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Lilacs bring spring smiles

Lilacs can grow -- and bloom! -- in Sacramento with proper care and correct pruning. (Photos: Debbie Arrington)

How to get this beautiful bush to bloom year after year

Lilacs always make me smile. Like many people, that’s something I can really use right now. Their familiar scent is immediately evocative of spring.

And they grow and bloom a lot better in Sacramento than my native Southern California.

I fell in love with lilacs as a teen after I bought a bouquet at a flower stand. Their fragrance filled my room. But their annual appearance at flower stands or florists was fleeting. I decided I’d grow my own so I could have a personal supply of lilacs.

In Long Beach, I tried with little success to replicate those spectacular flowers. I got a low-chill Lavender Lady lilac, developed by the hybridizer at what’s now Descanso Gardens in La Cañada-Flintridge near Pasadena. Permanently stunted, it bloomed a little, but never put on a real spring show.

When we moved to Sacramento, the house we bought came with two small lilacs in 1-gallon pots – a gift from the previous owner. The little lilacs had been grown from cuttings from her farm near Fresno. I transplanted them into the ground and let them grow.

You'll have to imagine the fragrance from these beautiful lilacs.
Some 20 years later, those two lilacs are fully mature, more than 8 feet tall. Their spring bloom (or lack of it) usually correspond to the winter chill; the colder the winter, the better the blooms.

After a relatively warm winter, I wasn’t expecting much this spring. But the lilacs are blooming like they’ve never bloomed before, filling the patio with fragrance.

One bouquet fills not just a room but the whole house with scent. And yes, they keep me smiling.

Lilacs ( Syringa vulgaris ) can be tricky to get to bloom year after year, even in climates with enough winter chill. 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 leaving the spent flowers on the bush can inhibit blooming the next year.

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 prefer full sun and good air circulation. When crowded, they can develop powdery mildew.

Water-wise, they like deep irrigation once a week or twice a month, depending on the heat.

Lilacs also are a favorite of butterflies and beneficial insects – more reasons to appreciate this spring beauty and make me smile.


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For week of Nov. 26:

Concentrate on helping your garden stay comfortable during these frosty nights – and clean up all those leaves!

* Irrigate frost-tender plants such as citrus in the late afternoon. That extra soil moisture increases temperatures around the plant a few degrees, just enough to prevent frost damage. The exception are succulents; too much water before frost can cause them to freeze.

* Cover sensitive plants before the sun goes down. Use cloth sheets or frost cloths, not plastic sheeting, to hold in warmth. Make sure to remove covers in the morning.

* Use fall leaves as mulch around shrubs and vegetables. Mulch acts as a blanket and keeps roots warmer.

* Stop dead-heading; let rose hips form on bushes to prompt dormancy.

* Prune non-flowering trees and shrubs.

* Clean and sharpen garden tools before storing for the winter.

* Brighten the holidays with winter bloomers such as poinsettias, amaryllis, calendulas, Iceland poppies, pansies and primroses.

* Keep poinsettias in a sunny, warm location – and definitely indoors overnight. Water thoroughly. After the holidays, feed your plants monthly so they’ll bloom again next December.

* Rake and remove dead leaves and stems from dormant perennials.

* Plant spring bulbs. Don’t forget the tulips chilling in the refrigerator. Daffodils can be planted without pre-chilling.

* This is also a good time to seed wildflowers and plant such spring bloomers as sweet peas, sweet alyssum and bachelor buttons.

* Plant trees and shrubs. They’ll benefit from fall and winter rains while establishing their roots.

* Set out cool-weather annuals such as pansies and snapdragons.

* Lettuce, cabbage and broccoli also can be planted now.

* Plant garlic and onions.

* Bare-root season begins now. Plant bare-root berries, kiwifruit, grapes, artichokes, horseradish and rhubarb.

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