By: Nikki Tilley, Author of The Bulb-o-licious Garden
A longtime favorite, the lilac bush (Syringa vulgaris) is typically grown for its intense fragrance and beautiful blooms. Flowers can range in color from pink to purple; however, white and yellow varieties are also available. They can add a good source of shade or privacy when planted as a hedgerow. Lilacs range from dwarf varieties up to 8 feet (2.5 m.) tall or larger growing ones that can reach heights up to 30 feet (9 m.). With proper lilac tree care, these lovely plants can last decades in your garden.
Spring or fall is the best time for planting lilac bushes. Situate the lilac with its roots spread vertically in the ground and make the hole both deep and wide enough to accommodate them. If planting more than one lilac bush, space them at least 5 feet (1.5 m.) apart to prevent overcrowding, even if you plan to use them as hedges for privacy.
Choose an area with plenty of afternoon sun and well-drained soil. Since lilacs prefer good drainage, planting lilac bushes in slightly elevated areas is recommended whenever possible. Following planting lilac bushes, water them thoroughly and add a layer of loose mulch. Keep the mulch thick enough to keep out weeds and retain some moisture but light enough not to hold too much.
Since lilacs are considered low-maintenance shrubs, the general care of lilac bushes is minimal, with exception to regular pruning.
Although lilacs tolerate a range of soil types, they prefer well-drained, humus-rich soil. Therefore, working compost in with the soil will help create a suitable planting soil for them. They should be watered thoroughly but not too often, as lilacs do not like their roots to become saturated.
Frequent use of fertilizer is not necessary for lilac tree care. However, fertilizing in early spring may help give blooms a boost, provided there is not too much nitrogen, which will result in insufficient flowering.
Although usually hardy, lilac bushes are occasionally bothered by insect pests, such as borers. Keep an eye out for any signs of pest problems and treat immediately. In some cases, spraying with soapy water will be sufficient enough to care of insects. However, if heavy infestations occur, pruning the entire plant may be necessary for lilac tree care and health.
Pruning is important for lilac care. Keeping lilac bushes well pruned will also prevent the chance of disease, such as powdery mildew.
Lilacs are typically clump forming, producing new shoots from the base of the trunk. These shoots can be used for propagating lilac bushes. Dig down from the main clump, exposing the roots and cut the shoot away from the mother plant. Make sure you include roots. Then simply plant the shoot in a suitable location, watering regularly until it takes hold.
With proper planting and care of lilac bushes, anyone can enjoy the beauty of these low-maintenance shrubs.
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Q: I would appreciate your opinion on lilacs that will grow in our area. I realize that lilacs are not a very popular plant around here but I grew up in the Midwest and love them. I also would be interested in hints you may have on taking care of them.
A: Just like the scent of talcum powder can transport a parent back to when their truculent teenager was tiny, the smell of lilacs reminds Mid-Westerners of home. Under the right conditions, lilacs are virtually indestructible. Though not a very attractive shrub, the huge trusses of flowers in spring are a sight to behold!
The key element that we lack in the South is chilling hours during the winter. Most lilacs require over two thousand hours of temperatures below 45 degrees F. in order to bloom. The Atlanta area receives approximately fifteen hundred each season. The key is to find lilac selections that do not need so much chilling in the winter. The folks at Descanso Gardens in California worked for many years to find varieties that would bloom after a warm winter. Ask local nurseries if they can find for you ‘Lavender Lady’, ‘Blue Boy’, ‘Dark Knight’, ‘Miss Kim’, ‘Betsy Ross’ or ‘White Angel’ (‘Angel White’) lilac.
Look also for Syringa laciniata (Cut leaf lilac). Its flowers are not so large but it seems to bloom each year in Georgia.
Lilacs need a neutral soil pH, close to 7.0. If your garden is like most, the pH is closer to 5.0 than to 7.0. You will probably need to add lime. Call your local Extension office (1-800-ASKUGA1)) and ask them how you should bring in soil for a soil test. I found good online lilac information at The International Lilac Society and at Fox Hill Lilac Nursery.
Ann T. adds her comments: “With a little amusement I have heard you, on numerous occasions, warn gardeners that it is near impossible to cultivate lilacs in Georgia. I would tend to agree, except that I have 5(!) plants going now.
“One is a twig I started in Louisiana — It will bloom for the first time this year. (!) And after a visit to Minnesota last year, the person I stayed with was going to discard what must be a 15-plus year old plant at least, and it, too, is getting ready to put out blossoms. I will never cease to be amazed.
“While living in TN we lived in a hundred year old farmhouse, which had a bush nearly that old, which was transplanted to our new home(same city-mom was raised in the north, it was her second favorite flower) It bloomed every year till we tried to transplant the whole thing to LA– I had a twig of it I had cultivated in my Picayune, MS home for 4 years, & the year she died, it bloomed. A piece of that was potted until I moved my condo 4 years ago.
