Garden Notes: Lilac time

A fragrant, luxurious, easy-to-maintain hedge

State Road is just the other side of this lilac hedge at MV Glassworks in North Tisbury. —Susan Safford

We know this time as one of utmost sensory transcendence in the garden year, when, if there is time to be still and take it all in, every detail, small and great, seems a miracle.

I love lilacs. They arrive with true spring and lily of the valley; the way the two fragrances fill the air is a simple, glorious luxury. Not so much the so-called late-season lilacs (Syringa villosae group), although my opinion could change — but the group that blooms in May and resembles the common lilac, Syringa vulgaris.

But what I want to discuss is the hedging situation. Increased development, and living less rurally and more cheek by jowl, mean that many people need screening, both visual and auditory. There are many ways to achieve it. I wish I saw more lilac hedges being planted. Although deciduous, the plants and foliage grow thickly enough to provide excellent privacy.

Their thicket-y nature makes them also excellent cover for nesting songbirds. Unlike privet, which needs trimming regularly for both density and looks, lilac hedges may be maintained informally: trimmed enough after bloom to maintain size and shape, but not a major, lifetime commitment.

One of the most common and ultimately least satisfactory screens is the stockade planting of “Christmas tree” evergreens, which I see all over the Island and mainland. Most of these species need full sun to maintain their foliage density, but by trees’ merely growing taller, the base (the bottom five or six feet are the real business end of a privacy screen) may eventually shade itself thin.

If you are in an open, sunny location and in need of a hedge, please consider planting lilacs. Think of the scent!

Choice groundcover

Lilacs above, epimediums below. At this time of year, their flowering season when freshly emerged, I scout my premises to site the next epimedium acquisition. My own collection now numbers five varieties, E. ‘Niveum’ having seemingly disappeared, but replaced by the gift of the enthralling species E. brachyrrhizum.

I also find myself looking at problematic garden areas I encounter through work, such as “needs a plant,” or dry shade: “That problem could be solved with a nice planting of epimedium …”

Why aren’t these groundcovering plants in the Berberidaceae more used? They have great visual interest, and once established in suitable locations, are almost totally carefree and trouble-free.

Epimediums are a far cry from vinca or ivy, however: Unlike either of those, baby plants mature slowly. Nurseries that grow them cannot count on a quick turnover, making price per plant much higher. Being far more expensive to start with, a groundcover grid planting can be quite an investment.

A quick look at Island garden centers’ offerings shows that you can find such good-looking plants as ‘Lilafee,’ ‘Frohnleiten,’ and E. rubrum, maybe even in amounts to cover a small area with choice groundcover.

The cultivars and species typically available are moderately priced, but are a little ho-hum compared to some of the rare and specialist introductions whose prices soar into the high double digits. The “mom” and “dad” of many of these are Karen Perkins and Darrell Probst of Garden Vision Epimediums, Karen Perkins will be at Polly Hill Arboretum to talk about epimediums on June 24. She will be bringing plants to sell; it will be a great opportunity to buy some very nice and also rare plants.

In the garden

Massachusetts is officially out of the drought status at this time, good news for all of us.

Beach plum flowering looks profuse; fingers crossed for good pollination.

Flowering beach plum: Hoping for good pollination. —Susan Safford

First stinkbugs have shown up indoors.

Overnight soil temps are still low, but warming. Have lost half my broccoli seedlings, so far, to cutworms. (Not much consolation to find the caterpillar after the damage, although feeding it to a hen is revenge.) Cool and wet springs seem to favor their activity. Perhaps keeping plants in their pots a while longer, or growing twice as many as needed? Collars are not always effective; some species climb.

Hamamelis hybrids are usually grafted; look for understock sprouts and twist off, rather than cutting them. Hamamelis growth habit often produces crossing stems. Prune all shrubs that have flowered to improve form.

Many gardeners are reporting dahlias surviving winter in the ground. They will usually resprout with multiple stems. For best flowering, select one to become the main stem, after 8 to 10 inches of growth has emerged, and eliminate the others.

Bearded irises are coming on. Flowering will be reduced if tops of rhizomes have become covered by soil or mulch. When planting them, plant rhizome parts high, with filament-roots in soil on either side.

Bird feeder maintenance

Amid the blessing of the heavy rains, I learned firsthand the disadvantages of neglected feeder maintenance. The dampened seeds at the bottom of the tubes can host unspeakably weird stuff (with the sticking power of wallpaper sizing) that can expose birds to disease organisms.

Regular maintenance usually means no more than brushing out the tubes, and maybe a quick wash. Let rain-soaked feeders fester, however, and ridding them of the gunk requires much time soaking, poking, and fiddling with Phillips-head screws, and taking apart the feeder in ways that are time-consuming and inconvenient.

Numerous online sources give this info for what to do once it gets to the gunked-up stage: “Add a teaspoon of liquid soap to a bucket of water big enough for the feeder to soak. Soak the feeder in the solution for 10 minutes. Next, use a scrubbing brush and gloves to remove any stuck-on dirt. Then rinse the feeder in clean water. Empty the bucket and fill it with clean water and four cups of vinegar. Soak for one hour. Finally, rinse the feeder again with clean water.”