Sunday, May 22, 2011

Growing Beautiful and Fragrant Lilacs

Hello again,

Good gardening friend Paul Parent of the Paul Parent Garden Club sends out a great newsletter every week with pertinent gardening topics. I encourage you to go to his website to sign up for his newsletter. Paul can also be heard every Sunday morning from 6 AM to 10 AM at his website or at WBACH (104.7 FM) every Sunday morning from 6 AM to 9 AM. Paul recently sent this article out called "Growing Beautiful and Fragrant Lilacs" (I occasionally add a few comments in italics) and here it is:

Fragrant, Fragrant Lilacs!

"If you ask a gardener what the most fragrant plant in their garden is, the answer would most likely be the lilac plant. The lilac is a longtime favorite for most gardeners and it was even grown in the gardens of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Be sure to see some of the original lilac in their gardens when you visit their homes when the season is right for them to bloom. Lilacs are unique plants; if cared for properly and planted in the right spot, they will live for hundreds of years. Lilacs date back to the mid 1700s and were planted in our first botanical gardens and arboretums across the colonies.

Growing up in New England, I can always remember the lilacs at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston/ Brookline. These gardens are part of Harvard University, and the oldest public arboretum in North America. When the lilacs come into bloom the fragrance of the hundreds of lilacs in the garden is carried through the entire garden...

If you want to grow lilacs, select a location in your yard with full sun all day, though there are some varieties that will also tolerate a bit of shade. These varieties will have smaller and fewer flowers on the plants due to the shade. Sunshine is the number one reason your lilacs may not be flowering. Next to sunshine, ask what is the type of soil on your property and how it can affect the development of flowers? Lilacs prefer a rich soil that is well drained and never has standing water around it at any time of the year. One last piece to the puzzle is the pH or acidity level in your soils; lilacs do much better in a sweet soil than an acidic soil.

All soils can be changed by adding soil conditioners to them like peat moss, compost, animal manure, and even sand. If you can open up the soil and improve the texture of the soil, your plant will thrive. Sand will break apart the clay in your soils, allowing better air movement; peat moss will help hold moisture in a sandy soil that typically dries out during the heat of summer. Compost and animal manure will do both, plus help to make poor soil healthier and better able to hold nourishment and water.

If the soil around the lilacs contains clay, treat the area with a soil conditioner like Garden Gypsum from Soil Logic. In just a few weeks, your soil will expand and drainage will be greatly improved. For acidic soil, add lime stone, wood ashes or Magic-Cal from Jonathan Green to sweeten the soil and free up the phosphorus in your soil. Look at the ground in the area where you want to plant a new lilac. If you see moss growing, it is a signal that the soil is acidic and you will have to add soil sweeteners to help the lilac grow and flower. If you have an established plant that is not flowering very well and moss is growing in the area, apply soil sweeteners in the spring and fall until the plant begins to flower.

Lilacs will also grow better if you can remove the grass growing around the plant and create a mulch bed 2 to 3 feet in diameter at the base of the plant. Grass and weeds will rob the plant of moisture during the summer and nutrition during the growing season; this completion will limit the plant's ability to make new shoots at the base of the plant. A layer of bark mulch 2 to 3 inches thick will go a long way toward helping your plants prosper. (Consider using a good compost for this task!)

When the plants are young, it is very important to remove faded flowers from the plant. This cleaning prevents the plant from using its energy to make useless seed pods, and that energy will be used to make additional foliage on the plant. Pruning is also very important on both young and established plants, as it will stimulate new growth on the plant.

The best time to prune your lilac is when the plant has finished flowering or, in the case of no flowers on your plant, when the lilacs in the neighborhood are in bloom. Do not be scared to prune, as pruning will stimulate new growth and that is where the flower buds will develop during the summer. Say to your lilac, "I am doing this for your own good." Begin by removing any dead or damaged branches from the plant. You should remove 1/3 of the foliage on the taller growing branches. If some branches are very tall, cut them to your waist and leave this tall stump in the clump. Strong plants will develop new growth in the shape of a broom from this stump, and in just a couple of years these new shoots will be in bloom. You can also cut the branch to a foot from the ground and shoots will develop on it also.

Older plants can be rejuvenated by removing 1/3 of the branches each year for three years and allowing the new shoots that develop at the base to take over the plant. Those new shoots that develop at the base should be thinned by 1/3. You should remove the small, weak looking ones, keeping the thick and strong looking shoots to replace the older branches.

New lilac plants should be planted with compost and mycorrhizae to help the plant get established quickly before the heat of summer arrives. (An excellent source of mycorrhizae for this job is Flower Tone or Tree Tone by Espoma.) Water 2 times a week until the fall and fertilize the plant in September with mycorrhizae again.

The only problem lilacs have is powdery mildew on the foliage, and that can be prevented with 2 or 3 applications of Serenade organic fungicide beginning in mid-June and repeated every two weeks. Good air circulation around the plant and keeping plants away from irrigation systems that splash water on the foliage will prevent this problem.

If you like lilacs, look for a new hybrid variety just introduced this spring called 'Bloomerang.' (sold right here at Skillin's!) This new variety will give you months of flowers, not just weeks, as it is a repeat bloomer. It will flower in the spring for several weeks and, if you can remove the faded flowers, it will re-bloom in the mid-summer until frost. The beautiful fragrant flowers are lavender, and are great for cutting also. The plant will grow five feet tall and just as wide, very similar to the 'Miss Kim' hybrid; the flowers and foliage look similar also. This is a wonderful plant to have near a deck or patio where you spend time outside during the summer."

Thanks Paul!

Mike Skillin
Skillin's Greenhouses
May 22, 2011

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