shared with the convention the most complete growing information I have seen regarding daylilies. The information is based on his 30 years of experience. Most of it is useful for growing any decorative plants, particularly perennials, and especially hostas and daylilies.

Here are the highlights of what Van had to say:


I cannot emphasize too much the importance of having soil tests made.
Applying fertilizers to improve growth may be a waste of time and money if you don't know what your soil needs.
Be extremely careful about applying lime if you don't know that your soil needs it.
The person who makes your soil tests will need to know what types of plants will be grown before he can make a recommendation.

Be sure to write "perennials-daylilies-roots" on the box and information sheet. The person doing the testing will not, most likely, know what a daylily is. Remember that most people think daylilies have bulbs, not roots. The fertilizer requirements for bulbs and roots are quite different.


Fertilizers might be placed in two groups:

  • Chemical, which includes granular, liquid, slow-release and others
  • Compost, which includes manures, sludge, rotted leaves and other materials.

Plants can use chemical fertilizers only if soil conditions are correct - hence the need for a soil test.
In my sandy soil, granular fertilizers give one swift kick and are then washed away.

Liquid fertilizers must be used on schedule to be effective. Using a weak solution (read the label), spray the foliage and ground around the plant every seven days for maximum effectiveness.
Watering the plants will help make the fertilizer more effective.

I use two
types of chemical fertilizers:

  • In fall, I apply a fertilizer strong in nitrogen.
    All daylily plants are divided and replanted at Iron Gate Gardens each year, beginning about July 15 and continuing until frost. I use nitrate of soda, if available. I use it lavishly.
    Depending upon your soil type, be careful with this. If there is no rain within a week, I turn the sprinklers on, at night, and let them run for six to eight hours.
    There is immediate growth of the plants. Since our coldest weather doesn't arrive until December, I have six weeks or longer of growing time left. Keep in mind that pure nitrate of soda is deadly in heat, and do not let it touch the plants.
  • In spring, I use 10-10-10 fertilizer - the same as I use on the lawn - only on those plants that seem to be a bit sluggish about growing.
    Some plants just take longer to get started. Daylilies do love nitrogen, but remember that it does make for taller scapes and more robust growth.


Composts are simply the finest soil builders that can be used - and usually the cost is low. Daylilies are heavy feeders, so use enough compost to supply plenty of nutrients. The following are some rules you might use in connection with compost:

  • May be used abundantly.
  • Provide the best method of
    building soil.


All manures are excellent. Horse manure is perhaps best because it breaks down well in winter. Cow manure breaks down more slowly. Chicken manure can give daylilies a quick boost and aids greatly in making fibrous roots.
Here are the two most important things to remember about manures:

  • Manures are high in nitrogen, and daylilies love
  • Yes, manures have weeds, but one must make sacrifices.


Rotted leaves make a wonderful compost. Everyone should have a compost pile. I dig a hole for my pile and use the topsoil elsewhere in the garden. Pine needles decompose slowly and are less desirable in compost than leaves.


Large weeds, trees and shrubs deplete the soil of nutrients and water.
Anytime you see good daylilies growing near trees or shrubs, you may be sure the daylilies are receiving constant feeding and watering.

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