Garden Guide: Landscaping with Lilacs

Written by rebecca ford
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The Bushes Produce Beautiful Flowers and Fragrance Without a Lot of Work

Garden Guide: Landscaping with Lilacs
Lilacs are seldom seen in the southern half of the country, but the bush flourishes in northern states. (Hemera Technologies/ Images)

In New England, they are a welcome sign of spring and a great spring cut flower.

— Leonard Perry, horticulture extension specialist, University of Vermont

Along with the rose, the lilac is one of the most beautiful and aromatic flowers in the world. Walt Whitman describes the lilac bush as "tall-growing, with heart-shaped leaves of rich green, With many a pointed blossom, rising, delicate, with the perfume strong I love" in his poem, "When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom'd." A flower beautiful enough to inspire a poem is a worthy addition to any garden. Because lilacs are surprisingly easy to grow and maintain, even garden novices can enjoy this colourful beauty in their yards. Lilacs live long and require little maintenance, which makes them a worthwhile investment for any gardener, says Leonard Perry, horticulture extension specialist at the University of Vermont. "Often, they may be seen still growing near a foundation where a house used to stand," said Perry, who also runs the website Perry's Perennial Pages.

What to Plant

Lilacs are best suited to northern climates and are seldom seen in the hot South or dry areas of the West. "In New England, they are a welcome sign of spring and a great spring cut flower," said Perry. Growing lilacs in your home garden provides a source for gorgeous cut flowers for your kitchen table, year after year.

Because lilacs often have a shorter bloom period -- from just a couple of weeks to about six weeks -- Perry suggests planting a variety of lilacs with different bloom periods. Planting early-bloom lilacs such as California Rose, the lightest pink of all lilacs, with the late-blooming Royalty, for example, can give your garden a longer period of blooming beauty.

How to Plant and Maintain

Before you plant lilacs in your yard, it's important to prepare the soil well, adding plenty of organic matter such as peat moss, says Perry. The soil should be neutral to slightly acidic. Lilacs need good drainage, so placing them in a slightly elevated area is an advantage.

The easiest way to start them is from a small plant, like a 3- to 4-foot bush, says Joe Densieski, owner of Nu Green Landscaping in New York.

"They want more sun than they do shade," Densieski said. The more shade you give your plant, the fewer blooms you'll get.

Keep the plants well watered until established. They won't need much, if any, fertiliser their first year. After that, fertilise only right after they bloom, says Perry.

Prune the plants at least once a year within six weeks of the bloom finishing. If you prune outside this time, you could prune off next year's blooms, which form in the year prior.

Be careful with the area surrounding lilacs. "Don't use weed and feed products near them, as the roots may take up the herbicide portion and be damaged," Perry said. Wait until post-bloom to fertilise adjacent lawns, because the fertiliser might be taken up by the roots, causing little or no bloom.

Let Lilacs Be the Star

Because lilac shrubs are larger, more colourful plants, it's best to let them shine in the landscape by planting perennials and shorter shrubs around them.

Perry likes to underplant spring bulbs such as daffodils, grape hyacinths and crocus that bloom before lilacs. He also suggests groundcovers such as foamflowers (Tiarella).

"Give it room to grow because it's going to grow quite large," said Densieski. He suggests planting them in groups of three to five or letting one stand alone. If you're grouping them, space them at least 5 feet apart to prevent crowding.

With more than 20 species and hundreds of hybrids to choose from, you have plenty of options for your garden. From dark burgundies to light pinks and even white and yellow, the tapestry of lilacs is nearly endless. Try the Angel White for a fresh, pure white flower or the Maiden's Blush for a hardy, light pink variety.

In warmer climates, where lilacs are less common and more difficult to grow, Perry suggests a substitute such as the colourful crape myrtle or the lilac chastetree. Some cultivars, such as Lavender Lady and Miss Kim, might be better suited for milder climates.

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