2012-06-23 / Top News

Keeping Lilacs Happy Means Years of Beauty

By Andrew Marlan


Jeff Young, a University of Vermont master gardener, demonstrates how to promote growth and direction by cutting a stem and branch from a lilac shrub. Jeff Young, a University of Vermont master gardener, demonstrates how to promote growth and direction by cutting a stem and branch from a lilac shrub. Jeff Young, a University of Vermont master gardener, has lectured for eight consecutive summers on Mackinac Island. He has been a member of the International Lilac Society for 13 years and travels across the United States and Canada to teach workshops on landscaping and gardening. On Mackinac Island, he leads a walking tour during the Lilac Festival, which shares his wisdom on gardening and the proper care of lilacs. He maintains parks and campuses in his hometown of St. Albans, Vermont, and his most recent project has been planting lilac shrubs in Marquette Park.

The lilacs in Marquette Park require the most attention for gardeners because the shrubs are 50 to 60 years old. Four years ago, Mr. Young and other landscapers came to Marquette Park with a plan to plant 30 new lilacs in the park and remove older, sickly lilacs down. Gardeners look for disease and eliminate all but one or two suckers so the shrubs don’t grow out of control.

There are nine varieties of lilacs among the 180-or-so shrubs in Marquette Park. The Island’s limestone base supplies a comfortable PH level for the plant. Wind is another element that lilacs enjoy for proper respiration through their leaves. The lilacs in the park are trimmed to a 6-foot diameter and 12-foot canopy with holes in the centers to allow wind to pass through the branches.Wind is important for lilacs, and no branch can cover another without disturbing respiration and photosynthesis.

“Lilacs absolutely love this island because they love being in high elevations and high winds,” said Mr. Young. “I have not seen lilac stems as old as the ones I’ve seen on the Island.”

Lilacs also like well-drained soil, and it is important to pay attention to all of its necessities so that it is allowed to grow to its fullest potential. That, said Mr. Young, is the secret to maintaining a long-lasting garden.

“There will be a hole in the plant for two years, but it will be healthy for the next 50 years,” he said.

Mr. Young said most destructive pest in any garden is a weed line-trimmer. He banned these so-called weed whackers and zero-turn lawn mowers in the Vermont parks and campuses he landscapes because of how destructive and careless lawn maintenance staff can be.

“The kids in charge of mowing the lawns would race up and down, and they would kill flowers and shrubs,” he said. “I replaced the zero turns with traditional push behind lawn mowers … They don’t realize that running over just the tip of a spruce tree will stop the growth of the entire base of the tree, which I think is the real beauty of the spruce.”

Common lilacs, also named “midseasons,” are the most prevalent of the 2,000 types of lilacs. Nobody knows an exact date when or how lilacs were introduced to Mackinac Island, but by observing the stems, Mr. Young predicts that the first lilacs were planed in the late 18th century or early 19th century. The lilacs on the Island have an average age of 100 years.

“This past winter was the warmest on record up here,” said Mr. Young. “The blooms were absolutely perfect on Memorial Day, but now most of them are dead, besides the lates.”

“Lates” are the lilac shrubs that bloom around July 4th, or sometimes as late as August. “Everbloom” lilacs will also remain in bloom past the common lilacs because they go through a seven-week to eightweek blooming cycle five to six times a year, flushing, then blooming from the flushing. Everbloom lilacs will grow three to four feet tall unless manicured.

Lilacs are the most striking in appearance because they tower at 10 to 15 feet high, growing three to six inches a year. Mr. Young said they make perfect additions to streetscapes, parks, and college campuses because of their manageability, color, and fragrance. Asian lilac trees are the most popular picks among professional landscapers because they are smaller and require the least amount of attention.

“Most people like lilac trees because they don’t climb up wires and they look great on streets,” said Mr. Young. “They top out after 20 years, with proper care.”

He said most people do not know the important details that go into gardening and, because of that, people buy plants and trees they don’t know how to take care of, leading to rot from diseases or overgrowth. He emphasized the importance of growing lilacs from a single stem and not letting the sprouts clump at the bottom, because a cluster of branches at the bottom will cause them to rot and fall off.

Miss Kim Lilacs are another popular choice on Mackinac Island because they carry one of the heaviest fragrances. These shrubs are durable and have been designated as the park’s primary replacement plant for invasive species. When an invasive tree is found somewhere in the state park, it is removed and, most likely, a Miss Kim lilac is planted in its spot. These lilacs are originally from Korea. They are not considered invasive because they do not spread and dominate the native plants.

Maiden’s Bush is Mr. Young’s favorite lilac because it blooms early. They are the easiest to maintain because, according to Mr. Young, they are “basically disease resistant.” He planted hot pink Maiden’s Bush along the Mackinac Island Marina in front of Marquette Park.

Pruning lilacs involves cutting branches to promote growth and direction. The first step is to prune the plant, the second step is to get rid of bad branches, and third is to balance the plant so that branches aren’t drooping from excessive weight.

“By balancing the plant, it will redistribute growth where you want it, not where it wants,” he said.

The lilac he cut sprung up four inches after he cut a few branches off to balance it. The branches will grow into the hole that he cut, and pruning it correctly over time will fix, much faster, any holes that a gardener made.

“The trick is to cut the growth so that sugar is distributed throughout the plant,” he said. “Remember to always cut between the taper and swelling of the branch.”

Cutting the furthest point of the branch, the leader, will stop growth. The trick is to cut nodes so that the branch grows through holes that you made instead of growing in its own decided direction. There are two cuts, called a collar cut and a pruning cut.

“It’s like a candle…Cut the candle, not the candle holder,” he said. “Make the branch proportional, don’t cut the collar of the stem, and cut the stem in the same direction as the branch.”

If the stem is cut, interference is introduced into the feeding cycle for the branch. Mr. Young said most people cut shrubs and trees to control height, and he reminded people that lilac trees are normally 10 to 12 feet tall.

He left the people who took the tour with tips on how to plant the stems that were cu. The trick is to cut through the node of the branch so that the plant’s DNA is exposed. He recommended pouring rooting powder over the node and placing the stem in a plastic bag for a week. After a week, the stem may be placed in the ground in dim light so the stem is not fried by the hot sun. It will take a few weeks for the plant to start growing, and the plant may be moved into areas with more exposure to sunlight after a minimum of one year in the ground.

“Spring is the best time to replant anything,” he said. “Plants are putting their roots out and the roots are the plant’s first priority for about six weeks.”

He reminded tourists that most of the lilacs on Mackinac Island are patented varieties, and cutting stems is prohibited. Royalties are expected whenever anyone takes a piece of it to be replanted, and not paying the royalty is a patent infringement.

Return to top

Click here for digital edition
2012-06-23 digital edition