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Winter chill brings out spring lilacs

Even low-chill varieties need some cold time

Lilacs are putting on a show right now, thanks to enough winter chill hours. (Photos: Debbie Arrington)

More proof we had a chilly (if dry) winter: Lilacs.

Throughout my Sacramento neighborhood, lilacs are putting on a spectacular spring show. That includes my own backyard.

Of course, these are “low-chill” varieties such as Lavender Lady, California Rose and Angel White. They still need a considerable amount of “chill hours” (often 500-plus), but nowhere near that of higher chill varieties. Chill hours measure the time spent below 45 degrees.

Lilac blooms
Unfortunately the perfume of these lilacs can't be shared in print.

Bred to be grown in USDA Zones 3-8, most hybrid lilacs require 2,000 chill hours. That’s more than double what we typically get in Sacramento (USDA Zone 9). Our final totals for the winter of 2020-2021: 730 to 1,012 chill hours in the Sacramento Valley and 859 to 1,195 chill hours in the foothills.

But that was enough to prompt those local “low-chill” lilacs to bloom like crazy.

Now is a good time to shop for lilacs in nurseries or admire them in landscapes. This when they look (and smell) their best.

Even with plenty of chill, common lilacs ( Syringa vulgaris ) and their hybrids can be tricky to get to bloom year after year. Like hydrangeas, their flowers are dependent on well-timed (or no) pruning.

Next spring’s flowers form on the stems right after this year’s blooms are done. But you’ve got to do something; leaving the spent flowers on the bush can inhibit blooming the next year, too.

The trick is to snip off the spent blooms where the leaves join the stem just above where the new buds are forming. Don’t prune heavily and never after Memorial Day; if you do, you won’t have flowers the next spring.

Lilacs don’t need much fertilizer. Give them a little bone meal while they’re dormant in winter. They need at least six hours a day of sun and good air circulation. (When crowded, they can develop powdery mildew.) In Sacramento, they prefer morning sun and some afternoon shade; otherwise, they can get sunburned.

Bee on a lilac blossom
Bees enjoy lilacs, too.
Lilacs demand good drainage and soil on the slightly acidic side. Water-wise, they like deep irrigation once a week or twice a month, depending on the heat. They don’t like life next to a lawn; that’s when they tend to get over-watered. Constant year-round irrigation also keeps lilacs from entering dormancy; they need that winter sleep to develop their blooms.

Butterflies and beneficial insects love lilacs. Expect to see swallowtails enjoying this spring bloom.

Lilacs also require patience. After transplanting, a new bush may not bloom for three years – or more. But once established and comfortably chilly, it will start flowering relatively reliably for decades to come.


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Dig In: Garden checklist for week of Jan. 29

Bundle up and get work done!

* Prune, prune, prune. Now is the time to cut back most deciduous trees and shrubs. The exceptions are spring-flowering shrubs such as lilacs.

* Now is the time to prune fruit trees, except apricot and cherry trees. Clean up leaves and debris around the trees to prevent the spread of disease.

* Prune roses, even if they’re still trying to bloom or sprouting new growth. Strip off any remaining leaves, so the bush will be able to put out new growth in early spring.

* Prune Christmas camellias (Camellia sasanqua), the early-flowering varieties, after their bloom. They don’t need much, but selective pruning can promote bushiness, upright growth and more bloom next winter. Feed with an acid-type fertilizer. But don’t feed your Japonica camellias until after they finish blooming next month. Feeding while camellias are in bloom may cause them to drop unopened buds.

* Clean up leaves and debris around your newly pruned roses and shrubs. Put down fresh mulch or bark to keep roots cozy.

* Apply horticultural oil to fruit trees to control scale, mites and aphids. Oils need 24 hours of dry weather after application to be effective.

* This is also the time to spray a copper-based oil to peach and nectarine trees to fight leaf curl. Avoid spraying on windy days.

* Divide daylilies, Shasta daisies and other perennials.

* Cut back and divide chrysanthemums.

* Plant bare-root roses, trees and shrubs.

* Transplant pansies, violas, calendulas, English daisies, snapdragons and fairy primroses.

* In the vegetable garden, plant fava beans, head lettuce, mustard, onion sets, radicchio and radishes.

* Plant bare-root asparagus and root divisions of rhubarb.

* In the bulb department, plant callas, anemones, ranunculus and gladiolus for bloom from late spring into summer.

* Plant blooming azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons. If you’re shopping for these beautiful landscape plants, you can now find them in full flower at local nurseries.

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