Magnolia and lilac time

And looking for ways to grow some plants with little effort.

The prized Yulan magnolia ("M. denudata") with seductively scented, pure white flowers, is an early-blooming species. It is worth the gamble with frost when it flowers. — Photo by Susan Safford

The old joke about Island spring, “January, February, March, March, March, June …” means expectations here are low. The flower buds of lilacs (Syringa spp.) are generally cold-hardy; however, those of magnolias, less so. Owners of magnolia trees collectively hold their breath until their trees have successfully bloomed and the season of frost-snap injuries has passed.

Hybridizing work with magnolias, those wonderful trees, has taken off in the past decade. Most gardeners and visitors to nurseries are aware of the yellow-flowered cultivars, deriving their color from the North American native, M. acuminata, and may wish to find a spotlight location for such a garden specimen. For descriptions of yellow magnolias and all others, go to the Magnolia Society’s website,

Other, newer shades and colors, such as coral and very dark, almost black, in large flowered hybrids are seen in the breeding work of the Jurys of New Zealand and Dennis Ledvina of Wisconsin. Look also for newer introductions from other outstanding breeders such as Gresham, Savage, Kehr, and de Spoelberch. The Honeytree Nursery (Canada) and Gossler Farms Nursery websites are sources of descriptions of exciting recent introductions.

Island gardeners who wanted to possess an evergreen magnolia (M. grandiflora) received a setback with last winter’s conditions. Some Island specimens I know of look pretty sorry and defoliated. Still, carefully sited and given protective barriers, such as burlap, M. grandiflora can survive and grow fairly well on Martha’s Vineyard.

Many deciduous cultivars have either been bred for frost-hardy flower buds or later flowering. As a rule, though, with these deciduous magnolias, it is desirable for flowering to occur before the leaves emerge. Consider the growth habit of the cultivar too: Twigginess and large furry buds provide much off-season interest, so a lanky type may disappoint.

It would seem that smaller magnolias, such as the National Arboretum series with girls’ names (the “little girls” hybrids), are going to be ideal for the smaller garden. Their stature is practically that of a shrub. One drawback, however, is that their buds are naturally going to be lower down, closer to the ground, and thus face more cold air in a late spring frost than a taller magnolia. Avoid planting where cold air settles or is trapped; observe the principle of cold air flowing away from the plant and settling to a lower point.

Speaking of siting, it is surprising that more effort to combine the pleasures of magnolias and lilacs is not made. Bloom time of most of the choicest deciduous magnolias overlaps with Syringa vulgaris, the common lilac; they like the same deep, well-drained, enriched loam.

Now, even though Island spring was late to begin, lilacs are budding up. The early Syringa x hyacinthiflora hybrid ‘Clarke’s Giant’ is about to flower behind our barn. Lilac time in the northeast, which to most of us means flowering of common lilac, has become earlier and earlier with the climate behavior trends of the past couple of decades, even though the total duration of bloom of all species of Syringa is still about five weeks. The Arnold Arboretum’s Lilac Sunday needed moving up; it historically coincided more or less with Memorial Day.

When it comes to lilacs, I have no more informative a volume than the comprehensive Lilacs: A Gardener’s Encyclopedia (Fiala/Vrugtman, Timber Press, 2008). This is “all you ever wanted to know” about lilacs, and more. It contains suggestions for landscaping with lilacs, and many planting combinations to enhance their effectiveness.

Combinations of white lilacs with the above-mentioned “little girls” series of magnolias is one. Another suggestion is facing down blue-flowered Syringa with blue or blue-grey leaved Hostas, such as H. sieboldiana ‘Elegans’ or ‘Krossa Regal.’ Lilacs suggests (without explanation) planting hostas on the northern or western side of lilac plantings in the northern hemisphere, never on southern or eastern exposures. Another planting suggestion Lilacs makes is combining a lilac with seven to 10 plants of one cultivar of peony. Choose a cultivar that shares bloom time with the lilac.

Less effort

Liz Witham and Ken Wentworth’s recent Earth Day program of Sustainable Vineyard films at the Film Center included a Q and A afterward with each short film’s protagonists. Worthy of mention after the program’s seed-library portion was the session, during which the concept of a “seed garden” came up. A seed garden is a regular garden that has been intentionally let go to seed, for the purpose of growing the coming year’s crop of seeds.

I have been trying to get certain plants in my vegetable garden to grow with little or no effort on my part: not exactly a seed garden, not exactly a permaculture garden, but definitely appropriating an easier ongoing approach to it.

Last fall I left lettuce ‘Lollo rosso’ standing until tall stalks surmounted by heads of small yellow flowers appeared. I also let arugula, cilantro, dill, and corn salad (mache) self-sow, and — voilà — am gratified to find many seedlings of each already up and growing far more thriftily than indoor sown plants.

Cornus and salix: colorful stems

Shrubby species of Cornus (dogwood) and Salix (willow) selected to produce colorful bark, such as Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ and Salix alba var. vitellina ‘Britzensis,’ are a joy in winter when their bright color is riveting in the garden.

It is the younger, twiggy growth that produces the best color. These plants are usually pruned in early to mid-spring. This year, of course, everything has been skewed, and I did not think to mention this earlier. If your plants’ buds are only just starting to break (leaf out), the pruning, called stooling back, may still be done. Otherwise, wait: It does not necessarily need to be done every season.