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April 15, 2004

In the Garden

The lure of lilacs


ONE OF THE GREAT IRONIES OF WRITING A garden column is that I sometimes find myself shut indoors on a gorgeous Saturday morning, rushing to meet a deadline when I'd rather be working in the garden. This is one of those mornings. The only consolation is the vase of fresh-cut lilacs sitting on my desk. Their sweet, almost overpowering perfume fills the room and soothes, at least temporarily, my itch to get out into the garden.

Lilacs are one of the few florists' flowers that are still seasonal. You can get a rose, a tulip, or a chrysanthemum any old time of the year, but you only get lilacs in spring and then they're gone, and their fragrance is so elusive that come summer, it's hard to even summon up a clear memory of it.

The ephemeral nature of the lilac scent, combined with the sturdy, stately shape of the shrub itself, makes it an essential garden flower. Transplanted Easterners are always surprised to learn that we grow lilacs on the West Coast, where we rarely experience the kind of hard winter freeze that lilacs usually need. But hybridizers have developed several specimens that do well in mild winter, and many of them come from Descanso Gardens in Los of lilacs in a vase

I was at Descanso just last weekend, and my visit happened to coincide with their lilac festival. Over 100 varieties of lilacs were in bloom at once in their specimen garden; all of them thrive in the balmy southern California climate. They sell these varieties at their annual lilac sale in late March, but you don't have to go all the way to Los Angeles to find them. "Lavender Lady," "California Rose," and "Mrs. Forrest K. Smith" are popular Descanso hybrids that are widely available from nurseries and catalogs.

It doesn't take much to make lilacs flourish in the garden. Choose a site that gets full sun -- lilacs only need light shade in the hottest inland areas. Dig a hole at least twice as big as the root ball and mix the native soil with an equal part well-aged compost. Use a little balanced organic fertilizer according to package directions in the bottom of the hole where roots can reach for it.

Lilacs prefer a slightly sweet (non-acid) soil, so if you have acid soil, work in agricultural lime, bone meal, or crushed oyster shell to reduce the acidity. This step is particularly important because if the pH level of the soil is wrong for the plant, it will not be able to access the nutrients in the soil and may not produce as many blooms.

Incorporate all these ingredients at the root zone, then set the plant in the hole and fill the sides with more of the mixture of compost, native soil and fertilizers. Water the lilac deeply once or twice a week until late summer, when you should withhold water to force it into dormancy. Add an annual layer of compost around the roots in the fall, and then in early spring feed the lilac another dose of fertilizer to encourage blooms. Since you'll probably be feeding bulbs around the same time, it's fine to use bulb fertilizer, which contains bone meal to reduce acidity and offers plenty of other ingredients to promote flowering.

Now comes the fun part: When lilacs bloom, it is absolutely essential that you cut the flowers and bring them indoors. I'm not recommending this solely for your own well-being. Cutting lilac blooms is the best way to ensure plenty of flowers next year. Most lilacs bloom on old wood, meaning that you must cut the flower back to a pair of leaves sprouting out of the woody stem, and that's where next year's buds will form. In fact, if you find that your lilac isn't blooming much, and you've fed it and limed the soil, you might try cutting back the green shoots on the ends of branches as if you were cutting a bloom. (A few species do bloom on new wood, which means that you must leave some fresh growth on the plant to form next year's flowers. However, the most common species, Syringa vulgaris, is an old-wood bloomer.)

Cutting lilac flowers even provides an opportunity to work out a little aggression: Like any woody-stemmed flower, the best way to encourage a long vase life is to strip off any leaves that would be under water and then to bash the cut end with a hammer to allow the stems to draw up more water. Set them in a vase on your desk, and you, too, might find it a little more tolerable to spend time indoors this spring.

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Last year's first ever Wildlife and Native Plant Garden Tour was a tremendous success, and this year's tour promises to be even better. You'll get a chance to visit nine gardens from downtown Eureka to McKinleyville, including residential and commercial sites. The tour happens on Saturday, June 26, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and is co-sponsored by the Redwood Region Audubon Society and the North Coast Chapter of the California Native Plant Society.

What makes this tour so special is that each garden showcases plants that feature native species or provide a habitat for wildlife, especially pollinators such as hummingbirds and butterflies. If you're interested in creating a backyard habitat, this tour is sure to give you plenty of good ideas.

Tickets cost $15 and will be available starting in May at Pierson's Garden Center, Strictly for the Birds, Freshwater Farms, the Northcoast Environmental Center, Garden Gate, Mad River Gardens and Miller Farms Nursery.

They're also still looking for volunteers to check tickets, hand out literature, staff the refreshment area and serve as parking attendants. If you sign up for a half-day shift, you'll be treated to a VIP Garden Tour & Picnic on Sunday, June 27. For more information, call Pete Haggard at 839-0307.

garden-related announcements and news to Amy Stewart.


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