May 20, 2012

Maine Gardener: Every year about this time, it hits me: lilac love

By TOM ATWELL

Lilacs provide the aroma of spring. They aren't the first plant to bloom, but they bloom in Maine about the time that it begins to be warm enough to wear shorts and short-sleeved shirts. 

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The McLaughlin Garden in South Paris is holding its annual Lilac Festival next weekend.

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LILAC FESTIVAL

MCLAUGHLIN GARDEN at 97 Main St. in South Paris will be holding its annual Lilac Festival next weekend, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. May 26-28.

GARDEN HORTICULTURIST Kristin Perry said the lilacs should be in good bloom. While the warm March and early April gave them a good jump, cooler temperatures since then have slowed the blooms down.

EVENTS WILL INCLUDE talks on the care and history of lilacs, as well as tours of the garden.

THE GARDEN will be holding a plant sale, and some food will be sold as well.

ADMISSION TO McLaughlin Garden is always free, but during the festival, volunteers will be at the gates to accept donations. The Lilac Festival is the garden's major fundraising event each year.

FOR DETAILS, call 743-8820 or go to mclaughlingarden.org.

And when you walk by the shrubs, the smell is intoxicating.

Lilacs are not native to Maine -- they come from eastern Europe and are called French lilacs because that is where they were first hybridized, said Kristin Perry of the McLaughlin Garden in South Paris.

But lilacs surround cellar holes of abandoned farms all across Maine, so they were adopted by Mainers a long time ago and now are a major part of the family.

Lilacs go by way too quickly, but by planting different varieties, you can extend the bloom time from mid-May through July.

Syringa hyacinthiflora varieties such as "Pocahontas" will bloom a couple of weeks earlier than Syringa vulgaris, which is the common lilac in colors from white to blue. "James McFarlane" will bloom a week later than the common lilac, and the Preston lilacs -- including "Minuet" and "Donald Wyman" -- a week after that, about the same time as "Miss Kim," a popular Korean lilac, Perry said.

"The last one to bloom is the Japanese tree lilac," Perry said.

Eric Welzel, owner of Fox Hill Lilac Nursery in Brunswick, said that while lilacs are known for their fragrance, different people smell different lilacs differently. 

"Someone will say, 'Doesn't this smell wonderful,' and someone else will say, 'I don't smell anything at all,' " he said. But on another lilac, the reaction will be the opposite.

Perry and Welzel both say that lilacs are easy to care for -- part of the reason that they are still surviving at abandoned farmhouses.

They need six hours of sun a day to bloom properly, although the plants will survive with less. They prefer neutral soil, and don't like their roots to be wet, preferring well-drained soil. Good air circulation will reduce the possibility of disease.

"They can grow out into clay, but young lilacs have difficulty trying to get established in heavy clay soils," Welzel said. So if you do have clay, you should dig a big hole and fill that with good topsoil and compost so the plant can get established.

Fox Hill has created its own Lilac Food, which is distributed to nurseries around the state by Allen, Sterling and Lothrop in Falmouth. It is an 8-20-16 formula enriched with lime and seaweed meal, including some slow-release nitrogen.

Lilacs do not have to be pruned, but blooming will improve if they are.

Welzel said it is probably better for the plants if lilacs are pruned early in the spring, but if you do that, you are reducing the bloom for that season. But right after blossom time is a good second best.

He said that since lilacs bloom on new wood, it is best to leave some of the suckers coming up from the ground. The pruning that is done should be done right at ground level. If cuts are made partway up the stems, you get water spouts that look like a candelabra.

Perry likes to have some old wood as well.

"Lilacs have really beautiful bark if you let it grow," she said. "It gets all twisted and curly."

Lilacs do need some care in midsummer, and require some watering if there is a long dry spell. If you don't like the looks of the seed heads, you can deadhead -- but it is not required for the health of the plant.

There are some new types of lilacs that can add some spice to your collection. Welzel likes "Wedgwood," which is a vibrant blue, and "a nice later-flowering white" introduced by the University of New Hampshire called "Agnes Smith."

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