“There are lilac bushes to be bought in GA. Tell your listeners to persevere. They will not grow like weeds as in MN, but they need part sun, shelter that keep the ground cold, like next to a wall. I think that is the best way to keep them going.”
First thing’s first, make sure to choose a lilac variety that grows well in your zone.
Since lilacs require several months of very cold Winter temperatures each year to produce blooms, not every variety can be grown successfully in warmer zones like Zones 8 and 9 it’s why this shrub does so well in colder regions.
The most popular hybrid is the Common Lilac, also known as the Syringa Vulgaris.
It’s available in countless varieties that all look slightly different from each other, whether it’s smaller flower petals, fuller clusters, or different shades of purple and pink.
Luckily for those of us who live down South, “low chill” varieties of the Common Lilac have been developed to thrive in warmer zones!
Lavender Lady, for example, is a low-chill variety that can be grown in plant hardiness zones that don’t have an especially cold Winter.
Keep in mind that there are many different lilac varieties to choose from, so purchasing the right variety for your zone will make all the difference.
So how can you find out whether the lilac variety you want grows well in your zone?
You can simply ask your local nursery for recommendations, do a good-old Google search, or head to Amazon – they list the appropriate plant hardiness zones in the description for the lilac varieties they sell.
TIP: Lilacs bloom in the Springtime, usually in the month of May, for around two weeks. (Low chill varieties can have an even earlier bloom time).
If you want to see lilacs blooming in your garden for more than two weeks, try planting different varieties that have different bloom times (Early Spring, Late Spring, Early Summer).
This way, you can enjoy lilacs for up to 6 weeks!
Lilac bushes are classified as Syringa vulgaris. They are members of the olive family of plants. Most kinds of lilac bushes are deciduous shrubs, and attain heights of anywhere between 8 and 20 feet. Other kinds, like Wedgewood Blue, only grow to a height of about 6 feet. This makes it a more popular plant for residential landscape designs. Wedgewood Blue has a lavender-blue color scheme. They bloom in late spring and produce one of the most memorable smells in the natural world.
The more common lilac bushes are often used to define property borders. They are planted in rows and pruned into hedges. Other forms, however, such as “Miss Kim” and Bloomerang lilac, are smaller and more compact. These can be used for designs involving foundation planting. Lilacs are also great for indoor design schemes. Because they grow as bushes with many blooms, it is perfectly acceptable to cut a few of these and use them for other decorative pieces.
Lilac bushes grow best in USDA plant zones 3-7. This makes them perfect for the mid-western region. Lilac bushes should be grown in full sunlight with rich, well-drained soil containing a neutral pH. The best time to prune lilac bushes is just after they bloom in late spring. Branch pruning should be done in order to thin out the growth of the plant and keep them at a desirable height, but also because these plants require good circulation, as they are prone to powdery mildew disease. Dead flowers and leaves should also be removed to keep them from inhibiting seed formation. It is of the utmost importance that you stay on top of the pruning schedule for these plants, as they can quickly become overgrown as the seasons progress.
Everything you need to know about growing lilac bushes in your garden.
Pick a spot in your yard with good air circulation, not right up against the house, in order to minimize disease risks. Dig a hole about twice as wide as the root ball. Don't add anything, such as potting soil or peat moss, to the hole. Soil additives can cause drainage problems, and lilacs don't like wet feet! Place plant in hole no deeper than it was in the pot. Backfill around plant, firmly pressing soil in place.
Keep the plant evenly moist, but not sopping wet, while the roots are getting established the first few years. Feed with a rose fertilizer once in early spring according to package directions. Pruning is not necessary but if you do have to take off a damaged or too-big branch, do it in the spring right after flowering so you don't remove next year's flowers.
Yes, but choose a dwarf variety. Enjoy it for about three to five years until it outgrows the pot and needs transplanted into the ground.
If you need to move a plant away from the house or fence line, wait until right after it flowers so you can enjoy this year's blooms. Dig the hole it's going in first so the plant spends as little time as possible out of the ground. Use a spade to make a trench around the outer edge of the plant a few inches beyond the spread of the branches. Use a garden fork to dig under and lift the plant onto a tarp to carry it to the new location. Follow the same planting steps as above.
It's tricky and takes several years before you'll see blooms. But let's say you have a sentimental attachment to a lilac that's in your grandma's yard and you want to start your own from her plant: Snip a four to five-inch branch of soft new growth in early spring avoid the woody pieces or suckers around the base of the plant. Remove leaves along the bottom, dip in rooting powder, place it in a small pot and keep evenly moist. You should see new growth in a few months.
They're super-hardy and may live 75 years or more! Just look at old, abandoned farmhouses where the lilacs still bloom vigorously.
GROWER TIP: "Lilacs usually are unbothered by insect pests, but if you see a few aphids, knock them off with a blast of water," says Stacey Hirvela, horticulturalist with Proven Winners Color Choice Shrubs. "To prevent diseases, make sure your plant gets six hours of sun and clean up fallen leaves beneath the plant in autumn."