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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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Garden Checklist for week of May 19

Temperatures will be a bit higher than normal in the afternoons this week. Take care of chores early in the day – then enjoy the afternoon. It’s time to smell the roses.

* Plant, plant, plant! It’s prime planting season in the Sacramento area. If you haven’t already, it’s time to set out those tomato transplants along with peppers and eggplants. Pinch off any flowers on new transplants to make them concentrate on establishing roots instead of setting premature fruit.

* Direct-seed melons, cucumbers, summer squash, corn, radishes, pumpkins and annual herbs such as basil.

* Harvest cabbage, lettuce, peas and green onions.

* In the flower garden, direct-seed sunflowers, cosmos, salvia, zinnias, marigolds, celosia and asters.

* Plant dahlia tubers. Other perennials to set out include verbena, coreopsis, coneflower and astilbe.

* Transplant petunias, marigolds and perennial flowers such as astilbe, columbine, coneflowers, coreopsis, dahlias, rudbeckia and verbena.

* Keep an eye out for slugs, snails, earwigs and aphids that want to dine on tender new growth.

* Feed summer bloomers with a balanced fertilizer.

* For continued bloom, cut off spent flowers on roses as well as other flowering plants.

* Don’t forget to water. Seedlings need moisture. Deep watering will help build strong roots and healthy plants.

* Add mulch to the garden to help keep that precious water from evaporating. Mulch also cuts down on weeds. But don’t let it mound around the stems or trunks of trees or shrubs. Leave about a 6-inch to 1-foot circle to avoid crown rot or other problems.

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