Last updated on December 2nd, 2011
LILACS recall the sweetness of an “old” garden. I inherited two mature specimens with this Victorian house eight years ago: white ‘Avalanche’ towers over a walkway near the front door, and purple ‘Albert Holden,’ a French hybrid, resides in splendor on the hill above the rose garden. You can select varieties to bloom from April into late June, but the later ones have a smell, not a scent. Here, May is lilac time, when the varieties of nostalgic fragrance and beauty are in bloom.
Some gardeners complain that lilacs bloom well only every other year. This has not been my experience, but I take care to water them in times of drought, and also to feed them heavily. Unlike most of my other shrubs, lilacs want sweet, not acid soil. The best plan is to work lime into the soil at planting time, and in generally acidic soils to top-dress with lime in early spring. I also spread wood ashes from my fireplace around the shrubs in winter, to provide potash. Potash promotes strong root growth.
A springtime pruning keeps the large growers in check, and also provides lovely scented bouquets for the house. As I write this, sprays of lilacs adorn the table in my entrance hall, the piano in the Music Room, and the mantel in my bedroom. To promote freshness, cut the branches early in the morning, smash the ends with a hammer, and immediately place them in water. White lilacs seem to hold up better in a vase, but the purple and blues are delightful too, and more strongly-scented, at least to my nose.
Although I’m partial to traditional lilacs with their huge forms and large flowers, dwarf varieties are not without merit. When I designed the Serpentine Garden, Randy Hinz at Sycamore Garden Center in Columbiaville, NY, suggested a row of Syringa palibin ‘Miss Kim’ for the garden’s upper terrace. This dwarf Korean lilac grows to a height and spread of only five feet, and will – when I get around to it — provide an engaging background for foxglove and other old-fashioned perennials.
Dwarf Syringa ‘Miss Kim’
To me, lilacs are the cat’s meow. Are you a lilac-lover, too? Let me know, in the comments section below. (photos: R.H. Blackburn)