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Scents That Evoke Grandma's Garden

* Lilacs, popular everywhere but more common in colder climes, can thrive here under the right conditions.

October 07, 2000|JULIE BAWDEN DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Quick--which nursery plant rivals the rose in appeal? Here's a hint: Think pleasing fragrance and nostalgia.

Of course, it's the lovely lilac. These deciduous shrubs with their scented blooms have captured many gardeners' attention.

"Lilac fragrance is not overpowering like some scents, but soft and sweet, and many people fondly remember a lilac bush in their grandmother's garden back East," said Chris Greenwood, a horticulturist with Armstrong Garden Centers.

I was about 9 when I smelled my first lilac. It was a brisk Massachusetts spring afternoon, and there they were--loads of lavender flowers emitting the most charming perfume I had ever smelled.

I'm not the only one enchanted by lilacs.

"Lilacs are one of our more popular items and usually sell out quickly," Greenwood said.

Found all over the United States and in a variety of other countries, lilacs are traditionally more common in colder climates, such as New England's.

Although most lilacs won't bloom in Orange County because it doesn't get cold enough, there are several low-chill varieties that can thrive here if given the right conditions. "Low-chill" refers to plants that don't require cold winter temperatures.

Developed in the early 1950s by well-known rose hybridizer Walter Lammers at what is now Descanso Gardens, low-chill lilacs such as the popular "Lavender Lady" will blossom without the winter chilling that Eastern lilacs require.

Lilacs bloom in spring and traditionally go on sale at that time.

"Fall is a great time to plant lilacs because you'll be ahead of the game come spring," said horticulturist Wendy Proud, who is product manager with Monrovia, an Azusa-based wholesale grower that provides low-chill lilacs to nurseries throughout Orange County.

Lilac roots will grow throughout winter.

Another benefit to planting now: "The plants you'll find in the nursery now have a season's worth of growth on them, which is good, because lilacs bloom on the prior year's wood," Greenwood said.

Lilacs usually flower for about a month in April, May and sometimes June, depending on the weather.

To have luck growing lilacs, keep the following tips in mind:

* Choose a good location. Lilacs require full sun on the coast and full sun or slight shade inland. Though they don't need winter chilling to bloom, they do prefer cooler areas of the yard, as long as those areas get at least four to five hours of sun a day.

A good location is an east-facing area, such as near a wall, where they will get sun until early afternoon. A southern or western exposure is generally not good because our summer sun tends to be too intense and can burn foliage.

* Consider eventual size. Low-chill lilacs don't like our hot, dry summers, so they won't grow as tall or as wide as their high-chill counterparts, but most will eventually reach 8 feet high and 6 feet wide.

* Provide good drainage. Lilacs rot easily in wet soil. Experts suggest amending clay soil by 50% with homemade or bagged compost. Additional perlite or pumice is also a good idea, especially in particularly heavy soil.

Lilacs tend to like conditions on the alkaline side, but compost usually acidifies the soil. Greenwood suggests offsetting this by placing a small amount of bone meal in the planting hole. Also, plant them near walls because walls cause their surrounding areas to be more alkaline.

* Try containers. Although lilacs prefer growing in the ground, they will bloom in containers. Choose a pot that is 30% to 50% larger than the soil ball of the plant.

* You can transplant at any time of the year, but fall through early spring is best. Planting in the hot months of July, August and September is not recommended.

* Keep lilacs evenly moist but not soggy. "Always make certain that lilacs actually need a drink before watering them, or you could give them root rot," Proud said. "This is especially important in the hot summer months. If the leaves are curling up and wilting but the soil is still moist, don't water."

Use a moisture meter to check water needs or stick your finger into the soil.

Avoid getting foliage wet when watering, as lilacs are susceptible to powdery mildew.

* Feed lilacs monthly during the growing season, which generally ranges from March through June. Avoid feeding during very hot months such as August and September and when the plant is dormant in winter.

Use an all-purpose, well-balanced food. Don't use acid-type fertilizers such as those made for azaleas and camellias. Greenwood also suggests adding bone meal in spring and fall and iron in mid-spring.

* The time of year you prune your lilac will affect the flowers you get the following spring. To get the best bloom possible, it's critical that you don't prune any later than July or you will remove flower buds for the following spring. Most experts suggest being on the safe side and pruning as soon as the plant stops blooming in spring.

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