For many gardeners and certainly professionals, this is absolutely our most frenzied time of the year, so I always seem to be staying just ahead of the ax. Therefore I look for inspiration where I am. In this case, I am sitting in Two Old Tarts having a delicious quiche and looking at a venerable old lilac at the corner of the deck that we pruned this spring. It is huge, with gnarly twisted trunks and a high canopy with a healthy showing of blooms. I actually think it has a nice branch structure and appeal even when it is not blooming.
Lilacs are tricky, however. They look great all wily and wild looking when they are covered in blooms or seen from the distance. Up close and personal they can be less seductive, with dead branches and massive amounts of mostly nonproductive suckers competing for the light and resources. Because I am an avid pruner, I generally prune out the suckers and try to leave the older branches with a shape that will look nice. I also tend to cut back some of the older branches to create a lilting shape and stimulate new growth that will bloom without getting too tall. This is often difficult to do if dealing with a lilac that has had free will for a while. It might take several years to beat it into submission. Of course, with such a lilac, you can always cut it down to a foot or two from the ground and force it to start all over, which it will. It will take several years for it to get to a point where it will bloom, but sometimes that is the only way to really recoup an old lilac. There is also a school of thought that suggests that the best thing to do is to cut back the old branches and let some of the suckers take over as the leaders and producers. When I was going through the Cornell Cooperative Extension’s master gardener program I had a very knowledgeable teacher who espoused this method. I just can’t do it; it looks and feels wrong. I love the June Chapter in A Year at North Hill: Four Seasons in a Vermont Garden. It describes my thoughts on lilacs perfectly. Google it and read the chapter; it will be well worth it.
There are many varieties of worthy lilacs beyond the common lilac, Syringa vulgaris, (love the botanical name). I have a Syringa villosa, probably a Preston lilac that blooms later (in June) and has pink flowers. This variety is very easy to prune into a beautiful shape. There is the dwarf Korean lilac, Palibin, that is much more of a shrub, getting only 4-5 feet tall and wide and can be covered in blooms in May around here (I will spare you more botanical names, although for a plant nerd it is hard to resist). The Miss Kim shrub lilac has a similar, more rounded habit, like the Palibin, but gets as big as 5-9 feet tall and a little less wide. These both make excellent specimen plants in a smaller garden and leave a tidier, nicer-looking package after they are done blooming.
The other lilac I have to mention is the Japanese or Chinese tree lilac, which is really a tree. They can be very attractive as trees and bloom white in the summer. There are many of them in this neck of the woods, but I didn’t notice them for years. I am not sure if perhaps they don’t bloom that much every year but, regardless, they are a great tree. I noticed them about 5 years ago when they bloomed profusely and stood out. There are many of them in the Hamden area and I just love them. I have planted quite a few since I discovered them and I haven’t been disappointed. If you ever go on a garden tour* and get a chance to see Charles Bonnes’ home, he has a great allée of them that you can’t miss.
A couple of wee tips about lilacs: If you prune off the spent flower heads after they are done blooming the shrubs will look a lot better for the rest of the season. I guess this can be a bit much if it requires a 12 foot ladder! It is good to empty the fireplace or wood stove ashes (not hot embers!) around your lilacs a couple of times a year. They like the soil a little “sweeter” or more alkaline than our typical Catskill soil.
*The Andes Public Library Garden Tour on June 20th includes the Bonnes garden.~
Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardener.