Growing Lilacs in the South
Memories. It seems like a thousand years now and it seems like yesterday. Memories transport us, especially if they’re associated with fragrance. Many, many moons ago Dearest and I transplanted our family from Georgia to Ohio. It was there that I became familiar with and fell in love with flowering shrubs such as Lilacs and Peonies. There’s something etherial about the fragrance and beauty of the Lilac flower that plants itself in your heart and mind. Then, several years later, we moved back to Georgia and I wanted to take those heart-felt memories with me. To my dismay, Lilacs as I knew them, don’t do very well in the south. Growing Lilacs in the South is a risk. It is one that I’m willing to try.
Why do Lilacs thrive in the North and not in the South
There’s a simple answer. Winter. We experienced long and real winters in Ohio. Actually, it was a lot of fun and I learned to appreciate the four seasons. Growing up in southern California then moving to the South, I never really lived where one would have real winters. There are certain flowering bushes and bulbs that do best when they have that cold winter’s nap. In the South, winter may or may not happen. We do get several cold days below freezing, but sometimes not enough.
All garden soils are not created equal. There’s a certain balance that each plant likes. Some, are just happy to be there and will grow any where. Lilacs, they prefer an alkaline soil with a pH near 7. Soil in Georgia tends to be acidic and thick with red clay. This is good for our famous Hydrangeas, Camellias and Azaleas. Not so much for the beautiful Lilac. You’ll need to ‘sweeten the soil’. Lime is typically used to amend acidic soil. What kind of lime and how you apply it is very important. I learned a lot about sweetening your garden soil with lime here. It’s also a good idea, if in the South, to amend the soil so that it has good drainage – Southern soils are notorious for hardening up. Preparing the spot with soil conditioners for the Lilac ahead of time is important. It’s best do to this organically using humus, compost and sand work best. This is something, too, that will need to be done repeatedly to feed your soil. Don’t just prepare the spot near the plant – spread out as eventually, you hope, the roots will also spread.
Exposure to at least six hours of sun is recommended for Lilacs to flower. In the South, the sun can be a bit more intense. So, I’m selecting a site that gets morning sun and is shaded in the late day. Years ago I took time to map out my sun exposure. I have very few spots that get what some would call ‘full-sun’ due to the mature trees surrounding our home. So, I needed to know where these full-sun spots are. It’s pretty easy and it takes a pretty day. Who wouldn’t want to spend a day enjoying the garden? I sketched out the layout of the garden and house on a large drawing paper. Beginning in the morning and at each hour, I’d walk the garden and draw lines where there was shade during that hour. At the end of the day, I had ‘mapped out‘ how much sun exposure each site got. Due to the large trees, some places received ‘dappled sun’. This is exposure and shade at the same time. These spots are gentler to plants that require sun and ones you don’t want to get burned.
Finding a Microclimate
Our garden is zoned between 7 & 8. Certain Lilacs can grown in climates between 3 to 9, I’ve read. But, they do thrive in the lower climates of 5 & 6. So, how do I find just the right spot? I search for a microclimate that may replicate a lower growing zone. Each garden can have various microclimates which basically are atmospheric conditions that differ from the surroundings. The East side of our garden is gentler than the West side of our garden – which is better for vegetables and roses. The three elements I’m looking at are sun exposure, temperature and wind. I want my Lilac to get as much sun as it needs, the ability to get colder temperatures in winter and to be protected from harsh winds. Again, my map will help me here and knowing just where there are spots in my garden that are cooler.
Finding the right Lilac
There are so many beautiful varieties of Lilacs. I studied and read about these different ones…loving and dreaming about them in the garden…fragrant memories, remember. Well, to get that beautiful Lilac in a Southern garden it has to be able to survive in our zone. Check the zone range for the Lilacs on the description label of the plant. I would also recommend buying your Lilac from a reputable source. I chose Pike’s Nursery (not an affiliate post) because they’re well established in the South, knowledgeable about plants and they guarantee their plants. It makes this experiment easier and one I’d try again and again. Lilacs are worth it! Here are some more resources. The three Lilacs that may work in your Southern garden “low-chill hybrids” include:
- ‘Lavender Lady’
- ‘Blue Skies,’
- ‘Angel White.’
In the Lower South (Zone 8), you can also grow cutleaf lilac (Syringa laciniata), littleleaf lilacs (S. microphylla ‘Superba’), and ‘Miss Kim’ lilac (S. patula ‘Miss Kim’).
Lilacs are worth the risk
To have Lilacs growing in my Southern garden is a dream I’ve had for many, many years. I realized just how long this love and memory has been. When we moved to Ohio my eldest daughter was a baby. Now, she’s married and in her late twenties. Time certainly has flown, but the fragrance of the Lilac transports me to a different place and time. There are substitutes for getting a beautiful lilac bloom in your garden, sadly without the fragrance. The Chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus). Beautiful varieties include ‘Abbeville Blue’ and ‘Shoal Creek’.
Well, tell me. Would trying to grow Lilacs in your garden be worth it? Are there flowers and fragrances that evoke beautiful memories to you? Have you tried Lilacs and found success? I’ll let you know how things go for me. You know, I’m going to keep trying!
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