Elwyn Williamson didn’t start out to be a daylily farmer.
His career took him down many paths, the most notable was owning an insurance agency in Blount County for more than 42 years.
Along the way, both before and during his insurance days, he owned and operated a rural gas station-country store (when U.S. Highway 231 was the main route from the north through Alabama to Florida!), a florist in the late 1960s and a greenhouse for bedding plants until about ten years ago.
But he kind of caught the daylily "bug" by osmosis. His mother-in-law, Imogene Allman, grew and loved daylilies.
Elwyn and his wife, Fay, began to take vacations all over the United States to tour daylily farms with Imogene and Fay’s dad, Hershel.
"Our vacations began to consist primarily of going to Georgia, Tennessee, the Carolinas, Florida and more to visit daylily farms," Elwyn explained. "So in 1985 I thought, let’s grow some and sell them."
He built "three or four raised beds" in 1985 and "began to sell odds and ends."
That has grown to about an acre-and-a-half of raised beds, with more than 22,000 plants of 250 varieties.
"Raised beds are just so much easier to prepare the soil and to dig," he said.
While he once sold specific types, he now sells mainly by color, and said he really has enjoyed the process even more since his retirement from the insurance business about 18 months ago.
"You can get plants that are beautiful like the Siloam David Kirchoff for about $150 each. But the ones I sell are mostly about $5 a pot; affordable and beautiful for the home gardener.
"I guess they’re so popular because daylilies will grow just about anywhere," Elwyn explained. "I use a combination of mixed soil, top soil, sand and pine bark. They don’t need a lot of fertility.
"You don’t want to put too much nitrogen; because, if you do, you’ll have a lot of plant and no flowers. I do use some epsom salts on mine sometimes.
"They usually start blooming in the early spring and keep blooming into the late fall. One stalk can have 30 or more blooms, but you have to remember each bloom lasts for only one day. Hence the name.
"This just kind of started as a hobby, but it has grown."
Elwyn sells mainly from the eight-acre family farm atop Straight Mountain on Daylily Lane, and also wholesales to two or three outlets, including Burris Farm Market in South Alabama where one of his daughters works.
The small farm is a story in itself. Fay was born in 1936 in the tiny two-room cabin situated there. Elwyn and Fay began their family, raising their three children there in the 1950s—without indoor plumbing or running water.
"We were happy as we could be living on $32.75 a week!" Elwyn laughed.
Elwyn tries to maintain the little cabin as best he can but he said he’s gotten behind on its maintenance because Fay has endured several health problems in the past few months, which she has hopefully now overcome.
He hopes she’s soon able to be back at the little farm working in the beds or simply resting in the shade of the huge pecan tree which was planted the year she was born!
Last year Elwyn said he was forced to water the plants every day because of the drought, but this year there has almost been too much rain, causing some of the plants to bud and bloom later than usual. But even those in buckets and baskets usually only need watering every other day during the hottest days of summer.
His favorites include the little yellow Conbella and the Spider varieties.
The scientific name for daylily is hemerocallis and they are members of the herbaceous perennial family according to the website www.daylilies.org.
Their original colors were only yellow, orange and fulvous-red but now you may find any colors, including pastels, but brighter colors are still usually everyone’s favorites.
Most daylilies need little care other than watering after they are planted, but once a bed has been established for a year or so, you may need to divide the plants, which is not complicated, Elwyn stated.
Fall, when the plants have quit flowering, is usually the best time to divide them.
A plant which doesn’t have many flowers and whose green foliage is thinning in the middle usually indicates a clump needing dividing.
Use some sort of garden fork (as opposed to a solid tool like a hoe) and press down in the soil a little away from the clump, then ease the fork under the clump to wrest it from the dirt. Once the clump is lifted out, you can generally see the roots’ divisions and can divide by GENTLY pulling them apart or by using the garden fork.
You then have more plants for additional beds or you can share with friends.
Elwyn said, "It’s not complicated.
"I used to have greenhouses. I’ve always been interested in plants."
Being situated in the heart of Straight Mountain, where tomatoes once were king and one of his nephews now has a wide-ranging tomato and pepper farm, tomatoes were once one of his specialties as well.
"In the greenhouses, I’d start the Goliath, which was bigger than Big Boy and Better Boy, and I sold them for garden use. But I sold the greenhouses about ten years ago to just concentrate on the daylilies," he recalled.
In spite of his owning and operating the insurance company for more than four decades (or maybe BECAUSE of it) Elwyn explained, "I’m an outside person. I just have to be outside!"
Elwyn only gives one caution about daylilies during the summer. "When you do water, make sure you water late in the afternoon, after 5 p.m. is usually better. And make sure you run all the hot water out of your hose before you start watering!"
To contact Elwyn Williamson about daylilies you may phone him at (205) 274-7601 or write him at 255 Lakeshore Circle, Oneonta, AL 35121.
Suzy Lowry Geno is a freelance writer from Blount County.