Homegrown: Lilac plants

Years ago, I transplanted about 10 lilac plants from the sandhills of eastern Colorado. Around late August, they all turned brown around the edge of the leaves and then the leaves died. But then most of them put on buds and sprouted new green leaves (which also turned brown).

I have one lilac that was a gift, purchased at a local store. It has grown like crazy, with big healthy leaves.

At first I thought the lilacs were drowning, because the lawn water collects at the retaining wall where the lilacs are planted. So I installed a French drain to keep the soil drier. They still turned brown, and some of the plants seem to be very dry while others are wet.

When I planted them, I dug a hole for each plant about 18 inches wide and amended the soil with mulch and peat. However, the surrounding soil is lousy fill dirt that the builder brought in, high in salt, even though I tilled lots of wood chips and mulch into it.

Do you think the sandhill lilacs simply won’t adjust to the salty clay soil here? Last winter I thought they were dead, and I was going to tear them out. Then they all blossomed in the spring.

I wish I had planted a row of “store-bought” lilacs instead.

— Kurt

There are thousands of lilacs growing in the Grand Valley and the ones you transplanted should grow here.

I’m not aware of any difference between varieties that would explain what’s happening.

But there may be watering problems going on. Lilacs absolutely won’t stand over watering.

Watering too much is especially easy in our heavy clay soils. Once those soils get wet, they stay wet for a long time. It sounds like you’ve done a good job preparing the soil and trying to deal with the excess water issues, but you may have to do some further modification to your watering schedule or even to the grade of the area.

I’m always concerned when lilacs are planted in a spot that tends to collect water from other areas of the yard.

The French drain should help, but you may need to make sure it’s getting all the water it can and that the water can freely flow away from your lilacs.

Double check how you’re watering the lilacs. Make sure that you soak them deeply when you do water them, but give the soil a chance to dry out slightly before soaking it again. Do some digging around in the soil to check this.

I think part of the reason why the transplanted lilacs are struggling while the store-bought one is doing fine is due to transplant shock.

It’s always a little stressful to dig up a plant and transplant it. It may be that your excess watering issues are not that far off what the plants would prefer, it’s just that some minor over watering in addition to that transplant stress are causing the problems you’re seeing.

Look into the watering situation in that area, wait until next year to see how those transplanted lilacs are doing and make a decision then whether to keep them.

If they continue to struggle late next spring, think about digging them out and replacing them.

Dennis Hill is the nursery manager at Bookcliff Gardens, http://www.bookcliffgardens.com. Send questions to Bookcliff Gardens, 755 26 Road, Grand Junction 81506; or e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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