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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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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of March 19:

Spring will start a bit soggy, but there’s still plenty to do between showers:

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* Watch out for aphids. Wash off plants with strong blast from the hose.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prepare summer vegetable beds. Spade in compost and other amendments.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Feed camellias at the end of their bloom cycle. Pick up browned and fallen flowers to fight blossom blight.

* Feed citrus trees as they start to blossom.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Seed and renovate the lawn (if you still have one). Feed cool-season grasses such as bent, blue, rye and fescue with a slow-release fertilizer. Check the irrigation system and perform maintenance. Make sure sprinkler heads are turned toward the lawn, not the sidewalk.

* In the vegetable garden, transplant lettuce and kale.

* Seed chard and beets directly into the ground.

* Plant summer bulbs, including gladiolus, tuberous begonias and callas. Also plant dahlia tubers.

* Shop for perennials. Many varieties are available in local nurseries and at plant events. They can be transplanted now while the weather remains relatively cool.

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